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Director Melodie McDaniel on Photographing Gabriels and Making Melancholy Magic


The Directors Bureau director on black and white photography, documenting human stories and capturing Gabriels' baptismal concept

Director Melodie McDaniel on Photographing Gabriels and Making Melancholy Magic

2023 is already shaping up to be a breakout year for pop gospel trio Gabriels. Following the enthusiastically received launch of part one of its debut album, Angels & Queens, the group just released part two and is featured in the Coachella line up, having opened for Harry Styles during his Austin, TX residency in late 2022. Noted for beguiling tracks with emotional depth, the soulfully eclectic album carries its distinct perspective through its visuals, featuring striking black and white baptismal imagery, shot by photographer and director Melodie McDaniel. With a strong beauty portfolio of work, including frequent collaborations with brands from Chanel to Neutrogena, Melodie has also helmed more than 200 commercial spots for major brands such as Nike, Target, and Mastercard. Her diverse body of work features an elevated documentary style that’s both timeless and modern, a theme that shines through Gabriels album photography. She recently shared the story behind how the shoot came together, and what inspires her work.

Q> How did you get involved with shooting the album art for Gabriels’ Angels & Queens?

Melodie> Gabriels member Ryan Hope is on The Directors Bureau roster with me and we have a mutual appreciation for each other’s work. He was familiar with my musician photography – I’ve shot a wide range of genres, including Smashing Pumpkins, Cat Power, Pharrell Williams, My Morning Jacket, Lily Allen, and Rihanna. I’ve also directed music videos for Madonna, The Cranberries, Porno for Pyros, Mazzy Star, and Patti Smith. My greatest passion though is documenting human stories, finding and highlighting interesting subjects, so when Ryan shared the baptismal concept for the shoot, I was immediately on board. I had always wanted to explore the complex themes of faith, ritual, and baptism in the context of a shoot, and our visions very much aligned. The collaboration felt serendipitous, as if the universe was listening.

Q> Where was the shoot done? How did you find the location?

Melodie> There was a lot of discussion about who would be featured in the images and where it would be set. It felt appropriate to focus on lead singer Jacob Lusk, considering his fronting role in the band and he also has a strong religious background. We contemplated using a church baptismal font or bathtub, but I was really drawn to the idea of having it outside. In my mind, I envisioned capturing a river baptism would be the most powerful and evoke the feelings and culture of the South. The environments in my work are almost like a character themselves so it was important to find the right spot. It wasn’t really feasible to travel – as much as we wanted to, so I did a lot of research and worked with a location scout to find something near Los Angeles, where we are all based. We came across a man made reservoir in Riverside County, and they actually do baptisms there, so it worked out perfectly. 

Q> Why did you choose to use black and white photography?

Melodie> I’ve always loved to photograph in black and white. It is so emotionally raw and offers a very distinct visual experience. Using colour can be beautiful, but it introduces more elements for the eye to process. Stripping the image down to its core essence allows for the viewer to focus entirely on the subject and respond without distraction. For this reason, I never considered shooting this project in colour.

Q> How does photographing musicians compare to capturing high fashion campaigns or directing commercials?

Melodie> I love shooting stories about interesting subcultures, whether for print and commercial campaigns or personal work, and it all inspires and informs one another. Though the end result is shaped by the intended goal, I think all my work shares a core of authenticity and I gravitate towards capturing more unconventional images. My priority is to create something that’s interesting to look at and sparks a feeling.

Q> Where do you find creative inspiration?

Melodie> Almost everything I do is influenced by subculture, either directly or indirectly, so Gabriels’ album artwork was right up my alley. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by my long-standing project with the non-profit Compton Jr. Equestrians (CJE). Compton has a lot of notoriety and probably brings to mind an urban, concrete place, but it also surprisingly has many houses with acre-sized lots. CJE was formed to serve local youth who are at risk of dropping out of school, incarceration, and poverty. The program teaches horseback riding skills and animal care, as well as character building and academic achievement, with a focus on science, math, literacy, and cultural history. Horseback riding helps the kids build coping mechanisms and gain respect for animals and nature, and the organisation also provides a safe haven away from drugs, gangs, and other dangers. Along with cleaning and caring for the horses, CJE participants learn different riding styles and compete as a team. I was really drawn to capturing their English style of riding. It’s a super exciting juxtaposition visually – I love the contrast, and it also highlights a great cause. CJE has helped increase high school and college graduation rates in their community, and prepare its youth to enter the workforce, instead of heading down less productive life paths. I’ve displayed my CJE work in a few art shows, and it has been acquired as part of the permanent collection in the Getty Museum, Portland Museum of Art, and Vassar College, which I’m very proud of. These are the types of personal projects I love and inspire my commercial work.

Q> What have your favourite commercial campaigns been that you’ve directed?

Melodie> I’ve always been drawn to real-world concepts, using non-actors and imperfect scenarios to share authentic stories. From my very first projects, I’ve pushed for diverse, unconventional casting. I’m proud to have been an early champion of this alternative approach and it’s so great to see how it’s become a more widely embraced practice in the ad industry. There are so many more avenues for storytelling beyond the traditional 30-second spot, many of which require less investment, so brands are encouraged to experiment and take risks. That’s very exciting to me and rewarding to know I played a part in helping bring down some of those barriers. One of my favourite campaigns was for McDonald’s featuring the story of young Black girls on a chess team in Chicago, who practiced and participated in tournaments held at McDonald’s. It was a great story, and the brand was able to support and share it in a way that felt natural.

Q> What is your favourite track from Angels & Queens?

Melodie> I really like 'If You Only Knew' – it’s such a melancholy ballad, and also 'Taboo.' I got to listen to raw tracks preparing for the shoot and I’m just amazed by Jacob’s vocals. Music is such an important aspect of what I do as a commercial director. It’s largely visual storytelling and having the right audio really sets the tone for everything else.

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The Directors Bureau, Fri, 03 Mar 2023 10:28:35 GMT