The photographer, who studied at De Anza College in Cupertino, started out in the fashion industry. Now, after 20-plus years behind the lens, Hays is an expert in black-and-white nudes.
And for his upcoming show in Tracy, from Jan. 15 through Feb. 19, he will feature his “I’m Still Beautiful: A Tribute to Breast Cancer Survivors” collection — 21 stills of breast cancer survivors.
Gallery supervisor William F. Wilson said the collection is a welcome addition to the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts — not only for aesthetic purposes, but also for its educational value.
“We haven’t done a show exclusive to it (cancer awareness), so that’s why it caught our attention. The social message and the humanitarian aspect make it more interesting,” Wilson said. “He’s trying to connect with the community and do something bigger than himself. He’s interested in connecting with people through the exhibition.”
“I feel like I really make a difference by doing these shows, by not just people seeing it, but just changing their perceptive,” said Hays, who recently moved to Tracy from Tempe, Ariz., and was impressed with the theater’s galleries as a venue to showcase his art.
Hays began the breast cancer project while living in Tempe in 1998, when a woman diagnosed with breast cancer approached him to photograph her. When she saw the result, she exclaimed, tears in her eyes, “I’m still beautiful!”
The event was life-changing not only for the woman, but for Hays, too — and inspiration struck for the name of the project.
“That was the start of me putting that into my shows,” he said. “She came to me as a closing to her battle with breast cancer and literally changed my life.”
As a fashion photographer, Hays once took mostly color photos, but gradually he fell in love with black-and-white photography.
“I love working with light itself, and black and white is basically all shadow and highlights. Color to me seems very flat,” Hays said. “When I originally started, I used filters to try to give me an idea of what black and white looks like. Some people describe my work as high contrast. It’s shifted over. It’s got a more of a sculpture effect than color.”
Hays was turned off by fashion photography because it lacked realism. His vision, instead, was to photograph people as they really are, including in nude photographs like the collection that will appear at the Grand.
“A lot of it was I disagreed with the industry,” he said. “A lot of times, they’re taping breasts together to get cleavage. … I saw it as exploitation and kind of moved on.
“Since college, the nude has fascinated me. It drops all pretenses. It becomes the person itself to me — not just how they want to appear to the world. Fully dressed, they dress to create their own mask.”
In addition to revealing his subjects, Hays said his work tries to educate women, especially young women, about breast cancer awareness. In 1998, he was presented with The Breast Foundation’s annual Humanitarian Award for his work to build up breast cancer survivors’ personal image. He says young women oftentimes think that because of their age, they are invincible.
“I have some younger people in the pictures. (Young women) said, ‘We’re going to be checking regularly now,’” Hays said. “I get a lot of positives out of doing that.”
Hays said he will have a table available at the show where local breast cancer support groups can collect donations and provide information, and he encourages breast cancer survivors in Tracy to attend the show’s Jan. 15 opening and a Feb. 5 gallery talk.
“I once said that this show is aimed at the people that are still tied up (and who) could not show up in front of the camera,” Hays said. “I think there is certainly a certain amount of courage that has to take place before standing in front of the camera.
At a glance
• WHAT: Michael P. Hays’ photo collection, “I’m Still Beautiful: A Tribute to Breast Cancer Survivors”
• WHEN: Jan. 15 through Feb. 19: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Opening, 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 15. Gallery talk with the artist, noon to 2 p.m. Feb. 5
• WHERE: Grand Theatre Center for the Arts, 715 N. Central Ave.
• COST: Free
• INFO: www.atthegrand.org or www.edgescapes.com
• Reporter Kevin Young can be reached at 830-4225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.