Rapidly on his way to being one of global nightlife’s most in-demand photographers, this creative spitfire is one of the rare few who’s equally comfortable on stage as he is behind the camera. It’s all a performance for him! Thotyssey gets into the brilliance of, and turns the party with, James Michael Avance!
Thotyssey: Hey James! How was your Pride Weekend?
James Michael Avance: OMG, it was the best! People coming together in love. Can’t beat it.
What did you wear?
A gorgeous Lisa Frank cut-off! Kept it casual, because when it’s time to party I need to be comfortable.
Did you take any spontaneous pics of the Pride People, or do you prefer to keep your photography editorial?
I’m actually so bad at taking pics when it’s not “photo taking time.” I spend so much of my life behind the camera, that when I want to enjoy something I leave my camera at home and make sure I don’t bring out the phone too much. Otherwise, I would disappear and spend the entire time trying to document it.
I like taking photos for other people on their phones, though! Gives them a little surprise when it’s typically much better than they expected.
Where’s your hometown, and what were your earliest creative (or otherwise) interests?
Originally from Muskogee, Oklahoma. Born and raised. And believe it or not, I was always taking photos. My earliest memories are posing my sisters in the backyard with a disposable camera.
That, or anything that has to do with visual art. I used to scrapbook a lot–and I don’t meant cute little pages, I mean full-throttle production scrapbooking. Looking back on them now, I’m like, dang, you spent a lot of time collaging things together! But I think it was my early-on Photoshop.
I also, of course, come from a love of music and theater (duh), and have always been a performer as well. Even when I’m taking people’s photos, I kind of feel like I’m performing for them, a little. Gotta keep that energy going
That’s interesting! Lots of photographers I’ve known have been introverts, and prefer to be behind the lens partially for that reason.
Hmmmmm–well, not I! My loud personality comes through in my work, I think. And it comes through even worse when I don’t have the camera to calm me down!
So, how did this all come about–the shift from performance to photography?
I actually have a degree in musical theatre from The University of Central Oklahoma. Like I said, I was a performer. I did not start photography professionally until I decided to take a break from the theatre world a few years ago. I had been on the road with The Addams Family Musical for two years, and I think the life was just starting to get to me a little bit.
[Photography] had always been a hobby, but I never thought people would be paying me consistently to take their photos. Turns out, all those years in theatre led into a pretty steady gig with connections into the headshot field for actors, which is my bread and butter these days. I do, however, still feel guilty every time I take money for it, to be honest.
I thought, hey, let me see if this could be something consistent. I was broke for about a year and half, and then something changed in the energy. I’m still not rolling in dough, clearly, but I am blessed with consistent work, which is amazing.
By the way, I found a video of you singing a Sam Smith song, and a few more music videos starring you on YouTube. Did you also direct those videos?
Hahaha, yes I did! I do film stuff as a hobby, really. I have a full YouTube channel I was trying to do a few eats ago, JMA SINGS. But it never really caught on!
There’s still time!
So, you must have been drawn to the colors of NYC nightlife like a moth to a flame.
YES, BABY! Everyone knows shooting drag is my PASSION! The things these girls can get me to do for free sometimes, hahaha! New York has the most fascinating people in the world to me. I wish I could document all of them. I’m kind of hoping I do.
You’re off to a good start! Our beloved NYC queen Brita Filter had a big influence on what you’re doing now, right?
She was one of the first girls I ever shot, and she started leading a lot of work my way. She has a big mouth, in every sense of the word! We had a small play date for fun one day, and I think within the next month a dozen girls had booked me. I had shot a few girls before her, but she was definitely the one that said “YOU NEED TO DO THIS.”
[Brita FIlter by James Michael Avance]
As a rule, are queens bringing ideas to their shoots with you, or are you completely steering the creative ship?
It depends. Sometimes they come in with a full concept, and I will live for it. But most of the time, these girls just need stock promo images, so there is not a lot of concept behind it. They have started to see that they will end up using one of my photos for everything. So I like to keep it as traditional to their persona as I can, so that it can be used for a wide variety of things. However, If I have a random concept I want to do, I will reach out to a favorite kween, maybe.
I find I do like to have a bit too much control–which is why I like photography, because I’m in charge of the entire image right down to the edited final presentation. The best work, however, is when I listen to a concept and trust them. That’s when you get things you clearly would have never dreamed of. I always say, bring whatever you want, henny, and I’ll SHOOT IT.
[Jan Sport by James Michael Avance]
[Vicky Boofont by James Michael Avance]
[Shuga Cain by James Michael Avance]
[Alexis Michelle by James Michael Avance]
This may be hard to answer, but do you have a favorite shot?
Oh, Gawd. I think I definitely have a few. I’m more into the subject than what they are wearing, or their surroundings.
There’s a shot of Monet X Change on a staircase that I LOVE LOVE LOVE. It was actually the night Trump was elected, and I always say that night goes down in history as the night I took a photo of Monet (because anything else that happened that night was just not worth my time). That was an example of me telling her what I wanted, though, and boy did she deliver.
I love that shot. Fierce!
I had just gotten into flash photography, after years of natural light. That was the first photo I took with my new strobe flashes, so It’s a special one to me because now I could never live without them.
Or Monet, for that matter! She is my kween. And that shot is Classic Monet to me. That’s what I like getting of girls. Something that looks iconic to their brand;
something that will last with them through the years.
[Monet X Change by James Michael Avance]
And you got a great shot of Alyssa Edwards, too. What’s she like to work with?
OOOOH, Alyssa. I have a few, actually… there’s some unreleased images of her, but she’s using them for DragCon and what not, so they stay in the vault.
She was A DREAM!!!!! She was only supposed to come over for an hour, and ended up staying all night and de-dragging in my living room. I’m so glad she ended up being as amazing as she was, because It’s always a little disappointing meeting your idols and not getting what you expected. But she DID NOT disappoint.
She was also one of the people I really hoped to shoot ONE DAY, MAYBE. I couldn’t believe that I have her in my books. I honestly felt like I could retire early, because she was definitely one of the ultimate goals!
[Alyssa Edwards by James Michael Avance]
I bet DragCon is gonna keep you real busy these next few months.
Oh goodness! I just realized those were the dates that out-of-town kweens were trying to book me for. I’m thinking I wont even have time to go to DragCon, haha! I may need to rethink my schedule, because I was just writing girls in without realizing.
I didn’t get to go to LA DragCon, but everyone said my work was everywhere, which made my heart really happy.
I’m guessing that a book collecting your work is something that you’re at least thinking about. It’s certainly something that a lot of us would love to own!
ACTUALLY!!!! I took the photos for a book proposal from Schwa de Vivre called Cleaning With Kweens (a how-to book that is also a coffee table book). Alexis Michelle was one of the girls that posed for it, which was fun. Gorgeous, glamorous glas cleaning the apartment, ya know. I know they have an agent on it, and a few publishers interested, so fingers majorly crossed for that!
I of course would love to do a major series of NY queens, which is somewhat in the works, but a huge project and lots of time… so, we will see.
[Christopher Palu, Schwa de Vivre and Alexis Michelle by James michael Avance]
By the way, do you have any photographers that have inspired your own work, or whom you just fan-geek for?
David Ayllon! All the way. His stuff gets me every time, I think, because I know I could never really do what he does. His photos look like comic book illustrations, and take my breath away.
He’s a huge talent! So, what did you think of Drag Race this season, and Sasha’s win?
I thought It was a fun season. It was cool to know several of the girls as well this time around, which was different for me. I felt that Sasha was going to win from about the third episode in, because the crown always stands for the future of drag. She is so uniquely one of a kind, and no matter how you feel about her or her aesthetics, you can’t deny that there really has never been anyone like her. Shes one of those girls that could walk into a Forever 21 and walk out with a custom couture outfit, because she has impeccable taste.
I LOVE HER, and am happy the crown stayed in New York! We have talked about shooting before, but she probably won’t have time now. Luckily I live here, and hopefully Ill get to grab her soon!
Sweet! So, if I’m a queen or whoever and I want you to shoot me, what’s the best way to make that happen?
These days it’s a lot to keep up with because there are so many different ways to contact me. I get messages from my Personal FB and my photographer FB, my personal Instagram and my photographer Instagram, through text, email, etc. It’s a lot. I love when people message me through my website though, because it shows they went to to the correct measures to look me up and message me.
But just shoot me a message. I write everything down these days, so I won’t forget. Once we choose a time, it’s locked in and I will remind you a few days before.
And follow me on Instagram. Out of all the social media outlets, that’s the one I can’t live without, and the one I use the most!
Heard! Okay, last question: What’s the weirdest concept for a shot that you’ve conceived, but that you haven’t attempted to produce yet?
I once asked Maddelynn Hatter to do a Mole Person inspired couture shoot down in the subway–maybe crawling out of a gutter–but she said the subway scares her. I learned that she actually does have a fear of the subway!
I still really want to do a creepy-yet-fashionably-homeless Vogue style shoot with a few girls, though. It may happen!
Make this work, kweens! Much love James, thank you!