Dealing with the Devil

Deep Ellum eccentric Ed Zabel revels in gargoyles, brooms, and bondage.

Back in 1986, Ed Zabel was always watching himself do things he said he wasn't going to do. It happened too many times to count, this exercise, and the photographer marvels at it to this day.

"I'd tell my wife, 'hey, I'm going up to 7-Eleven to get a six-pack. I'll be back in a few minutes.' I'd get in the car and on the way there I'd go, 'I'm not getting any dope. Forget about it. Don't even think about it.'"

The store would have a money machine. He'd decide to get some cash, to see him through the week. He'd withdraw just enough for a quarter-gram of cocaine--a coincidence, he'd tell himself.

Back in the car, he'd decide the night was perfect for a drive--"but I won't go to Oak Cliff," he'd tell himself. A few minutes later, he'd find himself in Oak Cliff, in the driveway of his dealer. "Well, since I'm here," he'd say, "I'll say hi, but I'm not going to score." He'd walk up the steps and knock on the door.

His friend the dealer would answer. "Do you need to see me?" the dealer would ask.

Ed Zabel would score.
That was 10 years ago. Back then, Ed Zabel was a busy young photographer of home furnishings--a commercial success and a personal failure.

He maintained that pattern into the early 1990s, when he ran a large photo studio in Dallas' World Trade Center, building room scenes for some of the biggest manufacturers of home furnishings. He'd take catalog photos for J.C. Penney, the Room Store, Haverty's. A former U.S. Army photographer, Zabel planned on building his company to phenomenal heights. His ambition had always been to use his camera to make money, then to use it to create art.

"I had dreams of being able to go in [the studio], have staff people doing commercial shoots, where room scenes were being built all around me, and I could be in the corner shooting blindfolded women and being eccentric. It didn't quite work out that way."

At the time, the prosperous commercial photographer was also a fledgling photographic artist, a committed cocaine addict, and an alcoholic. Instead of working toward his goal of financial security and creative freedom, he had made a cozy deal with himself: He could spend half his earnings on cocaine and his business would still survive. Art remained a sideline affair, something in which to dabble, an occasional decent fix in a life of indecent fixes. Zabel had too many joneses to count.

But he got lucky.
With the help of a therapist, the photographer has stayed sober for five and a half years--and begun working on his dreams. Now, at 38, Zabel lives his eccentric life in Deep Ellum, residing in an exquisitely decorated warehouse loft and overseeing M.Zabel (Zabel's real first name is Melvin), his controversial retail shop which he has filled with so many gargoyles and gothic icons that religious groups have targeted it as a den of the devil--an image Zabel playfully takes pains to cultivate. "He's like a little kid with this wild imagination who's totally fascinated with everything around him," says Mark Sonna, a Deep Ellum merchant. "He's got an unbridled appreciation for life."

Zabel, a tall, slim man, with a clean-shaven pate and a penchant for outrageous costumes (his favorite suit is purple plastic), still shoots furniture in his new, smaller studio on Canton Street. But now he spends more time concentrating on the three photographic series he has nurtured for years: Brooms; Sticks; and Blindfolds.

Collectively, the series represent the artist's unusual view of his own existence, and a therapeutic reminder of how good it is to live without drugs. The Brooms series, a collection of photos of brooms and sweepers, treats the notion of constant cleansing throughout life, he says; Sticks represents life's simple pleasures; and the Blindfolds series explores what Zabel calls the "sensuality" of bondage, trust, and oppression.

Shay, the photographic subject, a 22-year-old beauty with pitch-black hair, green eyes, and ruby red lips, pads to the set in bare feet and a dark slip.

Most of the studio is dark, except for the lights Zabel is arranging on the set. Shay, awaiting the photographer's pleasure, teases Zabel with a fib that she has flirted with his girlfriend. He raises his eyebrows in mock suspicion and banters back.

Lamenting the absence of his assistant, he methodically moves the back lights and the light diffusers to his liking. Lighting is everything to Zabel; he can do a lot with light.

When he is ready, camera in hand, he helps the model onto a 4-foot stage, where she doffs her slip and slips into six-inch black heels. Under the lights, naked except for the heels and a G-string, she is transformed into a submissive sexual object, alternately blindfolded and trussed up.

The poses she assumes under Zabel's direction are powerful and haunting. In one he has blindfolded her, placed her arms in restraints and tied them behind her back. In another, he has bound Shay's hands in front of her with black nylon rope; she stares accusingly into the camera's lens. "I like what you're doing now," he tells her detachedly, and the camera's lens blinks. Zabel is making art now--his art--and it is troubling to watch.

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