Storyboard: Melodie McDaniel

A photographer’s greatest gift

I’ve always had a fascination with humanity, the stories our environments tell, and documenting subculture.

I grew up in Los Angeles. Jewish mom. Black dad. My mom was a paralegal with a sideline in photography. Her career as a photographer never really manifested, but she was a source of knowledge and inspiration throughout my childhood. There were always books around the house: art books, magazines National Geographic anthologies. I was fascinated by the stories and photo essays. By junior high, even before my analytical mind could make sense of what I was seeing, those images struck a chord.

I remember being drawn towards photography that explored the often overlooked fringes and corners of society. By high school, while learning how to expose film, I was also becoming more interested in documenting people who refused to conform to societal expectations. I became obsessed with the work of outlaw photographers like Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon and Robert Frank.

Rose Cefalu – then the photo editor at Detour Magazine – gave me one of my first documentary assignments: an outdoor, all-ages, all-sizes burlesque show on the outskirts of Las Vegas, known then as Exotic World. My work has since taken me to a 1970s Van People weekend event in Bakersfield, California; Demolition Derby in Waukegan, Illinois; and to Compton, California, where I photographed neighborhood kids participating in the Black Equestrian Riding Club alongside talented filmmaker and ArtCenter classmate Denise Milford. This restless investigatory spirit is present in everything I do, whether I’m photographing African-American churchgoers for my series “Sunday Best,” or re-thinking the otherwise conventional template of noir iconography through the images I create.

ArtCenter has always provided an anchoring sense of inspiration. Once I saw the darkrooms on campus, that was it for me. In place of a portfolio, I pieced together what I didn’t know was an unconventional presentation of what I thought was my best work. I got a rejection letter from the school. Still, I was determined not to take no for an answer.

I eventually wrangled a meeting with the Chair of the Photography Department. After our meeting, he told me he would keep an eye on me. A few months later, I was in. To any creatives who happen to be reading this: this is why you must be able to endure the sting of rejection.

Paul Jasmin was another great mentor for me in my early days. He let me sit in on his advanced class, even when I was only a fourth term student. It was an extremely technical program that refined my lighting and shooting techniques and where I developed an intense level of professional rigor. Paul Jasmin taught me how to bring everything I was learning at ArtCenter together and helped me to grow creatively. With his mentorship, I learned to be an artist.

I was also fortunate to make great contacts in ArtCenter’s film community. I met Wyatt Troll (a cinematographer who worked on the last two Spike Jonze films) in ArtCenter’s photography department. Zack Snyder, who was a cinematographer at the time, was also in the mix.

Tarsem Singh, who was hip to my street photography and wanted to incorporate it into his film work, taught me that filmmaking is a team sport, that a director’s voice is made stronger by a great editor, cinematographer, and crew. Each of us had different visions and points of view, but we all worked together. This network would help propel me beyond the ArtCenter community years after I graduated. I met one of my creative heroes, Larry Clark, whose book Tulsa would go on to influence the look of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboys.

For me, photography is about developing and nourishing relationships with people who are allowing me to capture intimate moments in their lives. As such, I try to let these relationships blossom organically.

One of the joys of photography, for me, is that you get to see people evolve through an emotional arc. Part of what I want to ask in depicting them in all these respective spaces is: Who are you when you exist in this environment?

My photographs are the stories I’ve lived with my whole life. Sharing them with the world is the greatest gift I’ve ever known.

Melodie McDaniel
BFA 91 Photography
Still and Fashion Photographer, Film/Music Video Director
FullCircle Member
2020 ArtCenter Alumni Award Recipient, Distinguished Midcareer

This restless investigatory spirit is present in everything I do.

Melodie McDanielStill/Fashion Photographer, Film/Music Video Director
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