Melodie McDaniel
Photographer & Director

Melodie McDaniel

Melodie McDaniel is a still photographer and film director whose clientele includes Nike, Target and Google, as well as Rolling Stone, Paper and GQ magazines.

Elizabeth Bayne: In ArtCenter’s 90-year history, there have only been 300 Black alumni — what does that mean to you?

Melodie McDaniel (Photography and Imaging, Fine Art, 1991): I don't want to say I'm angry about it, but it is unfortunate. There are so many great, creative African American artists who probably don't know or have the resources to come to a place like ArtCenter.

EB: How did you find out about ArtCenter?

MM: I was interested in art school, so I was looking to find the best place to learn my craft. Once I knew I wanted to go into photography and film, somebody I knew said, "You might want to look into ArtCenter." I came. I went through the gallery. And I was just blown away.

EB: What got you into photography?

MM: I traveled to Israel right after high school graduation, spending time there and through parts of Europe inspired me to want to become a photographer. I specifically wanted to shoot cultural stories for National Geographic. I was also inspired by the visual references around the house. My mom had amazing artworks, books and National Geographics. When I looked through those, I knew I wanted to do that.

EB: Did your family understand or were they worried about how you would make a living?

MM: Mom was completely supportive.

EB: Were you the only Black person in your department at the time?

MM: There was one other person in the photo department.

EB: Was that a new experience for you?

MM: It was definitely unique.

EB: Did it make it difficult in any way?

MM: It was just something I was aware of. I wasn't treated any differently. I had a great experience. If anything, I felt like there was some curiosity, more attention being paid to me.

EB: Did you have a class that didn't go as well, but it made you stronger as a photographer?
MM: This school is very technical. I struggled with that. I was shooting products, lighting and I'm glad I did. But I always tried to push my natural light in a lot of the assignments, so I got a little trouble for that sometimes.

I think art is interesting when it comes from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. It would be great to have more African American photographers’ points of view.

Melodie McDaniel (BA '91 Photography, Fine Art) Photographer, Director

About the Series

In ArtCenter's 90-year history there have only been approximately 300 Black alumni. Impact 90/300, a documentary by Elizabeth Gray Bayne, profiles 25 of them. This series revisits each interview from the film, originally created for ArtCenter DTLA's 90/300 Exhibition.

Selected Work

EB: How would you describe your style?

MM: I would describe my work as authentic, natural. Fine art, documentary-style. I love shooting people, culture, cultural environments, environmental photography. Instead of using studio lights and all that, I shoot everything pretty much natural — personally I like shooting natural light; I do shoot studio light as well when it’s needed for commercial and fashion editorials.

EB: It sounds like you found your identity pretty early — was that because of, or in spite of, ArtCenter's methodology?

MM: A little of both. I went in wanting to be a National Geographic photographer or wanting to work for a magazine like that. I spent time at the ArtCenter library researching books by Roy DeCarava, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, William Eggleston; instructors also guided me, more specifically Paul Jasmin.

EB: Do you find yourself labeled as a Black photographer? Or do you prefer photographer?

MM: I prefer just being a photographer. When I finished ArtCenter, I started working right away, which has been great. But I was never labeled. I didn't want to just be the Black photographer. I wanted to shoot everything.

EB: 300 Black alumni in 90 years. How do you interpret it? How do you see it changing?

MM: I remember being surprised. I think there should be more outreach. There needs to be more support. While I was here, I was so busy. Honestly, I was so focused trying to get the work done that I didn't have time, but when I did come across other African American artists here in other departments, it was great.

EB: Do you think that there should be more Black students at ArtCenter, and why?

MM: I think art is interesting when it comes from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. I've talked to students, and I try to encourage them to look into ArtCenter if they want to explore art or photography. But, financially, it does become a burden. I figured out a way. I had to take loans, get grants, worked and did a lot of things. I feel like it would be great if students, and especially the faculty, could figure out a way to draw more African American artists to come or feel like they can come here. It would be great to have more African American photographers’ points of view.

From Words to Action

ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives