The cold has finally settled it, but it matters little, as hundreds of people poured into the galleries of SLC to check out the latest art on display for Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. This month seemed to have more galleries on display than we've seen in a while, many of which will continue these shows through Christmas (but more on that next month). For November, I made my way to the west end of town for a look at the latest photography exhibition from Russel Daniels. His current show, "Blossom As A Rose," will be on display at God Hates Robots through Dec. 30, free admission. Today we chat with Daniels about his photography career and the art on display, along with some pictures from Friday night.
Gavin: Hey Russel! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi Gavin. I was born in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. I am 42 years old. I use a few trades to keep my bills paid and fund my documentary photography projects. I have also been a house painter, wedding photographer, photojournalist, darkroom printer, photo educator, furniture refinisher and photo lab aid. I loved Boy Scouts, I made Life rank. I rode horses in a 4-H club. I stopped doing all that at puberty. Around the same time, I left the Mormon church. My ancestors were Mormon immigrants and Native Americans. My great-great-great grandpa went to jail with Joseph Smith, and my great-great grandma was kidnapped from her Navaho family and sold into slavery. I’m a Western frontier mutt.
What first got you interested in photography growing up?
In my childhood home, my parents owned a copy of the Edward Curtis photography book Portraits from North American Indian Life
. That book had a huge impact on me without me knowing it. As a preteen, I was taken aback by Curtis’ photos; I remember being moved by the history and the texture and emotion of his portraits of Native American tribes. At that time I didn’t understand the act of photography, and it wasn't until high school when I found the darkroom and my brother loaned me his 35mm camera that I began to understand. I was drawn to how you could record memories, moments, places and faces on film, and the process of using chemicals to develop and print the negatives.
What was it like for you early on learning traditional film techniques?
My former years in the darkroom were typical—lots of mistakes—but I really enjoyed the process and experimenting and of course the final result. Photography became my visual diary. I was blessed with parents and photography teachers who let me do whatever I wanted. The learning curve for shooting, processing and printing film is huge. Today, digital cameras have smashed that curve; everyone can make pictures.
You received your Bachelors in Photojournalism from the University of Montana. What made you choose their program and how was your time there?
I chose journalism school because I knew I needed to expand my storytelling abilities and I saw that journalism was in line with my documentary interests. I was recruited by the UM Native American advisor and was attracted to the large Native American student body. I appreciate how journalism can expand your world view. It forces you to go out and meet people and experience situations you normally wouldn’t. And most importantly, journalism is crucial for a democracy to work properly. I will always have a special place in my heart for Montana.
What was it like getting involved with media and working as a freelancer for publications?
It is hard to make a living as a photographer in Salt Lake City unless you are interested in commercial or wedding photography. Even then it is challenging and becomes more about being a business person. Like sports, business skills are not natural for me. The year I graduated from journalism school, the recession had taken its toll on newsrooms, and photojournalism jobs became endangered. It takes a lot of work to build and maintain a freelance portfolio and even more work to network with editors and other creatives. Social media and digital cameras have helped but have also created more competition. After I graduated in 2009, The Associated Press offered me a contract photojournalism job for six months in San Francisco. It was an amazing job, the best and only
salary I've ever had, but it ended. I found freelance work by networking with other journalist and submitting my portfolio to newspaper and magazine editors.
What eventually brought you back to Utah? How have you enjoyed living here?
I'm totally biased, but I think Utah is one of the best places on earth. Five years ago I moved back here to help out my mom, who was having health problems. She’s doing great now. I also met a girl and decided to stay. A few months ago we split up, and I’m not sure what's in my future.
At what point did you start showing off your work in artistic displays?
I had my first and only solo exhibit in the mid-1990’s. The show was an unfocused body of work that I created while studying at SLCC. In 2004 I had an exhibit of photos I made while touring through Bosnia and Croatia.
How was your time in Bosnia and Croatia? What kind of photos were you taking at that time?
Visiting the former Yugoslavian countries was life-changing. My friend Amila was from Banja Luka, Bosnia, and she moved to Salt Lake City to escape the war. In 2002 she took me on an eye-opening tour of her country. In Bosnia and Croatia, history, culture
and politics is
everywhere, and so is a lot of rubble from the 1990s war. I photographed the people we met and the places we visited. I exhibited this project at the Anderson-Foothill Library, which was black-and-white prints from my darkroom.
What kind of work do you prefer shooting, both professionally and on your own time?
Right now I’m only working on my personal projects, which I prefer. It is a real challenge to make a freelance photography career in Salt Lake. I often resort to non-photography ways to pay the bills.
What kind of equipment do you prefer to use these days? Do you still shoot anything on film?
For the past decade, I have primarily used digital cameras and online platforms for exhibiting, sitting at a computer for days. I need a break and wanted to get back to what got me interested in photography. For this project, I have been using a large format 4x5 Speed Graphic film camera. I respect the way this camera forces a person to be more intent; the camera slows down your process and makes you be more considerate of every aspect, from shooting to printing to displaying.
Tell us a little bit about the works on display for this Gallery Stroll?
My project, "Blossom As A Rose,"concentrates on the edge of wilderness where man and landscape continue to forge each other, physically and spiritually, and where history and landscape intertwine. This exhibit is made of photographs taken from the historic Mormon Trail, the LDS Temple Granite Quarry, Suicide Rock, various county waterworks projects, an FLDS compound and suburban neighborhoods along the Wasatch Front. These photographs are the first installment of an ongoing project that reveals the relationship between humans and the environment within the historical landscape of the interior West.
How has it been working with God Hates Robots for the exhibition?
God Hates Robots is my favorite gallery in SLC. Shon and Ray work very hard to discover and promote local artist and to keep art affordable. They are not afraid to take risks. No other
gallery in SLC is doing what they do.
What do you hope people will take away from this show?
This project promotes a bigger awareness to this place we live in, the interior west. Mormons have always been outsiders, and in the mid
to late 1800s they were persecuted everywhere they went. They escaped by heading west, following overland trails used for thousands of years by bison and Native Americans and then fur trappers. They arrived in territory owned by Mexico and developed an empire. These photos bring awareness to the natural landscapes around us and it’s importance to civilization and spiritual well-being.
Do you have any other projects in the works? Or primarily freelancing for now?
This project is my main focus and I’m researching and planning more chapters, including the slave trade along Utah’s Spanish Trail and prehistoric rock shelters near the Lake Bonneville shoreline.