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Part 2

Living in Black and White


[image-1]Photo by Thomas Daniel"Kids, Shockoe Bottom, 1981," is part of Daniel's continuing series of portraits exploring the backroads of America. They are among the people whose faces , Daniel says, find him and his camera — not the other way around.Today, TD, as he likes to be called, was supposed to finish painting purple the front door to his Fan house. He fell asleep instead. At 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, Daniel looms by the stove in his customary Crybaby baseball hat, long straw-colored hair pulled back in a thin ponytail. He makes coffee. His face red and ruddy, he hurls a laugh that could wake the dead. Philip Frederick, a musician friend who Daniel claims he rescued from church when he was 6, sits and waits among idle electric guitars in the dining room for the afternoon to take off, as it inevitably does when Daniel has friends over.

Out back Daniel and Frederick smoke cigarettes, unfettered by watches or obligation. Brickwork ripples out from the deck in a semicircle and Daniel gazes at his handiwork that he feels complements his wife's now winter-bedded garden. "My father thought I'd be a bricklayer," he says proudly.

Last March, Daniel traveled to Germany on an assignment with a writer friend to shoot the living German World War II veterans who received the Knights Cross. These images are the most recent to be included in the Anderson Gallery exhibit. "It was the same town where my father was captured. It was a wonderful healing thing," he confesses. In an instant Daniel's tone changes. "'The only true heroes are dead,' and 'Get that shit off your chest.' Those were the only words my father said to me about war," he says sadly.

Daniel's door is always open. One by one, a group of guys passes through the house, unannounced. Each denies the chill outside to join the afternoon deck talk. Chris Musick, a buddy of Daniel's whom he met on the set of a movie filmed in Richmond, settles into a lawn chair and plops a bag of Miller Genuine Draft in cans next to his feet. On the movie set Musick and Daniel learned they'd both been radiomen in Vietnam, a subject neither claims to like talking about however much it springs to conversation. Next, Jayanta Jenkins, a former student of Daniel's at VCU who now works for The Martin Agency, joins the group. He wears the now-hip dark denim jean jacket and a red bandanna around his neck that he says arouses questions from both homosexuals and homophobes. The group laughs at this. Next on the porch is Les Derby, a big, long-haired fellow in overalls, then Eric Norbom, an Eddie Bauer-looking commercial photographer.

[image-2]Photo by Thomas DanielTaken in Vietnam, "Mama San With Boots, 1967" is the first photograph Daniel shot with the Pentax camera he bought at the Army PX.It's the usual afternoon roundup. Conversation wanders amid frequent laughs, smokes and TD stories, from "titty bars" to digressions on the difference between commercial and art photography. Musick and Daniel reminisce about Vietnam. Daniel, naturally, is the center of attention. There is a reason these guys keep coming over day after day, year after year, never dulled by the repeated stories and TD proclamations. Daniel legitimizes them, just as he does the subjects he photographs, by making them feel more than ordinary. What's more, he accepts them privately into his strange and endearing life.

Sitting in his sock feet in a red chamois shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, Daniel laughs with that smoker's laugh that needs loosening. "Doesn't anybody have anything I can burn?" he asks.

There are those projects that Daniel's friends say he isn't proud of, including the calendar he did years ago for Virginia Power. On the back it reads, "We have been warned," Musick says mockingly. "I've got a stack of them. I'm waiting for the years to come back around and I'll sell them all off." The picture is of a man covered in wood chips. "I don't punish myself over the work I don't like, I just don't print it," confesses Daniel.

Derby, who Daniel quickly credits with building a Harley Davidson in just two years merely from parts, talks about their collective effort to start a Web site called The group briefly talks about the Internet and the World Wide Web and just what it's revolutionized.

Of the photographs chosen for the Anderson exhibit, the group laments the outtakes — images not selected for the show — of shots Daniel took in Daytona with Derby. "I thought they were good, wholesome shots," Derby says about the pictures of girls from "titty bars" with flesh-colored Band-Aids for nipples.

"Daytona is for guys my age who didn't have show-and-tell in the fifth grade," says Daniel behind dark-tinted glasses. Daniel offers the group the reason why the outtakes weren't chosen for the show: "Selection is not censorship." Daniel repeats this three times as if, then, it becomes official dogma. But of those photos, Musick jests, "It's only a year old, it's not really mature yet."

The conversation springs back to commercial photography, and why Daniel does it. "I needed money. Everywhere I went I needed money," he explains to the group who knows this already.

"Commercial photography is not real," says Jenkins.

"When they try to art-direct reality, they get shit. It's Tom's vision they want," adds Derby. "They're in search of a beautifully composed shot with all the humanity."

"Commercial work doesn't end up being commercial, only if you work with the right people," claims Jenkins, insinuating his own company. The others catch on and smile.

Daniel breaks them up: "I think it lacks soul."

[image-3]Photo by Scott ElmquistDaniel and his son, Wolfgang, 13, enjoy a less-than-quiet moment together.Two more people arrive, but they're not guests, they're family. Wolfgang, Daniel's 13-year-old son and his wife of 19 years, Margaret. She's his third wife, and the only one, he says, he's been faithful to. Pretty, blond and naturally sophisticated, not who you'd expect to be married to Daniel, she talks softly in the background to Jenkins about France. She doesn't seem at all put out by her husband's friends or antics.

Daniel's voice overrides. "The only people who have ever offended me have been Christians," he says, speaking of his "Jesus Saves" series. "I saw a dead man crying. If they would learn to stop preaching and learn to teach, people would get it a little bit more."

Just weeks before the Anderson Gallery's opening, Daniel suffers the unprovoked casualty of another broken bone. This one, his ankle, he sustained by falling down his basement steps, sober, he adds. "It looked like a big booger on the end of a Q-tip," he laughs, describing the injured body part from the pullout sofa mattress in the center of the now small living room. But thanks to Percocet and a pinch of marijuana, he's feeling no pain. At least, he concedes, the accident occurred after he'd finished painting the front door purple as his wife requested. "I live in a damn flower," he muses.

[image-4]Photo by Scott ElmquistDaniel captures the banality of evil with this highly affecting shot of a medal-toting Nazi veteran. "World War II was fought under a flag of patriotism," Daniel says. On both sides.Perhaps more than his camera, Margaret is Daniel's alter ego with her holistic approach to life, smoothing his edges. Her salmon series of pastel-colored paintings swims across the lavender walls of the Daniel house, a feminine and powdery contrast to Daniel's black-and-white photographs. "My life was wide open," Daniel confesses before he met Margaret. "I really believe she was sent to rescue me." Today, Margaret and Wolfgang are his constants, not fear.

Still, Daniel follows sentiment with a bit from the "Little Tommy Show," never seeming quite comfortable enough with the silence or his own presence in it. Daniel says he's been saving his '64 T-bird for something special. "When my son turns 16, I'm gonna give him that car, a six pack of beer and a case of condoms and tell him to use all three wisely."

It's anybody's guess as to what curiosities will next arouse the camera of Thomas Daniel. In a few weeks he's due to start a $15,000 commercial job that he says will require him to do a lot of hopping about. Daniel doesn't appear too worried; if there's one thing he's learned about himself, he's both resourceful and resilient. And for now, painkillers keep the reality of bills at bay. Studio Thomas Daniel, housed in a space he's rented above the Cosby Group on Foushee Street in downtown Richmond, he asserts, is doing just fine. "I'm living my dream," he says smiling.

Daniel's face is a little paler now and his glass next to the mattress is empty. "I'd like to explore the world of lap dancers, it's a strange cult, it's not sexual. I don't know if you've ever had one. … But the next great adventure could show up next month and I'll be off. First I've got to make some money."

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