Dane Carder Studio through July 28
WORDS Gina Piccalo
There’s no easy way to sum up Erie Chapman. In Nashville, he’s best known as the former president and CEO of Baptist Hospital, what is now St. Thomas Midtown. But privately, he has been “Dane Dakota,” the figurative photographer and “love poet” who spent decades quietly shooting sensual nudes and writing lines of poetry like this one: “She lives in sheets of forest & of sea. The more naked, the more of God to see.”
“I’m kind of a surreal image myself,” he says, on a bright morning in early May in his Germantown studio. “I look like I belong in the country club, but if you look a little deeper, you see it doesn’t fit at all.”
Chapman is 74 and retired from the corporate life. He doesn’t need to hide his nude portraits like he did when his paychecks came from the Southern Baptists.
“You’re working uphill if you’re trying to convince a Southern Baptist it’s okay to have a nude in your office,” he quips. “One of the ways religion gets powered is by shaming.”
He should know. Chapman is also a graduate of Vanderbilt University Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister who works with an inmate on death row. He’s also the author of a beloved guide to compassionate patient care: Radical Loving Care: Building the Healing Hospital in America. And he’s an award-winning indie filmmaker and a produced playwright.
It’s a wonder it has taken him so long to expose his dual personas. But that’s exactly what he did in May with an exhibit titled Final Dreams at Dane Carder’s studio in Wedgewood-Houston.
Much of the work was shot during the 1970s and early 1980s, when Chapman was a federal prosecutor and a night court judge in Toledo, Ohio. Chapman’s nude subjects were models from the Toledo Museum of Art, where he studied photography, and dancers from a contemporary modern dance class he took.
He shot them in black-and-white, hidden in rock formations, and as ephemeral ghosts dancing around a room. Their faces are out of frame or obscured, and their bodies are often in shadow, made abstract and alluring. The images possess a dreamy, mysterious reverence for the female form and play with the idea of secrecy and revelation. “It’s the ephemeral that’s always interesting to me,” he says.
Each of Chapman’s sessions demanded precision, because he shot with the large-format Crown Graphic 4×5 camera used by old press photographers. Every shot required a tripod with Chapman staring at an upside-down image under a cloak. With just two shots per film pack, each photo had to be carefully composed.
“Back then, the local photo store wouldn’t develop nudes,” Chapman says. “So I went right to the darkroom and decided the best way in general to portray nudes was black-and-white and quickly discovered it was a lot more satisfying to shoot with a larger format. There is a richness and texture to a print made from a large negative that cannot be matched with a smaller negative or with anything done digitally today.”
And yet, since 2008, Chapman has used a digital camera, manipulating images with software that pre-dates Photoshop. As a result, his more contemporary photos are color-saturated with the texture and patterns of a futuristic mosaic.
His May exhibit featured a series exploring the ancient myths of Echo and Narcissus and Nyx, the Greek goddess of night. Women are depicted waist-deep in water, praying at twilight to a forest of leafless trees or swooning over a waterfall.
“My semi-controversial theory is that all beauty comes from the female, that women are the keepers of beauty,” he says. “So whatever I photograph, whether it’s a woman or a flower or any other image, I’m always looking for the female in the shadows and the shapes of the subject. There’s always going to be a female presence in my pictures.”
Chapman got his first camera at age seven, while growing up in 1950s Los Angeles. He’d carry his Kodak Brownie around the house, shooting the California light through the palm fronds in his back yard, on his mother’s legs, in the folds of her dresses, and streaming through their Venetian blinds.
Over the years, he grew enamored of the nudes and botanicals of Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Man Ray. The New York Public Library’s curator of prints, Roberta Waddell, then at the Toledo Museum, became Chapman’s mentor.
These days, Chapman works in a space over-stocked with creative intention, organized in an absent-minded way. The modest, dimly lighted place is busy with loose prints and stacks of paper and books. Framed black-and-white nudes hang on one wall and photos of his five grandchildren are scattered around.
“I am multi-interested, not multi-talented,” he says. “That multi-interested nature causes me to dive in as far as I can into the things.”
Final Dreams by Erie Chapman is on view at Dane Carder Studio through July 28. For more information, visit www.danecarder.com. See more of Chapman’s work on his Instagram account @westwoodvillagereviews. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.