As the daughter of a white, Jewish mother and a father of both Native American and African decent, Melodie McDaniel questioned where she fit in throughout a childhood that was a mix of faith, culture, and race.
“I was raised in a very unconventional way,” she wrote via email. “We loved each other but everyone was allowed and encouraged to do their own thing. There was never a traditional, cyclical meeting place such as Sunday dinner. All these faces created a question in me I wanted to study: What does fitting in mean, and is it important? If so, how do I fit in with all my disparate elements and experiences? I began to investigate this with my lens, in different subcultures around the world and in my own home.”
For more than 20 years, Melodie McDaniel has followed these instincts by traveling and photographing people and places that elicit a strong reaction in her. Some of those photos are on display through Nov. 9 at Spot Gallery in Los Angeles, as part of the exhibition “American Spectator.”
The title seems apropos for both the photographer and the viewer. Many of the images have a timeless quality to them, mostly shot in black and white and with fashions and other visual clues that rarely betray when or where they were taken.
“My passion and interest in subcultures has taken me on the road a lot throughout America,” McDaniel wrote. “And I shoot spontaneously whatever I feel, or catches my eye.”
McDaniel’s equipment is also somewhat disparate. She shoots film with a Pentax 6X7 film camera, a Polaroid Land Camera, and a Nikon F5 but also travels with a digital camera for reference or when she needs more latitude when shooting in lower light situations. Regardless of the tool, she’s always looking for a shot.
“What draws me to an image is that millisecond where someone’s humanity or a landscape announces itself in such a tender or bold way, completely unselfconscious,” she wrote. “A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, but most of it is channeling it—seeing something spectacular in the mundane and grabbing it.”
Much of the work in “American Spectator” includes images of churchgoers, and being allowed to document faith-based experiences has been invaluable to McDaniel’s work.
“I think what draws people to faith is that unnamable, unknown quality that all people understand even if they can’t articulate it. It’s a shared, loving energy that brings people together and allows them to be lifted up or transform in some way—it allows them to know or feel the Divine. I discovered that once there’s this shared experience, be it faith-based or inviting someone into a particular sub-culture, there’s really no judgment. Once people trust or journey to this space, this safe haven, all lines of race, creed, or color are lifted and erased.”