Dealing with the Devil
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.
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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.
And that is what he wants.
Zabel has been photographing blindfolded, shackled women since 1980, when he would truss up his ex-wife and shoot frames of her. He admits that he enjoys toying with bondage for his own private pleasure (he believes it enhances the sexual experience), but the tools that splay across his studio--whips, ropes, armor, and restraints--are for aesthetic purposes.
With his photographs of bound females, he says, he intends to evoke truths about human nature. "There are a lot of messages to be conveyed through the blindfold and bondage," he says. "The blindfold can be a lot of things, from how we refuse to see and how it leaves us naked, to oppression of the gender and our oppression of each other."
Zabel has labored over the photo series for years. In Deep Ellum and some Dallas art-photo circles, some hail his images as works of art. Young women sometimes seek him out, hoping to convince Zabel to allow them to pose.
Zabel seldom exhibits his work. He prefers popular Deep Ellum restaurants and bars such as Flip's and Bar of Soap to galleries, because "people are there to enjoy, not judge," he says. When he finally deigns to show his photos, he draws much attention.
Milam Gallery owner Justine Andreason-Yeager has exhibited Zabel's photos for four years. "The two things that strike me most about Ed's works," she says, "is his distinct style--he is willing to take a lot of risks with how he uses the medium of photography [and] his works are distinctively Zabel--and they have real appeal with the audiences.
I have been very successful with his works."
The bondage is also a message about him, a self-portrait of addiction, pain, and, mostly, pleasure. Bondage, he will tell you, is about fantasy and enhancing the sexual experience--guilt-free, victimless, and nonchemical.
Others--even among the few who have been allowed to see the Blindfolds series in its entirety--feel differently.
Kristen Gibson, Zabel's 26-year-old studio manager, finds much about the series objectionable. "Technically, it's fine, maybe even brilliant," she says, "but I don't like what it says to me about women and how he views women. It says to me that all women are the same and that they are sexual objects. They all have long hair and it's just pulled back into a ponytail, and he puts them in the same poses. And also the fact that they are blindfolded. He's taking away her sensory perception of what is going on and that is what objectifies her."
Zabel responds dismissively: "Some people just don't get it."
Ironically, Zabel uses the Bible to support his view, quoting Genesis--especially the chapters about God's punishment of Eve after her encounter with the serpent--in an effort to explain his works about women in bondage: "'In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,'" he reads.
Says Zabel: "That tells me it [oppression] started a long time ago. You know, who invented the chastity belt, and who wears it? We have physical strength over you, and in the beginning, physical strength ruled. Your gender is very oppressed."
His work, he says, simply denotes that reality; it neither condones nor laments it. "In some, the women have their hands in front yet the women are blindfolded. If you can see their hands and they are blindfolded, it [shows] how they oppress themselves. It's shit people never talk about.
"For me, it's a lot easier to put it up on the walls."
Ed Zabel was born into a working-class family in 1957 in Walworth, Wisconsin. His father was a drinker--a morose, unhappy man who worked as an arc welder. As a teen, Ed was a lay-about, a dropout without a focus or a job. He started drinking at 13 and sniffing glue as a young teen-ager.
He got his first camera when he was a sophomore in high school, and it transformed him. He loved the camera. He built a darkroom in his parents' basement and used it any chance he could. He started working as a photographer's assistant at the age of 17.
One day, his father came home after meeting an Army recruiter in a bar. "He said, "You could be a photographer in the Army,'" Zabel says his father told him. "'He'll be calling.'"
After signing up, the 18-year-old Zabel was assigned to headquarters in Fort Bragg, N.C., as the battalion photographer. He mostly did grunt work like all the other noncommissioned officers, but experimented with creative photography in his spare time.
When he got his discharge from the Army in 1979, at the age of 21, he knew he wanted to be a photographer; he just didn't know where. An Army buddy told him about Dallas, the booming Southwestern town where everything seemed to be happening. In Dallas, the nouveau riche threw money at artwork, his pal said. "He told me, 'If you don't go to Dallas, you're an idiot,'" Zabel remembers. Zabel headed for Texas.
When Zabel got to Dallas, he rented a small sixth-floor apartment in the Ambassador Hotel near downtown for $125 a month and worked at a photo lab developing film. The Ambassador was a magnet for artists, and he was deliriously happy among them. "It was my first exposure to real artists," he recalls fondly. "It was incredible."
Zabel still remembers the day he and other Ambassador residents watched Merce Cunningham perform at the arts-magnet high school in Dallas. Watching the famed abstract dancer perform was a defining moment for Zabel. Until then, Zabel had read books, meticulously studying styles and techniques of photography to learn to express himself with the camera, but Cunningham blew him away. "He was not adhering to rules or formats," Zabel says. "He knew no boundaries. I remember thinking, I can do whatever I want."
And he did. He adored the bohemian lifestyle of the Ambassador community. He drank, smoked pot, and dropped acid.
After about six months, Zabel married Sandra, the sweetheart he met at Fort Bragg.
Sandra was a good girl, and deplored the wild, unstructured life in the Ambassador.
The two moved to Oak Cliff, then sold everything and explored Europe. When they returned, they went to High Point, N.C., where Sandra had family.
Zabel discovered photographers could make money at the furniture markets in High Point. High Point, he will tell you, is the furniture capital of the world.
The couple eventually made their way back to Dallas and Zabel, with his new expertise in commercial furniture photography, opened a studio in Fair Park. He rented out space to other artists, musicians and bands, and presided over a smaller, tamer artists' colony from his new home. He was making good money from his furniture clients and the studio was busy.
It was then that Zabel started doing coke. Those were his moments of denial, his dark days. Sandra finally left him in December of 1986.
Depressed, Zabel did more coke. He lost clients. He was forced to leave the studio, ending up in an embarrassingly mundane apartment in Lakewood.
Zabel stopped doing cocaine during the summer of 1987, although he kept right on drinking. Everything, he thought, was fine. He found he could make a respectable $20,000 a year shooting furniture on location at various expos and markets in Dallas and High Point every three months. He hung some stuff at the Bar of Soap and dabbled in video, submitting three short works to the first Dallas Video Festival in 1987.
The first two shorts were what festival director Bart Weiss calls "anti-performance" performance pieces. No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service "basically was all he said," Weiss recalls. In My Mother Told Me, Zabel looks into the camera and says, "Hello, my mother told me there would be videos like this," then walks over to drink a glass of orange juice. "And that was the end of it," Weiss says.
The man who mastered the videos despised Zabel's stuff. "He just hated it," Weiss remembers. "He didn't understand it at all, couldn't understand why someone would get up and say those weird things." But the shorts were wildly popular at the festival, Weiss recalls. "People just loved it. I think it had to do with his attitude. There was minimal use of video but strong performances which were always sort of unexpected. He took people by surprise."
The next year, the festival picked a topic: the Kennedy assassination. Feeling hemmed in, Zabel submitted some stuff, but lost interest and did not return. "I was sad that he just stopped making stuff for us," Weiss says, "because it certainly was good and we found an audience for it."
Meanwhile, fortune had smiled on Ed Zabel the businessman. Alderman's Studios, a major High Point firm specializing in catalog photography, hired Zabel to work in its Dallas studio. The executives fawned over him, paid him a healthy salary, and solidified his reputation as a commercial photographer.
The work also gave him confidence. In 1989, he grabbed an opportunity to open his own studio in the World Trade Center.
Zabel recalls drinking a 12-pack of beer a day--every day--that first year. He would lounge on the couch and tell his assistants what to do, since he was usually too drunk or hung over to do it himself.
Zabel finally stopped drinking in March, 1990, after his girlfriend, who was tired of looking for him in bars during the early morning hours, left him.
Sober, Zabel began working feverishly to build up his business. He expanded the size of the studio every year for three years. The studio's income grew rapidly, and he boosted his billings over three years from $90,000 to $350,000. His goal, he says, was to make $1 million a year. "When I went in there, I said, 'Fuck art, let's make money.' I thought, 'Later in life, when I have money, I can concentrate on art, but in the meantime, the starving-artist thing sucks.' The damnedest thing is to have great concepts and not the money to execute them."
For a change, Zabel had money to burn and it wasn't all going up his nose. Yet he remained unhappy. He says that every time he sat in a darkened movie theatre, he would begin to cry. He didn't know why. Then it dawned on him. "I realized, 'Hey, you putz, you are an artist.' It changed the way I looked at money. Rather than making someone's piece of shit look like something somebody wanted to buy, why was I not expressing my feelings or creating art?"
He had thought that making money would allow him the freedom to pursue creative photographic projects, but that simply was not happening. "I had lots of good concepts but I never executed them because I was too busy chasing the almighty goddamned American dollar."
As the World Trade Center had begun losing tenants, Zabel opened M.Zabel in November 1994 to supplement his income. He began haunting the World Trade Center markets that he knows so well, in search of unique and provocative handmade decorative art.
Last summer, he moved his own studio out of the World Trade Center to a smaller location in Deep Ellum, a few blocks away from M.Zabel.
He has become a distinct Deep Ellum fixture, a unique character among unique characters. He sleeps during the day and works and plays at night. The young artists and street kids who dwell among the shops and bars in the district admire him; he has become something of an offbeat father figure, offering advice and listening patiently to their trials and loopy dreams.
The other day, Sherman--a young street kid with an earring in his nose, shellacked maroon hair, and tight silk pants tucked into leather boots--spied Zabel working late in his store. Sherman stopped by.
"Are you on the Internet?" he asked Zabel.
"Not yet, We're working on it."
"I've got a friend who has started his own page."
It was a pointless conversation and Zabel couldn't even remember the kid's name, but he listened patiently, nodding and responding until the kid left. Zabel shook his head. The streets are filled with children with no place to go.
To the general public, Zabel presents a funky, dark, mysterious persona. Standing outside his store, he represents different things to different people.
"He's not as strange as people think he is," says Lee Latshaw, Zabel's assistant. "He just doesn't bother to tell them any different."
Snuggling amid restaurants and apparel stores on Elm Street, M.Zabel is a departure from other retail shops in Deep Ellum. Gargoyles stare from the windows amid a backdrop of black gauze. Voodoo relics and crosses mix with silver jewelry and other painstakingly selected accessories representing every region of the world.
The walls are black. The saleswoman is dressed in black and wears black lipstick. Much of the jewelry features onyx and other black stones. When Christians come to picket M.Zabel, they tell passersby that the store is satanic. They pray for the store's closure. Ed worships the devil, they say.
Terry Chandler, Ed's girlfriend and the store manager, has waist-length black hair and dresses all in black. She's a witch, the Christians say.
The two black cats, Beef and Beef, that once prowled around the shop added further to the speculation and accusations, but they broke so many items jumping here and there that the couple was forced to finally take them home. Under the loft's standard lighting, the felines' secret is revealed. Beef and Beef are charcoal gray.
"It's a shtick," chuckles Mark Sonna, co-owner of Mark and Larry's Stuff, a nearby art-deco shop. "All the dark and macabre, vampiric stuff, it's a presentation, an illusion. People don't believe us when we tell them he's this mild-mannered, pleasant personality because he's got this real severe, intimidating look."
Still, in good weather, the Christians make their way to Zabel's storefront. He provokes them, sometimes striding in wearing a cape, his bald head glistening over piercing eyes, his lips slightly sneering through his goatee.
A self-described deist who does not believe in organized religion, Zabel admits surprise that religious groups have targeted his store for demonstrations. "The gargoyles we have are from Notre Dame and Paris," he says in exasperation. "Historically they were used by churches to ward off evil spirits. When a Christian comes in and declares something demonic [which] actually comes from the church, and then says we are satanic for having it, that is really a blatant display of true ignorance and blind following, and it's a shame for them."
He says the pickets, which tapered off during the recent cold, windy weather, mostly tend to intrigue revelers and have not hurt M.Zabel's business. "When they are out there," he says, "they are the ones who look the most miserable. They are the most upset while everybody else is having a good time. If on Friday night you are harassing people and telling them they are going to go to hell, you are just not going to get too many followers."
Away from the store, when he isn't photographing his naked, bound women, Zabel divides his time taking pictures of furniture, brooms, and sticks--all for different reasons.
He can't escape furniture; it has been too good to him--and it pays the bills.
He took to shooting brooms after watching a little old lady in Mexico sweeping her walk. The sight touched him. "You knew she had probably swept that walk a thousand times and she would do it again tomorrow," he says. "Sweeping is something you do even though you know it is going to get dirty again. None of our labor really matters because everything we do will someday be dust."
He says he lives that philosophy and uses it to relieve stress. Brooms tell him that "all of our toils are in vain, so just enjoy life. Nothing is that damned important."
His stick series is also in that vein. Years ago, before Zabel shaved off all his hair and took to loft living, he owned a house in Lakewood. One day, he was doing yard work, clearing out old brush and trimming bushes. "I was hacking away and I trimmed out the perfect stick," he says, his eyes lighting up. "It was a stick--I still have the stick--and I said, 'This is a stick! Look at it! A stick!'"
Entranced, Zabel photographed the stick, posing it and placing it and letting different shades of light bounce off of it. Then he found other sticks and photographed them, too.
His Sticks series was born.
To Zabel, Sticks is about permission to revel in the most mundane of things, license to get off on life. Such revelry is its own high, he says, and people don't do enough of it. "When you are a kid you know how to do that," he explains. "Then somebody told us that's not acting like an adult, and so we are not supposed to go back and jump around and go, 'Stick!' You're supposed to say 'Oh, a stick.' You're not supposed to get off on it."
He admits that many people just don't get the stick thing. On a furniture shoot in Mexico, Zabel went foraging about town with his camera, bending close to the roads and ground. "I'd be like, 'Wow, these are sticks from a different country,' and they would come along and say, 'Whatcha doing?'"
He would look up happily. "Oh, I'm photographing sticks," he'd reply.
"Oh. Really," the person would say, then walk away.
Zabel shakes his head. "I just wanted to hold up the stick and say, 'See this? This is damned basic. And it's free. And it's funny. And if you look at it--the absurdity of it--you could get off.'"
For Ed Zabel, that's what life is all about.
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