Thomas Daniel served three tours in Vietnam as a combat photographer. He received a BA degree in communications, art, and design from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Richmond; an MA in photography from Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont; and an MFA in photography and film from VCU. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, and has served as a Distinguished Visiting Artist in Photography at VCU. He is the recipient of four Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowships and his photographs are held in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia.
Daniel describes his experience in Vietnam as important to his development as a photographer: “Parts of me can’t leave 1967 and rightfully so.” Perhaps due to his experience as a veteran of an unpopular war, he has chosen to photograph people and events on the fringes of American society. His subjects include circus performers, bikers, tent revivalists, race-car enthusiasts, and Civil War reenactors. Southbound features images from his reenactment series, titled Southern Cause. For these photographs, Daniel may also feel a kinship with his subjects as someone who has one foot stuck in a past war.
The Burning of Aiken (2005) presents a moment from the annual reenactment of the Battle of Aiken, in South Carolina. In that 1865 battle, Confederates prevented Union soldiers from burning the town. Daniel’s photograph offers a battlefield scattered with the bodies of dead soldiers against a hazy background. In this sense, it recalls Timothy O’Sullivan’s famous Civil War photograph Harvest of Death (1866), which shocked its contemporaries with its photographic portrayal of real dead bodies. Unlike O’Sullivan’s image, however, Daniel’s offers a faux battlefield with living soldiers pretending to be dead. It is shocking not because it shows real death but, rather, because enthusiasts choose to replay traumatic war deaths as a leisure activity laced with nostalgia.
Confederate Final Review (2004) was shot during a reenactment of the Battle of Secessionville. Originally occurring in 1862 on James Island in Charleston, South Carolina, the battle was reenacted annually at Boone Hall Plantation until 2015. A Confederate victory, the battle prevented Union forces from establishing a point on James Island from which to bombard the Charleston peninsula. Daniel’s photograph shows a Confederate officer on horseback riding along a line of troops before battle. Caught from below as the horse is in stride, the officer sits high as a noble and prideful leader of troops who await a predetermined victory. Though all the reenactors, of course, know that the South ultimately lost the war, for this moment they get to play as temporary victors. Inhabiting the roles of gallant men (and, perhaps, ancestors) from a different era, the reenactors imagine a life from a different time and, at least temporarily, may even envision the prospect of a triumphant South. Knowing Daniel’s past in Vietnam and the importance with which he credits that experience, one can find resonances between his and the Confederate reenactors’ difficulty with leaving the past behind. The Americans in Vietnam and the Confederates in the Civil War started wars under dubious circumstances and, after traumatic losses, ultimately, grudgingly conceded defeat. Soldiers on the losing sides of both wars (and their descendants) may still grapple with those mistakes and losses and the correlating effects on their dignity and identity. Daniel’s work beautifully encapsulates that emotional conflict.