Thomas Daniel crawls under your skin like ringworm. From here he calls the shots shots so intimate, they itch. Anything else wouldn't be the work of Thomas Daniel. "I'm not an artist," he says over and over. "I'm a photographer." To Daniel, 51, the distinction is as clear and profound as that between World War II and Vietnam. It's when people don't draw distinctions that Daniel does it for them, just as he did when he dressed in drag for a gallery opening at The Chrysler Museum.
"World War II was fought under a flag of patriotism, Vietnam under a flag of protest." His pithy proclamations pile up like the list of bones he's broken in fights, or the Camel cigarettes he's smoked to the bitter, nonfiltered end: "I don't set out, I wind up." "There's no excuse for having too much fun." "The only thing exact in life is taxes."
Daniel, a dubious incarnation of genius, is at the least a social gadfly whose persistence swells like a tick on a dog. Insufferably, Daniel is both insect and animal. At times, he's the man you love to hate, flaunting flatulent obscenities to see if you'll laugh or squirm, sucking blood either way. Other times, his playful romp wins your affection with the ease of a well-placed compliment or unexpected insight. But like him or not, Daniel's photography pulses with uncompromising depth, clarity and compassion, making it some of the most important and influential in the region.[image-1]Photo by Scott Elmquist
Craving an audience, Daniel licks his lips at the mention of his first one-man show in five years: "Into My Eyes: The Photography of Thomas Daniel," opening Jan. 14 at the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's really bubbled my ego," laughs the photographer who, at 19, bought his first 35mm at the PX while stationed in Saigon as a private with the Army in Vietnam.
"Parts of me can't leave 1967 and rightfully so," explains Daniel. Over there, light and life were extinguished in a flash and only fear was constant. He says he saw a dead man cry. It inspired "Jesus Saves," his 1979 series of river baptisms and tent revivals.
Daniel's photography today is the culmination of 30 years spent forgetting and reliving Vietnam. If Daniel preaches anything it's that life is a series of confrontational snapshots, artfully distilled to show that reality is what you make it. With the Anderson Gallery exhibit, Daniel expects to make converts to his in-your-face photography through an immersing retrospective, a sort of baptism, of his works fleshing out what it's like to see through his strange eyes. But if no converts emerge, it's no skin off his back. It's happened before. "People either love me or hate me." His consolation is the puzzled lot of those who don't quite get it, a consequence he finds hilarious.
Despite his rebuke of Vietnam and refutation as an artist, Daniel swallows the attention he gets from such statements, whenever and wherever he can get it, like a fire-eater who provokes an audience to marvel at flames that seem magically to disappear. Some say he's an enigma. It's precisely the word that makes his ears burn with delight when he hears others use it, his blue eyes beaming with maniacal glee. Others call his bluff, saying he's no more believable than the Man in the Moon.
But Daniel insists his quests and incarnations, both personally and professionally, are not merely affectation. He shoots for ground that others step over, and this instinct has rarely failed him.
Thirty years ago it was instinct, not bravery, he says, that got him through three tours in Vietnam. There, it led him to the camera, his quiet alter ego. At home, it's led him down the back roads to his subjects, perhaps the only people he doesn't overwhelm. Every one, from the most obstinate Alvin Clinton, a medicine man of the Dineh Indian tribe in Arizona, to the precociously giddy crown hopefuls of a Chesterfield County beauty pageant, appears to trust him behind the lens.
Still, Daniel's portraits are hardly the easy-baked Americana of state fairs and lemonade stands.
[image-2]Photo by Scott ElmquistDaniel reminds some of the crazed prophet/ photographer Dennis Hopper portrayed in "Apocalypse Now," but he served three tours in Vietnam without completely losing himself in the heart of darkness.
>Take his 1968 picture of a Viet Cong soldier whose freshly ruptured body rolls out like kneaded bread to the earth, still warm. It's the kind of realism that churns stomachs of those who prefer the baby blossoms of Anne Geddes to the nearly tactile portraits of Annie Liebowitz.
"I wanted to give him this show he never had," says Ted Potter, director of the Anderson Gallery who co-curates the exhibition with New York critic and poet John Yau. "Thomas Daniel's camera doesn't distort, intimidate, judge and it never lies," claims Potter. The compilation of documentary-style prints brings together everything from silver-studded bikers in New Orleans to the religious animal sacrifices of the Yoruba Indian tribe to the waning real-life emblems of the Civil War, first generation Daughters of the Confederacy who now cling to life with their fathers' medals, wrinkled smiles and vacant stares. Like the absurd caricatures brought to life in Flannery O'Connor's short stories, Daniel uses images of the grotesque not only to shock, but to stir empathy, showing that all history is as inescapable and indelible as it is absurd.
Rifling through his life's work, comprising more than 30 years and 1,100 images, Daniel confesses it was grueling to pare the black-and-white photographs down to the 80 16-by-20-inch framed images shown in the Anderson Gallery's installation. "It's like lining up your children and saying who's the prettiest." The task involved five weeks of sleepless nights sustained by frequent sucking of coffee, red wine and Camel nonfilters printing from negatives war-torn, tattered and preserved only by graceless wooden crates kept in a basement that doubles as darkroom.
"Man, I was an asshole then. I took better care of my girlie magazines."
Still, through the years, Daniel's portraits all shot in black-and-white with a Pentax 6 x 7 with only a 35 or 50mm lens in natural light have survived to travel extensively in the South and as far west as Boulder, Colo., and San Francisco. His work has been shown at numerous museums, including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where he is the only photographer to have received four Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowships.
Even though only one Daniel piece, "Dead Viet Cong, 1968," is housed at the Corcoran, Paul Roth, assistant curator of photography at the gallery recalls the impression it made as part of the 1986 exhibit "Indelible Image: Photographs of War, 1846 to Present." "His piece is one of the most disturbing," says Roth, explaining that the picture hasn't been displayed publicly since the exhibit because gallery curators feel it should only be shown in the context of war. "What really struck me about it," explains Roth, "was the body of the Vietnamese prisoner is almost melded into the earth. It's a picture of madness, violence as a kind of horrible aberration.
For folks back home, it communicates, through abstraction, the horror, of how wasted human life is in war. It's really one of our most important pieces."
Daniel's critics among them photographers and social acquaintances say he's a loose cannon, crazed and corrosive. But his friends argue it's more. "He comes on so strong it's right there in your face, it's in your fucking face," laughs Darryl Starr, who like Daniel returned from the war and took advantage of the GI bill to study art at VCU in the '70s. "You didn't tell people you were in Vietnam," confesses Starr, about being a war veteran at the highly anti-war art school. "TD goes to the darkness and brings out the macabre, the seductive. Photography is always taught in terms of going to the light. He goes to the darkness."
[image-3]Photo by Thomas Daniel"Midge, the Monster Handler, 1984," is part of Daniel's "Circus" series
And sometimes, the darkness swallows the real Daniel. "He's an actor," says Starr admiringly. "His public persona is 'The Little Tommy Show,'" says Starr, explaining Daniel's constant pranks, jives, and nonconformist retaliations. The most famous story unraveled in 1992 when Daniel entered a photography contest at The Chrysler Museum under the fictitious name Asheley Daniel, and won. Daniel drove his yellow 1964 T-bird to Norfolk and crashed the premiere party in drag with as many buddies as he could tow. "We looked so rowdy, they wouldn't let us in. We'd been to stripper bars. They had to get Frances Fralin, the curator, to come to the door to let us in," he guffaws. "It was like a bachelor party."
"There are a million more where that comes from," claims Starr, citing his own role in countless TD shenanigans. "Some of them the city's still trying to solve," jests Starr. "He's like Andy Kaufman outrageous."
Daniel's outrageousness sometimes a dramatic liability is precisely what fuels his determinism. It's also only one dimension of the photographer who is consumed by his work. He holds a masters of art in photography from Goddard College in Vermont and a masters of fine arts in design, film and photography from VCU. But for Daniel, most of what he incorporates into his photographic technique he learned on his own, with one exception: a workshop he attended in the '70s taught by Ansel Adams. From Adams Daniel learned the technique of previsualization, the ability to look at the subject and know exactly what the picture will look like when it's developed. Daniel's brow wrinkles as he credits Adams: "Great people teach and you learn from just being around them, but I'm talking about printing, not eating lunch. It's work."Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2