Daniel Peddle, casting director, artist and filmmaker, is a frontiersman of the first order. Eighteen years since discovering his calling, he’s finding talent for Givenchy, Phillip Lim and Comme des Garçons, among an über-roster of fashion houses. Meanwhile, he’s still keeping a very healthy stride with his long-time passions for painting and filmmaking; he shot his first experimental short Last Things while studying graduate film at NYU and has since produced three epiphanic feature films. His agency, The Secret Gallery – formed with long-time partner and fellow visual pioneer Drew Dasent – is the go-to source for undiscovered beauty and uncommon edge. An artist with multiple and multilayered projects, Peddle uses his gifts to form intense moments of awakening coupled with more private windows of retreat.
His craft is the art of refined exploration, of sifting through the human morass and panning for gold. As he put it, ‘The streets of New York become like streams for me, a never-ending source of potentially amazing people.’
We met on a cosy autumn afternoon at his Chelsea studio, where he spoke about his current sources of inspiration: books, the cave of the shark god in Hawaii, his nephew’s North Carolina trailer-park posse and Francis Bacon. As a native of North Carolina, Peddle has never denied his roots. In fact, he artfully borrows artefacts, narratives and nostalgic interludes from his childhood days and intersects them with a high-style lens on urban, runway and underground culture.
In other words, high meets low in a cross-pollination that blends beauty with strangeness and vulnerability with a resilient edge.
After talking over a glass of ginger lemonade, Peddle took me to his rooftop terrace where he had mounted his paintings from the series Undertow. It was the perfect way to view his work: a kind of self-styled gallery with the reverb from the street forming the backdrop to our conversation. There is an infectious wanderlust about Peddle, ever the obsessive voyeur. He questions and collects to form montages that speak to ‘nature’s tentacles’. In these, transgender cool kids and the cosmos echo against the everyday. When asked to name one of his secret joys, Peddle paused for a while before answering.
‘I like wandering,’ he said. ‘It’s something I did as a kid growing up in the woods. And when I came to New York, I kind of did the same thing. In a way, I feel like I’ve made a career out of wandering.’
Daniel Peddle on scouting, fashion brands and Balzac.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Work, deadlines, my never-ending, multilayered projects. And just the thrill of not knowing what you’re going to discover that day.
What’s the last good book you read?
Well, I’m not finished with it yet but Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. I like it because it relates to Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Another book I’m really interested in is Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos. All three deal with the layering of prosaic details to create fantastic realms or psychological chambers, if you will, by unravelling the minutiae of our lives. I like that whole idea of building things up from the strata of details. I’d say that’s my number-one source of inspiration, reading. I think also because I grew up in such a rural environment… this was my window on the world! When you read, you’re forced to create around the scaffolding in your own mind. That whole idea turned me on.
Describe your take on the art of street scouting.
I’m always looking. I can’t turn it off and not look at people in that way. Lots of times you have to go out there and pound the pavement and do a lot of searching and not finding, and then when you think, ‘Ok, I’m done now, I’m going home,’ that’s when you find things. But you can’t leave out the first part. It’s integral to the process. I always likened it to when I was a kid and we would go catching crayfish in the creeks around where I grew up. You don’t know how many rocks you’re going to have to turn over before you find the crayfish.
What are some of the more unexpected places you’ve found talent?
It’s hard to say, from bodegas to Starbucks to subway stops. I’ve found a lot of amazing people at museums and galleries, of course at clubs going out dancing.
What is one of your wilder anecdotes from a casting session?
I think honestly the way The Aggressives got started was probably one of the most inspiring moments for me. I was scouting. I had my Polaroid camera. I saw what I thought was a group of amazing-looking guys down by the Piers before the city cleaned them up. I took their pictures and starting talking to them, only to find out they were actually women. I literally rode my bike home, got my video camera and came straight back and starting making a film. That was a five-year journey that started in 1999.
You’ve made two films: The Aggressives (2005) and Trail Angels (2011). What can we expect for your next cinema project?
We have literally just finished with my third feature film, which was shot down in North Carolina. It’s my first narrative film, not a documentary. It’s called Sunset Edge and is a modern mystery where two narratives clash violently in this meditative portrayal of disaffected youth set in a graveyard of abandoned mobile homes. It explores the elusive boundaries between what is real and what is fiction. In the tradition of Southern Gothic literature, the story employs eerie haunting visuals and suspenseful ironic events to examine life and identity in the modern American South. Making this film was a gruelling process, but probably the most rewarding experience of my life so far!
What are you trying to convey through these two ongoing painting series, Undertow and Backstage?
Undertow started while I was working on Trail Angels. I encountered what the hikers call ‘the green tunnel’, a disorienting and hallucinatory effect where the traveller feels a sensation of being consumed by the surrounding woods. I became fascinated with this idea that the earth wants us back and started exploring in painting this state of appearing and disappearing. It is an all-consuming concept that has informed my film work, too.
Backstage was about me literally coming to an awareness backstage at fashion shows, thinking, ‘Oh my God, all these years I’ve been back here, it’s right under my nose,’ and it just kind of hit me that this was something that was really inspiring. It’s the solitude mixed with this totally chaotic environment. And there’s so much vulnerability. There are these very frail-looking people being transformed by these sometimes really aggressive creative crews. For me, it almost looked like sacrificial lambs being taken to the slaughter. Once I started making sketches and taking photographs, I felt like Degas with his ballerinas.
What are some of the fashion labels you really enjoy working and why?
I would definitely say Givenchy. Riccardo’s a visionary and I really respect his view of the world. He wants the casting to be diverse and elegant, yet real. There are not that many people out there who want to do that. And I love the clothes. And Phillip Lim, who is one of our coolest clients. I love working with him for very much the same reasons. He wants really diverse, fresh casting. That’s part of the reason I got into casting in the first place.
Fashion is where racism can sometimes linger under the guise of an aesthetic prejudice; you can’t really say it any other way. I am politically motivated to change the way people perceive beauty and help them recognise that it’s not something that any kind of race has a monopoly on. MAC Cosmetics is another of our long-time clients that benefits from this modern outlook, using quirky and diverse beauty and edgy casting. And we are working with a very exciting new brand called SUNO that has a respectful global approach to design and luxury.
Balzac said something along the lines of ‘with each click, the camera commits a small death’. What do you say?
I’m actually not that interested in fashion photography per se. However, I do find most fashion photographers to be inspiring themselves and the fashion community in general. Personally, I’m inspired by the real documentarians like Josef Koudelka. I feel like there are two ways to go about it: you can create the scenario, that’s the way the fashion world works, or you can approach it from the other way, where the moment demands the document. The moment captures the photographer rather than the photographer going out and dictating the moment.
How would you define true beauty?
I’m a huge Francis Bacon fan, and I read a quote from him saying something like, ‘There is no excellent beauty that has not some strangeness in the proportion.’ So I think real beauty is out of balance. The proportions have a twist. That’s definitely something I’m interested in. There’s always something strange about someone that I find beautiful.