Editor's note: Dot magazine would like to congratulate Melodie McDaniel on being named ArtCenter's 2020 Distinguished Midcareer Alumni Award recipient. For more information, visit Alumni Awards.
In the photograph, a teenage rider named Nathan leans over his horse, Charlie, gripping the horse’s reins, with his riding boots tucked into stirrups. The pair is poetically midjump, soaring over a pole fence. Nathan has a look of determination on his face.
The striking image is part of a series of black-and-white portraits and candid photos of the after-school equestrian program Compton Jr. Posse (CJP), captured by photographer and director Melodie McDaniel (BFA 91 Photography and Imaging), whose projects span fine art, fashion, music and advertising. In 2015, McDaniel’s writer friend Amelia Fleetwood introduced her to CJP, founded by now-retired Mayisha Akbar at her ranch in Richland Farms—a rural area of Compton—as an alternative for youth to gangs and violence.
I strive to be authentic, compassionate and empathic in all of my projects.Melodie McDanielPhotography and Imaging alumna
McDaniel spent three years photographing the program’s student riders, parents and mentors, as well as the Compton Cowboys, a collective of Black adult riders who met as kids through CJP and amplify America’s deep legacy of African American riders. Her series, with Fleetwood, resulted in an exhibition and their 2018 book Riding Through Compton (Minor Matters), a multifaceted portrayal of CJP’s young riders and their deep connections with the program’s powerful and gentle horses. Following the police killing of George Floyd in late May, the Compton Cowboys made headlines nationwide when they led a protest in Compton against police violence and racism targeting Black communities.
Akbar created the Compton Jr. Posse in the late ’80s with the express desire of keeping kids off the streets and on horses. “I was immediately drawn to the Compton Jr. Posse as an epic subject to tell a compelling story,” says McDaniel, who chose the medium of black-and-white film to convey the classic and timeless nature of the program and its participants.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Los Angeles, McDaniel sees a common thread in all of her work. “I try to capture the ultimate expression of the idea behind each project,” she says. She’s photographed for magazines that include Rolling Stone, Vogue Hommes and Time. She traveled to Rwanda and Ethiopia to photograph girls for the Nike Foundation nonprofit Girl Effect. She’s directed commercials for companies such as Nike, Miller Genuine Draft and Facebook, and music videos for artists like Madonna.
“I strive to be authentic, compassionate and empathic in all of my projects,” McDaniel says. “I love that I come from a mixed-race background. My mom is white and Jewish, my dad is Black. I share my visual voice through photography and directing from my own point of view.”
Creative from a young age, McDaniel grew up in a household packed with art and photography books and National Geographic magazines. Her mom sent her to Israel during middle school, and then again after her graduation from high school. There, she worked on a kibbutz, sparking her interest in documenting culture through photography. After coming back to L.A., she earned her undergraduate degree at ArtCenter. “I knew it would be the best college where I could hone the skills I needed to accomplish the work I had created in my mind,” she says. “At school, I experimented in ways I’d only dreamed of.”
After ArtCenter, McDaniel started out creating photos for album artwork and music editorials for bands and artists, including Patti Smith, R.E.M. and Pharrell Williams. To date, she’s created more than 200 advertising campaigns, including a PSA for Nike featuring Michael Jordan, and campaigns for Chrysler and Levi’s. Her film work includes directing a short film for Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), a nonprofit that provides after-school programs to underserved youth.
“With commercial shoots, there’s a back-and-forth to maintain the perfect balance of client and creator to deliver the best hybrid of both,” she says. “With my fine art, I’m both client and creator. It’s necessary for me to define the goal and produce that finished project.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed McDaniel to shift the way she works, she has kept the authentic ethos of her approach. Her crew for commercial projects is now a lot smaller, and everyone wears masks. She’s shot some celebrity editorials and has worked with some fashion brands.
When she first started taking photos, she points out, she was solo and self-taught, and she worked without assistants. In her early terms at ArtCenter, she and other students were taught to work on their own, she says.
“I’m totally fine with this process,” says McDaniel. “I still like to make a personable and comfortable atmosphere when capturing moments of my subjects.” And the art of discovery is never lost. “I love discovering a person or subculture that inspires me to tell a story through my camera lens,” she adds. “It’s like opening a door and letting the light in.”