‘It started with poetry’: A conversation with Darnell McAdams

The Portland-area photographer talks about his "Black Santa Project" and the storytelling link between poetry and photography

Those of us who write about the arts at some point trot out “visual poetry” to describe something other than actual verse — a painting, a film, even a tour de force staging of a dance or scene in a play. Though we’d likely stumble in trying to define what we mean, “visual poetry” seemed like the obvious descriptor for Black Santa, Darnell McAdams’ remarkable photography that was included in Photo Club PDX’s Photographic Intentions exhibit in Newberg earlier this year. Next month, The Black Santa Project will take up residence in Photo Club PDX’s Community Drawer at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, from May 14 through June 11.

While it may seem a stretch to fold his work into my series of interviews with poets this month, I wanted to circle back to McAdams because of a line from his bio that stayed with me: “It started with poetry.” Soaking up the sensual black-and-white imagery of Black Santa, one recalls the plainly self-congratulatory but nevertheless apropos remark by Orson Welles that “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” McAdams brings a poet’s sensibility to his work, which I sensed even before learning that “it started with poetry.”

"Be Calm and Keep Breathing" is part of Darnell McAdams’ “Black Santa Project,” selections from which were part of a photography show at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg this winter. It will be exhibited May 14-June 11 at the Blue Sky Gallery in downtown Portland.

“Be Calm and Keep Breathing” is part of Darnell McAdams’ “Black Santa Project,” selections from which were part of a photography show at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg this winter. It will be exhibited May 14-June 11 at the Blue Sky Gallery in downtown Portland.

So I asked him about this.

“Poetry sparked my interest from the first time I learned about a haiku in elementary school,” said McAdams, 38. “Creative writing was a must for me after that. College, however, is when poetry really became a love. My freshman year at the University of Washington, I went to my first slam and spit a poem entitled Love and caught the bug from the rush that I got on stage. From then on, I always had a notebook and was pretty much writing at least a few lines, if not whole poems, just about every day.”

McAdams was born in Cleveland, the son of an Air Force dad and a mother who worked multiple jobs. They moved around a lot, and he found his way west. He dropped out of college in 2000, the same year his father was diagnosed with cancer. Two years later, his father died and McAdams moved out of his mother’s house.

“Poetry was the start of my daily routine while cooking meals for myself and listening to music,” he said. “I stopped writing as much, and cooking then became my outlet. Although when I would have stints of depression here and there over the following years, poetry was there for me like it always had been.”

Darnell McAdams began writing poetry in elementary school, but took up the camera only six years ago.

Darnell McAdams began writing poetry in elementary school and picked up the camera six years ago.

The Portland-area photographer began his love affair with the camera only six years ago. In 2013, he was one of the contestants on The Hero, a single-season series produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for TNT. Another rough patch of life followed. His mother’s health declined and she died in 2015 following complications from surgery. He kept at the writing, but photography became his go-to outlet for artistic expression. Life’s rough patches notwithstanding, from what I’ve seen, his work is free from any sense of melancholy; his subjects seem very much at ease and even content in the rhythms of their lives.

As a photographer, he is almost entirely self-taught. “I never had any formal training,” he said. “But I’ve picked up a few things from fellow photogs, and it’s amazing what you can learn to do with the internet at your disposal.”

Poetry remains a part of his life. Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes are two favorites “that I lean on again and again.” His favorite poet, the person who made him fall in love with poetry’s vocal and aural aspect, is Saul Williams, the rapper-poet-musician featured in the 1998 indie film Slam, which McAdams saw as a college freshman.

“To this day, I go to as many poetry events as I can but have yet to get back on the stage, which is something that I hope 2019 has in store for me,” he said. “I attend a biweekly event called Poetic Justice, hosted by John Slaughter. That gives me my fix on spoken word and got me motivated to get back on the mic! It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing because it was my first love of the arts.”

But the visual poetry thing. Black Santa was shot in a private gym in Vancouver, Wash., with a Rocky IV-workout-barn-in-Russia vibe to it. He terms it an “organically created venture” that started years ago with a friendship, long before the creation of the images or even the themes or title. The images were shot digitally, and McAdams used an off-camera flash to supplement lights in the gym. He declines to identify the weight-lifter. “We can leave it at a “long-time friend,” he said. “I like the mystery of it.”

But he allows for no mystery as to what the title means. Here’s his artist’s statement:

Santa Claus, as we know him today, can be traced back to the early 1800s made popular again in order to sell an idea: giving. The myth goes that somehow one man, a sleigh and eight reindeer (nine if you count Rudolph) fly through the sky and drop off presents to kids all over the world in a single magical night. A story that is embraced globally…

The Black Man, since the beginning of time, is also looked at as a mythical character in that society has created this cartoon-like narrative that somehow one Black Man is more aggressive, violent and evil than his counterparts. A story that was once embraced globally…

Both Santa Claus and The Black Man stand alone as separate fabrications with no one really understanding the time between the scenes that it takes to present the public product, that is ultimately received in two completely different ways.

Black Santa symbolizes the good in all of us, the want and need to be recognized for hard work, and the belief that we all have the power to create positive energy, infusing those around us with joy regardless of the stories we’ve embraced.

"Waves of Intent" is one of the images in McAdams’ “Black Santa Project.” In his artist’s statement, McAdams writes: “Black Santa symbolizes the good in all of us, the want and need to be recognized for hard work, and the belief that we all have the power to create positive energy…”

“Waves of Intent” is one of the images in McAdams’ “Black Santa Project.” In his artist’s statement, McAdams writes: “Black Santa symbolizes the good in all of us, the want and need to be recognized for hard work, and the belief that we all have the power to create positive energy…”

After I saw this work in the Chehalem Cultural Center show, McAdams and I began a correspondence. After talking about his own story, we finally arrived at the tricky issue of visual poetry:

I’ve used the phrase before in describing a film and I know what I mean, yet I find it difficult to articulate. But surely you’ve thought about this, the relation between the visual and poetry. Is it something that you strive for, consciously? Or is it something that can just happen whether you’re going for it or not?

McAdams: Visual poetry is actually something I think about all the time. Being that my first medium was poetry, that is how I try to make my photography come across. When I hit the streets to do landscapes or street photography, it’s something I constantly think about, because it’s the only thing that can set myself apart from another photographer. For example, everyone takes pictures of the St. Johns Bridge. So I may wait for a boat to come by or a crowd of people to catch at the same time to tell a story of that moment. But I’m with you in that I still don’t really know how I would define visual poetry when it comes to stills, other than that it tells some sort of story and creates questions for those viewing it.

It’s difficult to put into words. Maybe you could elaborate a bit on what you liked visually about that physical space in Black Santa and the individual before you started shooting.

So going into creating that, I looked at the space and loved how gritty it was. There’s no way we could have done this in a gym setting that was clean or organized, like a 24 Hour Fitness. There were so many textures that I knew that even though the subject was the man working out, one’s eye would still be drawn to what’s going on in the background.

The most important thing about my subject is that we have real chemistry. Also, this was an environment he was used to being in — not necessarily this particular gym but weight-lifting in general. It made it real and not staged. I knew going in that all I had to say was, “Just go work out,” and he would get into a zone and I would have opportunities to catch those moments.

Any advice for new photographers, young photographers?

The only advice I would give to anyone looking to get “The Shot” is to trust yourself inside and out. If it feels right, then most of the time it is right!

“The Myth,” is among the images shot in a private gym in Vancouver, Wash. McAdams leaves the weight-lifter, a “long-time friend,” anonymous. “I like the mystery of it,” he says.

“The Myth,” is among images shot in a private gym in Vancouver, Wash. McAdams leaves the weight-lifter, a “long-time friend,” anonymous. “I like the mystery of it,” he says.

ARTS JOURNAL: Thanks to a Facebook share, I discovered last week the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast Shakespeare Unlimited, with an impossible-to-ignore episode: A discussion of Orson Welles’ lifelong obsession with Shakespeare. After listening to this, it was also impossible not to revisit one of my YouTube favorites: A lively discussion about Hamlet on BBC in 1963 featuring, among others, Welles and Peter O’Toole, who was playing the title role at the time at Britain’s National Theatre and thus arguably had the intellectual high ground. Which, of course, doesn’t stop Welles from trying to plant his own flag there.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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