Michael Davis was born in 1955 in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng).
On completing his schooling in Johannesburg, Davis served his compulsory one-year call-up in the South African Air Force as a medical orderly. Thereafter he studied civil engineering at the University of Witwatersrand for over three years before deciding to study at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town where he pursued a Masters degree in photography. At this time he worked part-time as a freelance photographer in Cape Town. For his Masters degree Davis was concerned with- and tracked- the leisure activities of South Africans.
Davis contributed toFrontlinemagazine and to various group exhibitions in South Africa including the Staffrider exhibition in 1985, the Festival of the Arts Exhibition held in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, in 1985, and the Michaelis Staff and Senior Students Exhibition at the Market Photo Gallery in Johannesburg in 1985.
Along with photographs by Joseph Alfers, Davis’ images included in South Africa: The Cordoned Heart(1986) speak to the interest of his Masters dissertation research, which considered the recreational activities of different population groups across South Africa. Used here as part of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in South Africa, the photographs revealed the frustration of black South Africans with regard to a lack of recreational facilities available to them.