I’ve had the good fortune of working with a number of remarkably talented shooters over the years, but the best of them is Rebecca D’Angelo. And here’s why. All I have to do is give her the gist of the story and then she goes out and captures it on her own without further instruction. She gets to know her subjects and makes them feel at their ease with her. I watched her shoot Live Art a couple months back and was in awe of how she worked. Rebecca never attempted to move or pose her subjects, she moved around them, hunkered down, sidling crab-like, shooting frame after frame. This too: After a few minutes it was as if she wasn’t even there she moved so inconspicuously, almost furtively. From my vantage point on a row of seats against the wall I could see her scuttling among the performers and it was like a silent dance around oblivious partners. The resulting photos were perfect.
Rebecca, well before she was drawn to the visual arts, was a dancer. A ballerina to be precise. “When I was five I was a seriously good ballerina,” she tells me. We’re sitting at her dining room table in her comfortable cottage in Lakeside. “I remember being a butterfly, I remember the Mexican hat dance,” Rebecca adds.
At that time the family was living in Africa. Her father was a military attache in Liberia. “I was a military brat and we lived everywhere,” Rebecca says. “My dad was in the Air Force and retired as a colonel. He flew F-16s in Vietnam and then he was a B-52 SAC pilot.”
The family lived in Florida, Texas, California and North Dakota among other places. “The great thing about moving so much is that it made me adaptable and protean, but it also had pitfalls,” says Rebecca. “I remember saying goodbye to my first real best friend when I was four years old. His name was Jeffrey we were underneath the swing set and we promised to marry each other.” The next day, Rebecca was receiving a host of vaccinations as the family prepared to pull out for Liberia.
The family finally settled in Northern Virginia and all the while Rebecca had continued honing her dancing skills. “I got a scholarship to the Washington School of Ballet when I was in ninth grade but decided I wanted to be popular more, and so I decided to be a cheerleader,” she says. “But I kept dancing. I danced every day probably two or three hours and then on the weekends it would be six or seven hours a day. I have always had a very intense work ethic. My dream was to become a professional dancer.”
But her dream was just that. Rebecca had physical limitations. “I was super short,” she says and then corrects herself. “I don’t like the word short because it sounds truncated. So I was small. Too small for the core because they all need to be five-foot-six or taller. And I was good enough, but I wasn’t good enough to be a principal.” After finishing high school, she came to VCU and entered the dance program. That was short-lived. By the spring semester she moved to the theatre department and when she was just nine credits shy of earning her bachelor’s she left Richmond.
“I really would have loved to be a movie star,” says Rebecca. “And people have told me I should have been one. But I didn’t want to be judged on my appearance for almost everything.”
She’s dressed in a very light summer dress, cotton, with a floral print and her hair, so dark brown it’s almost black, is pulled back and the crescents of her eyebrows accent hazel eyes.
“More than likely I would never have made it as an actress,” she says. “It would have been struggling, waiting more tables. And my boyfriend and I were in the midst of breaking up so that’s another reason I dropped out of school because I didn’t want to be in Richmond anymore.”
Late one afternoon as she was mulling these things over, Rebecca climbed the Lee Monument and sat cross-legged on the pedestal between two columns just below the massive bronze plate inscribed with the legend LEE. Looking down on Monument Avenue from her perch of stone, the world seemed to erupt in color and her eyes panned the street, framing images, one after another. Her brain just worked that way and always has. “I had an experience, a moment,” she says. “And I realized then I always saw everything in pictures. Even in high school I had a little camera and I was always the one who took pictures. And I would make prints, doubles and triples, for all my friends and we’d do the Vogue poses.” Then and there, in the shadow of the mighty warhorse Traveler, Rebecca decided to study photography. “I started looking into art school,” she says. Ultimately she decided on the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “It happened to be one of the top two photography schools in the country.”
This was well before the advent of digital photography and Rebecca spent hours in a dark room, winding the film on its canister in complete darkness, loading it in the developing tank and then under a red light exposing paper under the enlarger and laying that white sheet into a tray of Dektol, then watching the strange magic as an image emerged on that blank sheet of paper. The strong vinegary smell of stop bath almost hampering breath.
“Digital is bulls***,” says Rebecca. “I do not like digital. What happens is like rapid fire. It goes ba-ba- ba-boom because you’re not paying for film. So it’s taken the thoughtfulness out of photography. I use a digital camera and I have to remind myself to be thoughtful because I used to be like a nature photographer. I had the steadiest hands.”
While attending school in Albuquerque, Rebecca’s world view began to expand. She took classes in women’s studies. “I started getting political and all of a sudden realized women have been oppressed for 2,000 years,” she says. This new awareness worked its way into her art and it would stay with her for good and all, informing her as she engaged in new projects.
Three years later, after graduation, Rebecca took a bus back to Richmond intending to apply to graduate school. “I wanted to be an art therapist and work with autistic children,” she says. “I also wanted to work in the prisons.”
Once settled in Richmond, Rebecca decided to give photography a shot. “I’ll give myself ten years and if I don’t make it, I’ll go back to school,” she remembers saying. She found a job as a camera grip on “Road to Freedom: The Vernon John Story” which was being filmed on location in Richmond at the time. She did a little studio work here and then headed north to New York City.
Rebecca worked as an intern and a server living in a remodeled nunnery for $175 a month, but New York was not her cup of tea. “I kept getting fired from my waitressing jobs,” she says. “I was only there for eight months. I did not like New York at all. I stepped in vomit twice my first week and then I saw a man defecate on the street. It was too much for my sensitive soul.” She did land a job with MS magazine, but it took them over a year to pay her.
After New York, Rebecca moved back to Richmond and began searching for work in Washington, D.C. She landed free-lance gigs with The City Paper, then nudged the door open at The Washington Post. In fairly short order she moved up to Northern Virginia and the world started opening up for her.
“I was in town less than a week and I got a job as a copy aid at the Post,” she says. “Then I just started hitting up the photo department. Made friends with Bill O’Leary, an awesome guy. Learned Photoshop.”
Later, Rebecca worked for the Post’s weekend supplement and then began shooting columns for the Post. “I had a column with Roxanne Roberts (a feature writer for the Post) called Out And About,” says Rebecca. “And then I got Life Is Short where I would photograph environmental portraits of people who would write a hundred words about their life in a sort of haiku-type way. I did both of those for about twelve years.”
Rebecca had found a niche that suited her skills and talents. “I’m good at being in different worlds, being able to talk to all people equally,” she says. “I don’t have that intimidation thing.”
She’s always been fascinated by artists, musicians, the rich and the famous. Loves to hobnob with them. “And one of my super powers is being able to focus on somebody and then everything else in the room drowns out and all I can do is hear their conversation no matter where I am and how many people are around me,” she says. “And I love body language.”
And she reads it very well so she knows when to shoot. “You have to anticipate when they’re going to laugh and you have to anticipate what they’re going to do next and so you move on when they’re not delivering,” says Rebecca. “I know it’s part talent, but it’s a whole lot of perseverance and hutzpah and kismet. I’ve had an awesome career and I’ve gotten to do some really awesome things.”
Among those things was a junket shortly after 9/11 to Cuba with a bunch of other Post photographers. “I ended up hanging out with a Cuban performer and ended up at a TV station where one of the most famous Cuban artists was being interviewed,” she says. “One of the things I noticed, which I also saw in Vietnam, was there was no abject poverty. They were both very happy cultures. And in Cuba I had the best rum and coconut and the best seafood I’ve ever had.” One of her photos and a small story she wrote about Cuba appeared in National Geographic Traveler.
Rebecca continued working for the Post even after she returned to Richmond, where she bought a house in Woodland Heights. She commuted and things were running pretty smoothly. Like other Americans she watched in rapt amazement at what happened in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina struck. Was disgusted by Washington’s pathetic response.
And then three things happened in rapid succession that would propel Rebecca out of her orbit and force her to confront fears and grief and something beyond human suffering.
“It was my year of loss,” she says.
It started with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, a recovering addict, who relapsed. He over-dosed on his drug of choice and for thirty-six hours it was touch and go. “I finally understood I stayed with him four years too long because he chose misery over joy,” says Rebecca.
Within a month of her boyfriend’s relapse, on a bright New Year’s Day, Rebecca heard sirens—ambulances, firetrucks, police cars. They continued to wail and then stopped about a block from her house. Now there was dead silence. A family she had known and photographed—a mother, a father, two daughters—had been slaughtered like livestock in their home. “It was the Harveys and I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It traumatized me.”
Finally, just a few weeks after the Harveys’ brutal slaying, two dogs jumped Rebecca’s backyard fence and ripped her cat, Max, apart. “She (Max) was kind of like my familiar,” Rebecca says. “It was almost as if she gave me the gift to release all this grief and then I went to New Orleans and photographed after the storm Katrina. I was there for two weeks.” Although none of those photos were picked up by any of the magazines Rebecca regularly tried contributing to, the Library of Congress took them into their permanent collection.
Rebecca was disgusted by the cancer of consumption that seemed to be devouring the very earth we live on. She hit the road with her dog Lakota and visited intentional communities across the country, even did a documentary that can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/108665704 It’s an tight piece and well worth viewing.
After touring these communities, Rebecca decided to pull up her stakes in Richmond and move down to Black Mountain not far from Asheville, North Carolina.
“I gave a lot of things away and sold my house right before the market crashed,” she says. “I just thought I want to live in a self-sustainable community and I want to fall in love for real and have a commitment and do all that stuff.”
Though she would meet a lot of like-minded people there, Black Mountain turned out not to be Eden. Not entirely. “Within five months I was making my living doing photography again and I opened an art gallery,” she says. “I spent the poorest winter of my life there. People would leave me wood for burning and I ate dandelion greens. Life is unsustainable in Black Mountain. So I was going to take off again and travel.”
The last place on earth she saw herself returning to was Richmond. “Richmond was like a bad relationship to me,” says Rebecca. “It was like the boyfriend who keeps saying he’s not going to hit you and then does again.”
But she did return and was pleasantly surprised. “When I came back there were twelve farmers’ markets,” she says. “There had been a sort of shift.”
What’s more, the Washington Post, after a brief interview, gave Rebecca what she had desired for years, a column of her own that she would shoot and write. “It was called The Scene and I had free reign,” she says. “It was my deal.”
And during her commutes up to Washington, Rebecca often sought guidance. “I would ask God or the universe or whatever you want to call it, how can I serve my highest purpose?” she recalls. “What am I meant to do?”
One night she had a dream. The Beatles were reunited and among the living and they serenaded her with a song that told her to teach and to find community. Rebecca got her teaching degree through a Virginia Department of Education program and began teaching middle school at Albert Hill.
Despite her teaching schedule, Rebecca continues to do her photography. All through the interview her two dogs, Lakota and Khoe, perfect charmers, wag and nuzzle. “I started focusing my photography business on pets and I was the official photographer for Pet Expo this year,” she says as she strokes Lakota between the ears.
She shows me portfolio after portfolio of her photographs and takes me on a tour of her house that is hung with her artwork. A thread of a theme seems to string them altogether, loosely. “The photography and the other art are an extension of myself,” says Rebecca. “It’s the way I see the world. Kindness brings me to tears. When I’m teaching, I tell the kids I really only care about one or two things. Kindness is the first one. You know being kind to each other, being kind to animals, being kind to the earth.”
She considers the quandaries the world is now in from famine to global warming to war. “There’s so much going on that there seems like there’s nothing you can do,” she says, then shakes her head. “But there is. The only thing you can do is be kind and change yourself to change the world. That’s why I like pictures that speak to the heart and to love and to kindness because I think that creates a cellular thing in your body. You create more love.”
As we move through the living room looking at her artwork, Rebecca D’Angelo says, “All my pictures seem to be about love. I used to picture myself as an old lady with all these images of love taped to the wall around me. Yet I was never able to nail it myself.”