The photographer Dannielle Bowman’s poetic series, “What Had Happened,” is a black-and-white autobiographical narrative of tonal gradations, shadow, and light. But the branches spread out, touching upon her immediate family members and reaching even further through space and time. With meditative stoicism, the images touch upon history and the Great Migration—how did Bowman’s family, with roots in eastern Texas, end up in Los Angeles, where she grew up? The images are about what one remembers, but also about what one has left behind.
Dreamy and elegiac, “What Had Happened” won the 2020 Aperture Portfolio Prize. The process of making the images was revelatory for the artist herself. “Up until that point, I had really approached everything hyper-conceptually, wanting to be hyperintellectual,” she said. “That wasn’t firing me up as much as this other approach, which I would call deeply personal, but also very much driven by my formal interests. I’m not working on that project right now, but it’s ongoing. I don’t know when it’ll be done—if ever—but allowing myself to finally work that way really opened up everything else. You make something and you learn from it. And I learned a lot from that work.”
The images are both intimate and universal. A woman, her back turned to the viewer, stares into her garden. Her fence is askew and rich flora abounds. “The lady in her garden was about an archetype and photographing a person in the same way that memory works,” Bowman explains. “It’s like you can never remember all of your grandmother at once: Maybe you can remember how she smelled or what her hair looked like, or like what her favorite sweater was, but you have to look at her picture to remember her face. And even when you look at a picture, it’s not quite how you recollect it. I was interested in making pictures that function like that.”
Interior images speak about what’s inside the home, but also the mind of the artist. Hearths and stairs achieve outsize significance. “Those are the stairs at my great aunt and uncle’s house,” Bowman explained. “Many family functions were at that house way up in the Hollywood Hills. It feels mythical to me. The hill is so steep that it’s almost scary to drive up. There’s special energy around that house. The image of those stairs pops into my mind a lot. The carpet was brownish yellow, very 1970s. I wanted to make a picture of them that was kind of like a landscape, but abstract.” She went on, “A lot of people have a very strong reaction to that image, which is funny because it’s really specific to me. Oftentimes, the more specific things are, the more room other people have to find their own specificity in them as well.”
Some of the series’ images were featured in the exhibition “Family Album,” LACMA’s emotionally redolent exploration of Black home life. Bowman will be featured in another group show at LACMA later this year. Besides her artwork, Bowman’s editorial projects have included contributing to the ’s 1619 Project.
Another new venture for Bowman is lending her eye to “The Goddess,” a collaboration between Cadillac and Artnet that will be unveiled later this month on Artnet Auctions. Along with Ming Smith and Petra Collins, each photographer was asked to present a vision of a contemporary goddess, after the ornament that adorns Cadillac’s new ultra-luxury EV, CELESTIQ. Bowman didn’t take the traditional route.
“As a child I was very into mythology and stories from all over the world,” she explained. “But for this, I really was just thinking about the object divorced from any sort of mythological meaning.” The results have a mystical air nonetheless. “If I can trust my formal attractions and gut instincts of what I want to see, then the other stuff is going to come along,” she added. “So it’s just a matter of me thinking about form, and then all of these other, like, magical, mystical things are usually also there.”
Just as she is garnering widespread recognition, Bowman is also making an early-career pivot: she is in the process of getting an MFA in film from New York University to bookend her MFA in photography from Yale. “I want to do feature-length films that are shown in theaters,” she said. “That’s where I see my practice going. I love writing stories and working as a director. It feels indulgent to get another master’s degree, but I just felt like I had so much to learn. I wanted to learn about narrative structure and character development and how to produce.”
Wanting to be a filmmaker, in fact, came first. “I first became interested in making images through film and movies,” she said. “I grew up going to the movies every weekend with my mom. That was really the thing we did. We didn’t go to church; we went to the movies instead, and there would be some weekends where we would see multiple movies in a row at a theater. And then we would rent movies from Blockbuster and watch movies at home.”
She was introduced to photography in high school. “I had a really wonderful photography teacher,” she said. “All of the materials were paid for and there was an awesome darkroom. Now that I’ve taught photography at universities [Parsons School of Design, Wesleyan University, and Hartford Art School], I know that the darkroom that we had at my high school was comparable to a college darkroom. I was simultaneously making little videos and editing them on iMovie. I’m an only child, so this was the way that I entertained myself.”
Bowman recently completed her first 16-millimeter short film. She doesn’t differentiate studies from her personal art practice. “Let’s just say that looms large in my mind,” she said. “I think about that movie lot. so it’s no surprise that the first thing I made was a teen drama.”