Artist Interviews 2023

Charles Michael Davis “Park Menagerie”  
By Laura Siebold

Charles Michael Davis “Park Menagerie”
Interview + Abstract on The Art of Storytelling in Photography

For the first public exhibit of his works under the artist title “Park Menagerie”, Charles Michael Davis had chosen the spring edition of The Other Art Fair 2023 at the Barker Hangar in Los Angeles. “Park Menagerie” with its display of photographic images is a fusion of play and control, dedicated to the animal within us, ready to break free from restraints. For the fall edition of The Other Art Fair (September 21-24, 2023) in Los Angeles, the artist was invited back as a guest curator, offering live portrait sessions for visitors of the fair. Davis, who is also a professional actor and model, states about his photography: “The central idea is that within us lives an artist yearning to be free.” By carefully considering the movements and matching the clothing with the masks for his 'Wild at Heart' series, the artist makes the human body the center of his work. In his interview, we asked Charles Michael Davis about his early engagement with photography, the inspiration behind his work, and his first experiences as an exhibiting artist. Davis also reveals more about the quotes he integrates into his work, and how he chooses to explore playful identities related to the idea of freedom in the medium of photography. I am excited to share Charles Michael Davis’ interview in this issue of Art Squat Magazine.

Charles, your photography places the human body at its center, and is purely held in black and white in your first series. Your photographic subjects wear large head coverings that disguise their faces. How did you come up with the idea of integrating objects into your photographs, thereby extending the human body through art?

I saw an image that another photographer had taken of a nude static model with a mask. I thought it was interesting, and it broke the form of how we normally see the human body, but it felt flat. The mask was doing all the work. I decided to take the idea a step further in my own work. I wanted to see how the mask could influence a dancer's movement. It created a beautiful transference of emotion from the body to the mask and vice versa. The body and mask were now harmonizing and creating something new. The whole became greater than the sum of its parts.

Your subjects impersonate the idea of similarities between human and animal behavior, and your artist title Park Menagerie seems to be a verbal expression of your current photographic focus. How do you explore themes of identity, restricted movement, and emotions in your work? Which animalic traits do you wish to portray?

The masks help to remove an ego identity and give the subject a new animal spirit identity to play with. In everyday life, unless you're a dancer or athlete, your movements are pretty limited to sitting, walking, standing, and that's about it. By giving the subjects different masks, each was allowed to interpret the animal and translate its meaning through their body. The result was a movement that was definitely out of the ordinary. The main overarching theme though was freedom. The idea was that we can put ourselves into a cage of restricted movement which means a cage of restricted emotion, but by changing our physicality, we can open up an array of emotions. Animal exercises and animal studies are part of many schools of theatre for this reason.

You are a very creative personality with a notable career as an actor. What sparked your interest in being behind the camera for a change? When did you first start interacting with the camera and have you received professional training in photography?

Photography was a part of my life before acting, actually. I took a black and white film photography course in college. My teacher thought I had a natural eye. Ever since then I've kept photography as a hobby. Later, when I would start modeling and acting, I would ask photographers and DP's for their insights, lighting setups, and tips. So, I guess you could say I had mostly on the job training with some help from the University of Youtube.

Is there a specific photographer whose work you admire? Have you drawn inspiration from other artists, and photographers, for your own work?

For this series a lot of inspiration was drawn from Robert Longo for sure. I'm also a big fan of Sally Mann, Henri Cartier Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Brigitte Lacombe to name a few. I love the simplicity and gravitas of Lacombe, the heart and hand of Sally Mann, the life of Gordon Parks, and the respect and irreverence of Cartier Bresson. I try to adopt their attitude most of all in my work.

The Other Art Fair 2023 Spring edition in Los Angeles, CA was the first opportunity of a public exhibit of your photography for you, is that correct? What was your favorite part about the fair and the interactions with visitors, and your art?

Yes, this was my first exhibition. My favorite part was the reaction of some of the people. Many stopped and were in awe. It was very cool to see that my work could make someone stop and have a personal moment. It was also great to answer questions about the process because it reminded me of all the work that went into it. That it was a team effort with the dancers, assistants, stylist, and that it was all for a worthwhile purpose.

You have chosen several quotes to accompany your current body of photographs. What is the intention behind adding the quotes and in what way does each one relate to your work?

I always got added insight from texts or audio guides while browsing a museum, so I thought it would add to the experience to put a couple quotes up that directly inspired the work. The poem by Tennessee Williams is the soul of the series. The quote by Angelina Jolie shows how the theme was so contagious she had it tattooed onto her body. The quote by Rick Rubin was there to remind people that art should have meaning or else it's just decoration. So, the first two quotes give the work meaning and the last quote is a reminder that meaning is what elevates art.

One of the quotes you chose to accompany your work is “Art without meaning is just decoration. The art is in the idea.” (Rick Rubin) – What is the central idea behind your photography, and how do you come up with titles for each image?

The central idea is that within us lives an artist yearning to be free. The titles are mostly verbs or adjectives that came to mind when I looked at each image. I wanted to keep it to one word for simplicity of course. I didn't want to be too descriptive, but a little bit more descriptive than just numbering them.

Do you feel that your professional background with its demand of deep exploration of a specific character, and taking on roles that make you become someone else in this process, benefit your ability to explore different identities in the medium of photography?

My background with acting definitely helped me to understand the use of masks and animal work to discover one's hidden personalities. However, for this series, it was more about play than exploration of a character. I wanted it to be more like dressing up for Halloween as a kid and pretending you're that superhero, monster, or supernatural creature. At its core, acting is play and through play, one discovers the character. So, for this shoot I told them, here's some masks, let's play, and see what we get. Of course, some images were useful for the theme and some weren't, but I made sure everyone was having fun. By making it fun, characters started to emerge.

Art is the subjective expression of the artist’s view of the world. How do you see the world as a photographer, and how do you wish your art to be received?

As a photographer, I think I see the world as if it were music personified. Music has multiple layers and it's full of emotion and meaning. I think a good photograph is the same. It hits you in so many different ways. You can just feel it. I hope people appreciate the images I produce, but also feel them. That the viewing experience is visceral and that the emotion of the masked dancer is transferred onto the viewer.

What can we expect from you in the future? Do you have a specific photographic theme in mind you would like to explore in addition to your current series?

I definitely want to stick with this series and add more animals. I'd also like to shoot dancers in couture and in color. I'd love to do a series of all green outfits, red, yellow, and blue. After that I think I'll be done and wait for the next thing to inspire me.

Editorial note: The interview was completed prior to publication of the new series of color images that are featured in this interview.

Abstract on The Art of Storytelling in Photography

How do you master the art of storytelling in your photographic work?

Storytelling through photography for me is about crafting a clear narrative in a single frame.  The seed of this narrative is the main idea or theme, and all other elements grow from this seed.  To accomplish this, I pull from the same elements as film and television. Film and television get the advantage of twentyfour frames per second while in photography I have to distill it down to one image, or a handful, in order to tell the story.

One of the first steps to building this narrative is casting. Casting a single subject allows them to become the protagonist of a tale. The presence of multiple subjects can introduce interactions and varied relationships. The expressions, gestures, and body language of these subjects can hint at their personalities, emotions, and the context of the narrative. Next, is setting and lighting, wardrobe, hair, and makeup. Other considerations are colors and tones. Certain color palettes can evoke specific emotions or symbolize themes. Another crucial element is timing and capturing the decisive moment. Anticipating the right instant to press the shutter can lead to images that freeze dynamic scenes or candid moments, encapsulating the essence of a story in a single frame.

For my 'Wild at Heart' series I wanted to evoke feelings of longing to run wild and free, as Tenessee Williams eloquently put it in his poem "A Prayer for the Wild of Heart".  Around the theme of freedom, I decided to cast dancers, because dancers are trained with freedom of movement to create pictures with their body, and to express layered emotions. The setting is a white backdrop, so that your attention is completely on the single protagonist writhing, jumping, moving, and fighting for freedom of expression. Their faces are masked to marry and strengthen the metaphor of the animal nature within us yearning to be wild and free. The color palette is black and white, thus the wardrobe is mostly black to create dramatic tension against the stark white backdrop.  

Ultimately, the art of storytelling through photography is about crafting a visual narrative that transcends the limitations of words. By skillfully combining theme, lighting, composition, colors, and timing, I'm able to transport viewers into my world, inviting them to participate in the interpretation and completion of the narrative.

Artist bio:

Charles Michael Davis is an accomplished interdisciplinary artist, whose talent has been recognized with his selection as a director's pick at The Other Art Fair Los Angeles 2023. While studying at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Charles was drawn to photography, taking a 35mm camera course and developing his natural talent under the guidance of his instructor. He went on to work as a model for acclaimed photographers, including Yu Tsai, Jim Jordan, and Mark Seliger, gaining valuable insight and honing his artistic skills. In addition to his photography, Charles has also directed television episodes and music videos, while also pursuing training in piano and dance. Inspired by renowned artists such as Brigitte Lacombe, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Michael Kenna, and Robert Longo, Charles's work reflects his passion for exploring the untamed aspects of the human spirit. His debut exhibition, which focused on his photography, demonstrated his exceptional talent and vision as an artist.

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