Shadowland: Soul snatching with Owens Daniels
“You are the ART of what I DO” – Owens Daniels
By Ed Bumgardner
In the not-so black-and-white world of photographer Owens Daniels, the fabled doors of perception literally and figuratively lurk within a nondescript warehouse where he conjures his photographic hoodoo.
Or “soul snatching,” as Daniels calls it.
There is no business sign, no visible address plate, no formal marking of any sort to indicate to visitors that they are within country miles of a photography studio – or much of anything else, for that matter.
The industrial location seems lifted from a Mafia movie – a grim, isolated, seemingly abandoned place to take care of business, to disappear … or “get disappeared.”
Daniels arrives as the sun begins its daily descent. The feeling of displacement intensifies as he silently slips inside the dark building, then re-emerges to lead visitors into the warehouse.
Step through the door …
What the …
The mind reels as preconception and reality collide.
The building’s vast interior stretches into a shadowland of dark corners, mountainous clutter and dim lighting.
Everywhere one looks, the lump disarray of the room’s hoarder decor seems to bear witness to a life discarded.
An abandoned car sits covered in dust and detritus. Containers of noxious chemicals and inks are everywhere.
Makeshift shelves blend into a maze of display cases, stained sofas, shaky chairs, industrial machinery and strewn auto parts. The jumble is accentuated by colorful piles of various custom-designed T-shirts – the only concrete evidence that the space also doubles as a functioning screen-printing business.
The incongruity of it all quickly shifts from disoriented disbelief to bizarre fascination.
“It’s kind of a crazy studio,” said Matt Kendrick, a renowned Triad jazz bassist and music educator who has been definitively (and stunningly) photographed by Daniels. “But I thought, ‘OK, this looks cool.
“I could discern an artist vibe.”
Carefully walk to the back of the building, hang a left, look toward the beckoning light, and walk into a side room …
It is akin to stepping through a portal in which a visitor’s public demeanor – one’s outward personal and protective armor – is slyly stripped of artifice to reveal one’s true essence.
The door of perception has opened. Reality has been altered. The soul is ready to be snatched and documented for posterity.
Welcome to the photo studio of Owens Daniels.
This is where the magic happens.
“When I take portraits of people, I want to see who they really are, not who they present themselves to be,” Daniels said. “Creative people, especially musicians, are fascinating. I have managed to figure out how to make them comfortable as I begin to draw out who they are from what they are.”
Daniels accomplishes this transmogrification through a process of isolation, acclimation, skill and seduction.
When shooting musicians, each subject is instructed to bring his or her instrument. He or she is placed in front of a huge black backdrop.
Daniels begins to chat as he sets up the shot.
Favorite music plays, and the musician is encouraged to play along, a natural reaction. There is only a single light in the dark room; it is trained on the subject.
The room is cleared so not to break the mood. Daniels disappears – he shoots hidden, some 30-feet away – and the transformation begins as the musician, alone in total privacy, reacts to and interacts with his or her muse.
The outside world disappears. Minutes feel like seconds.
Man and muse mate, shamelessly, and create magic through manipulation of soul, light and image.
“Leaving a musician alone with his instrument is crucial,” Daniels said. “A musician’s DNA is all over their instrument. There is nothing in life that is closer to them than their instruments.
“This powerful bond, this intimacy with their instruments, is what allows them to find creative solace in the company of strangers.
“The way I think about it, the musicians are more of a prop to the instruments than the other way around.”
Rob Slater, a Triad guitarist, was recently photographed by Daniels. He said that he has never been comfortable in front of the camera, but that he found the process of being photographed by Daniels to be as enlightening as it was mind-boggling.
“Looking at photos of myself is like climbing out of my car to look at body damage after being rear-ended,” Slater said. “But the genius of Owens is how he manages to draw what he needs through his lens without the interference of self-consciousness.
“I was completely unaware of being manipulated and being taken completely outside myself.
“It was like a session with a good shrink.”
Daniels said that it was a collection of his portraits of veteran Triad musicians, curated in a 2014 show titled “Birth of the Cool,” that finally enabled him to grab the full attention of the Triad arts community.
The collection is dominated by stunningly evocative black-and-white images (Daniels’ preferred medium) offset by a handful of striking color prints.
Each portrait emphasizes and celebrates Daniels’ remarkably individualized use of shadow and light. All are undeniable in their purity, as assertive and bold as they are expressive and personal.
Every image offers fresh revelation. Each portrait is undeniable, even shocking, in Daniels’ ability to capture, convey and celebrate the soul and spirit of each musician and the music he or she makes.
Daniels sees the “Birth of the Cool” show as his creative and professional turning point.
“I tend to think conceptually,” he said. “That show, at least to me, was where I finally realized what I was trying to say and do. It really was the point that I became ‘Owens Daniels.’
“I had been in shows previous to that, but I was still looking for who I was. It was that show that really exposed what makes my work original to me.”
Daniels, 58, grew up middle-class in Richmond, Va., one of six children. His father was a gifted brick mason, and his mother was the secretary to the Secretary of Education in Virginia.
“We were all encouraged to be creative as we grew up, despite not always having a lot of obvious black role models in the arts at that time,” Daniels said. “I grew up in the era of Jet magazine and Ebony magazine, and I fell in love with the photography in those magazines.
“You have to remember that back then, you just didn’t see a lot of photographs of black people, and to my delight, there was nothing but black people in those magazines.
“It really inspired me. I loved the way we looked in those photographs. It made me proud.”
Daniels enlisted in the Army while in his late teens. It was during his training as a cartographer that he was given his first camera – a Canon, which he still uses on occasion – and learned the fundamentals of photography.
Interest creeped toward obsession.
“When I was in the service I found this photo book – The Black Photography Annual of 1973,” he said. “The book was filled with nothing but black-and-white photographs by some of the greatest Negro photographers of the time.
“I never went anywhere without that book. It cast a spell on me. When I left the service, that book left with me, and I am never without it to this day.”
Daniels went to school for a time – Virginia State University and Central Texas College – got married and, in 2005, came to North Carolina to start working as a Food Service Director.
He rose through the ranks. He was making good money. Life should have been good.
“I began to hate my job,” Daniels said. “Something inside of me was not right. I began to feel depressed. One day I arrived at work and spent 45 minutes sitting in my car in the parking lot. I had an anxiety attack.
“I realized the only thing that made me really happy was taking photographs. So I quit my job in 2008, got divorced and got serious. I totally immersed myself in photography.
“I put it all on the line.”
Daniels joined photography groups and clubs. He apprenticed with photographers he met and admired. He even took a job at Olan Mills where he spent several years learning the finer points of portraiture.
“You would be surprised at what you learn when you have just 10 minutes to take a great photo,” Daniels said. “That was the beginning of me learning to look inside the person whose picture I was taking, not just at the person.
“You learn that there are no strangers.”
Daniels tried his hand at still-life photography, nature photography – he even dabbled in shooting nudes (which he did not like). He kept returning to taking pictures of everyday people, walking the streets in search of interesting faces to photograph.
“Street portraiture made me excited,” Daniels said. “I started riding the bus to Raleigh or Charlotte. I would get off and walk around, taking pictures of people that fascinated me in some way, never spending more than 30 seconds on a portrait.
“When someone I respected would tell me my composition was boring – which happened – I would freak out, then listen to what they had to say and integrate that alongside my own style. And when someone told me I was good, I kept it in perspective, even though it made me feel good.
“This was my path, and I soon became aware that I was growing.”
The depth and reach of Daniels’ curated works and projects is beginning to cast a long shadow.
His style as a photographer has developed into something highly individualized and instantly recognizable to anyone even casually familiar with his work.
Some of his work – such as his collection of photographs from a Black Lives Matter march, the John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival or his photographs of the protests that accompanied the recent Presidential Inauguration – blur the worlds between art and photo-journalism in often electrifying ways.
But his more pointed, conceptual collections – the mixed-media America Wants; the HB2-themed American Gothic or his most recent show, the well-received Brown Paper Bag – emphasize Daniels deep-rooted desire to cut to the heart of what troubles American society through explorations of race, ageism, sexuality, class, homelessness, privilege and politics.
As a strong black man, Daniels has seen many of these problems up close and personal, and he feels it is duty to confront these issues in a way that makes people feel.
They might laugh. They might cry.
They might gasp at the beauty of an image or sentiments.
They might recoil at the ugliness of a harsh truth.
The might see someone they know.
They might see themselves.
The main thing, Daniels said, is that people think.
“Owens is tireless in his push to advance and make things happen, and I think he has seen a tremendous push forward in the last six months,” said Corey Madden, the Executive Director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Daniels has spent the past year working with The Kenan Institute, which is devoted to encouraging the development of knowledge and the way artists, organizations and communities approach creative challenges.
“He has embraced this opportunity,” Madden said. “He believes every person has a story and a voice, and he has used diversity to explore these issues and challenges in a manner that is dramatic and emotional.”
To that end, Daniels said that he is finally comfortable with who and what he is – even if the politically correct world has not caught up with him.
“Too often, matters of race and identity are filtered through the evolution of white people,” he said. “My aim is to help preserve our broad culture and my culture. In my lifetime, I began life as a Negro. Then I was told I was a black man. Now, I am a person of color.”
“I have always known who I was. I want my work to follow in the footsteps of the great Negro photographers who understood and showed the world who we were as a race of individuals, and how we really looked and lived.
“So I am a Negro photographer.” He paused “But my work is for everyone.”
Owens Daniels’ photo exhibition, “Brown Paper Bag,” will run through March 3 at Unleashed Art Gallery, 205 W. 6th St., Winston-Salem.