Meet the Maker: Melodie McDaniel
In 1990, Melodie McDaniel walked into my office at A&M Records with a portfolio that blew my mind.
She had series of black-and-white “picture stories” with a cinematic point of view I hadn’t seen before. The work had the depth and maturity of classic American photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus and Duane Michals.
I hired her immediately, even though she was still a student at Art Center College, and we created one of my favorite music packages I’ve worked on to this day. We went on to collaborate on dozens of projects over the years.
In a time of slick, sometimes over-produced content, Mel found a way to expose true, raw emotion. Using street casting and a unique eye, she pioneered a new visual language for young photographers. (I credit her with the anti-fashion-fashion movement, emulated by so many artists and filmmakers.)
She has a unique way of integrating herself into subcultures, because she works from a place of pure fascination and respect for her subjects. Her ability to work commercially without losing her edge or “fine art” aesthetic brings an honesty and directness to projects that could otherwise feel inauthentic.
From Madonna’s “Secret” video to Facebook and Levi’s campaigns to her recent stunning gallery show documenting the Compton Cowboys “Daring to Claim the Sky”, Melodie continues to be a unique vision and inspiration for generations of photographers.
Our idea was to celebrate Black History Month by reconnecting artists we’ve had both brand and personal relationships with over the years. People who we feel transcend genre and category and could interpret the concept of “color-full” through its literal and abstract definitions. From filmed profiles featuring dance and poetry, to portraits and abstract still lives. We wanted to present a celebration of creativity and inspiration across creative disciplines.
V.P. Brand Creative Director at Banana Republic
Melodie and Len, 1992.
Melodie and Len, 2019.
Len: You shot, cast and picked the location for our February campaign. Tell us about this process.
Melodie: I saw this project as a way to work with new, authentic people. I love working with real people and I thought this was an opportunity to push some new ideas.
Each of these people have a unique story. Introduce us to the cast you curated.
Most of these people I’ve met while I was shooting other projects and I’ve kept in touch with them over the years, some new [friends], some older. I always keep my eye on people that I find interesting.
For something like this, with Black History Month, I immediately thought of Mike. I met Mike through the Compton Cowboys when I was doing a 3-year long project. Mike was hanging with the Compton Cowboys when I happened to be over there dropping off a photograph. He’s an ex-football player and now running for mayor of Compton. Then Sage is the daughter of one of my childhood friends. She just recently graduated from art and design school in London and is embarking on a career of pursing directing, acting and theater. I thought she had a great look for this.
Assanta was one of the students at Compton Junior Posse— the equestrian club that I was following for the past 3-4 years. I called her up because I always thought she was great to photograph during the process of my work with the equestrian club. And outside of her passion for helping and riding horses, she’s currently working with food banks in the community and community projects in L.A. She just finished high school and is just beginning college. This is what her passion is, helping people.
And then Kenny is one of the Compton Cowboys. He also went through the Junior Posse program. He did English show jumping when he was younger and now he’s pursuing music and acting.
You chose Compton as the location for the shoot. Why is Compton, or L.A., so close to your heart?
I grew up in L.A.—I’m a native. I went to Art Center College of Design for Fine Art and Commercial Photography. And I went to high school in L.A. (laughs) I like highlighting other neighborhoods and communities other than just the Hollywood area. Parts of downtown L.A. still have a very community feeling with mom-and-pop shops. In Compton, I thought some of the areas in the community were so interesting. They felt authentic. I drove around those areas and found these beautiful, bold paintings and colors on their businesses. Also, they were much more open to letting us stop and shoot on the fly. Some shop owners came out and were excited that we were using their walls to put models in front of. In Compton and in South L.A., I find that there are some really interesting neighborhoods.
Yeah, that makes sense. On a more personal note, tell us about yourself and your work.
I call myself a fine artist that likes to do commercial work. I love art. I love photography as an art form. With my photography, I love to bring an authentic point of view to my work. I love people’s personal stories and personal style.
Pictures are my language because I’m not the most confident speaker. That’s one reason I just love photography—it’s how I speak best.
Not everybody can straddle fine art and commercial. Do you find it difficult to bring fine art into the commercial work? When people hire you, are they looking for that?
Yes, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to get a great response for my ability to bring the raw genuine moment to a commercial project. It inspires me when I can hire a person who is not a model or go to certain areas and make these things into a campaign on a billboard. I love making my commercial work into fine art. That’s really what inspires me.
I get inspired through travel. Right out of high school, my mom sent me to work on a kibbutz travel program. I went to Israel for about a year. My mind was blown. That really opened up the doors to travel as a means of experiencing other cultures and environments and communities. By the time I came back from that, I had found my passion. That kind of work, like journalism or storytelling, I’ll try to bring into my commercial work.
For February, we’re celebrating the idea of community. How do you create community—with your work or within your own personal life?
I experience it and contribute to it through my work. My interest lies in celebrating diverse communities and subcultures that are not always recognized for how interesting or intricate they are, whether it’s diversity or creativity or religious beliefs. I'm fascinated by people's passions and what drives their behavior. I expose and share these community stories as an homage to these people and expression of my own passion. I love studying subcultures and I find that leads me to really interesting projects.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t even realize there was a black equestrian club in my own backyard. That was amazing to discover. There’s this incredible educational after-school program still going on in Compton. This woman is teaching these kids a lot of things, learning through horses, equine therapy and helping them finish school, go to college. I love discovering projects like that. It’s incredible what they’re doing.
What was your creative vision going into this [February] shoot?
It's about the beauty—how I see things. I feel like everyone has an interesting way of seeing. My point of view is just me and the beauty I see in certain areas that wouldn’t be known for [beauty]. The places I like to go to that are not always exposed.
I just love people and interesting people and I’m inspired by their stories of their clothes or the way they look. People and humans and environments inspire me.
How would you say your identity as a woman, or a black woman, informs your work?
Well, I don’t think of myself as a “black photographer”. It's present in my work. I’m interested in all cultures. My mom’s Jewish, my dad’s black, so my upbringing fostered a love of all kinds of cultures. For me, I never went out and identified specifically as a black photographer. However, I explore all different mixes of race and color, so sometimes my work can be specific, but most of the time it’s not. And if it is, I’m not even aware of it.
Do you think that your identity as a black woman has affected how you go into communities?
Yes. Actually, it does. For one thing, being a woman, approaching people has been much easier for me than it has been for my male counterparts. I notice when I approach somebody compared to my photo assistant or somebody who is male, it’s a whole different vibe. Especially if you go into neighborhoods like Compton, being black and female and talking to people, it made things a little bit more relatable and comfortable. It’s hard to say, but I do think that it is easier to walk up to people. To walk up to anyone and say “Hey, can I take your picture?” A lot of times, they’re like “Where is this going to end up?”
That trust is important. You shoot a lot of black-and-white photography, but this campaign has a lot of color. As a photographer, how do you work with color, and how has it differed for this campaign?
Len brought this project to me and said that the line of clothing was bold and colorful. As much as I am a passionate black-and-white photographer—I see in black and white—I was very excited [about the shoot] because I also love color and shooting color. Black and white always has a timeless feel. But going into this, I was thinking about how I could make this feel very rich and timeless like my black and white [images]. And that’s when I decided to choose these interesting environments, neighborhoods that had cool colors on their walls. And through those colors, very technicolor or earth tone colors, the images were enhanced. I must stay I’m very impressed with the way this campaign turned out due to the clothing, the people. It’s very rich, with strong, powerful, bold colors.
Melodie’s work comes to life in our February campaign, Bold Vision. We spoke to Melodie McDaniel and Koto Bolofo for our Meet the Maker series, in honor of Black History Month. Read Koto Bolofo’s feature.