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Thomas Daniel's photographs make it possible to appreciate the sheer beauty and character of human life in all its permutations. 

Slices of Soul

A midget swallowing a snake; male prostitutes in New Orleans; a man who worships his cat; tiara-bedecked county queens from Chesterfield; a beheaded goat. While these may sound like characters from a David Lynch movie, they are just a few examples of the subject matter of Thomas Daniel's photographs, currently on display at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery. "Into My Eyes" is the first retrospective exhibition of the Virginia photographer's work, beginning with his first pictures of the Vietnam War in the late '60s to a series of German World War II veterans taken last year. During this 30-year photographic journey, Daniel's specialty has been human portraiture. When asked, "How do you find these people?," Daniel succinctly replies, "They find me." At first glance, it seems that only the "freaks" of society seek out the artist. Circus performers, prostitutes, deviants, even corpses — those people on the fringes of society that typically get lost or ignored in the greater scheme of human hierarchy. But the designation of "others" here, as Daniel eloquently makes clear, is all a matter of orientation. Who decides who is an outsider? Physical scarring, alternate lifestyles, religious zeal — more often than not, difference defines aberrance. But this is the perspective from the mainstream. Daniel's photographs rhetorically reverse this process. Picture after picture captures the portrait of a socially-constructed transgressor, but by the end of the show, some 80 photographs later, these social mutations become the norm and the viewer the misfit. Some of these photographs may not be easy to look at — animal sacrifice, Nazism, racial prejudice, war, death — all these issues are present, but somehow are belied in Daniel's ability to transcend the political in the name of the documentary. Daniel has stated that he tries not to make judgments, but objectively attempts to photograph what he sees. While this concept is idealistic — choosing to take any photograph involves filtering and, yes, judging — Daniel largely leaves the decision open-ended. Whether we agree with these people or hate them and their ideologies, the issue is made moot by offering a visual experience that moves beyond the particular. He makes it possible to place preconceived notions aside and appreciate the sheer beauty and character of human life in all its permutations. Beyond the subjects that find their way to Daniel's aperture, the artist demonstrates superior technical skills. He develops and prints all his works, and this results in stunning surface quality, depth and richness. Daniel's blacks are velvety and thick, throwing a wrinkled white face into high relief. The effect is almost sculptural. "Frank Vandersol," for example, reveals the visage of crevices and age that is almost three-dimensional in its ability to project forward like a marble relief. While most of Daniel's portraits are compositionally symmetrical, they never are contrived or overstudied. His talent rests in the intuitive ability to snap the picture at just the right moment. In "Elijah the Cat God," Daniel explains how this temporal rhythm works. The gentleman in the photo was showing the artist his eccentric house and then announced that a feline god resided with him. He stretched his arm out, parallel to the ground and Daniel, in a split second, aimed his camera. Out of nowhere, a cat leapt onto the man's outstretched arm, paused for a second, and was gone. The photograph of this fleeting moment is what Daniel's photographs are all about. And really that's what all photographs are about — slices of reality across the dimension of time. Daniel just happens to be especially competent in cutting that slice. Looking into Daniel's eyes via his camera hints at the possibility of looking into the human soul. Sometimes the looking may be hard, but like all great things in life, it is always worth the
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