daniel arnold’s photography is a never-ending experiment with vulnerability

The photographer talks being a “student of discomfort” and having his first solo show in New York.

by Sara Radin
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21 October 2019, 11:15am

This article originally appeared on i-D US.

Daniel Arnold calls himself a “student of discomfort.” Snapping photos of life as it’s unfolding around him as well as documenting major cultural events including the Met Gala and the Democratic Convention for publications like Vogue and The New York Times, the image maker has become famous for his candid approach to photography. And with several years of experience under his belt, Arnold admits he’s still figuring out how to get the best shot.

Moving to New York at age 23, and initially working as a writer (he did stints at MTV and Nickelodeon), Arnold first began his photography practice out of necessity—barely knowing a soul in the city and being the shy guy that he was, the camera gave him a sense of purpose and a reason to enter spaces he didn’t otherwise feel comfortable or welcome in, including nightclubs and concert venues. Plus, feeling overwhelmed by all the hustle and bustle of Manhattan (and rightfully so), his camera became a tool that allowed him to keep track of his lived experiences.

“I just instantly became this sort of visual emotional hoarder,” Arnold tells me over the phone. I’ve followed his work for some time from afar, i.e. mostly through Instagram, even seeing him walking down the street in my neighborhood a few times. Naturally, he always had a camera around his neck. But it was not until he posted on social media that he was having his first solo show in the city that I felt compelled to reach out.

Titled 1:21, the show, which opened at Larrie on October 13 in New York, includes over 40 pictures Arnold shot this past summer. Its name was inspired by an arbitrary alarm he has in his phone set to that exact time, meant to remind him to be more present and not get so consumed by what he calls his “overloaded extra brain,” which is integral to his practice. Compelled to use the lens to highlight moments of immense vulnerability, Arnold likens his practice to the “feeling of being in love with the world and having an intentional romance with everyday,” something that is palpable when viewing his work.

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In honor of his new show, which will be open through November 24, i-D spoke with Arnold about using the camera as a means to trace his personal history and establish a deeper sense of belonging.

On his earliest memories of taking pictures.
I must've been six years old and my brother was four. And I remember he had one of those that Sit ‘n Spin toys and I was taking pictures of him, spinning in his underwear. I think it must've been my first exposure to the magic trick of the camera. At the most basic level we could make these stupid jokes and then have this is proof of it. That experience must've made an impression on me because I still think of it sometimes. There was something subversive and goofy about it, like we were getting away with something.

On the camera being a tool to trace personal history.
I'm the oldest of six kids. And when I was born, there was a photograph of every milestone. But by the time my brother Benny, who is 12 years younger than me, was born, we just had a drawer in the house that was full of photos and there was no order to it. It was a disaster. So, I think that if I had to draw a meaningful line back to my personal history with photography, it would be to that drawer and that impulse and ritual of marking family progress with these kind of throwaway photos.

On moving to New York from Milwaukee, Wisconsin at age 23.
I got here and my first instinct was that I had to always have a camera. It was such a visual overload, everything was so exciting. And suddenly I had a life where I couldn't tell you what I did yesterday. So, there was this element of want to keeping track. Photographing the world around me became a natural response to being in a city where everything suddenly felt valuable and worth keeping and I just instantly became this sort of visual emotional hoarder.

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On using the lens to find a sense of belonging.
When I was this soaking wet, brand new kid in the city who didn't have the nerve to go inside of a bar, the camera became a tool that allowed me to feel some belonging and find meaning. I could hide behind it and it gave me an excuse to go into a room where I didn't have any apparent purpose. I was a shy kid who didn’t know what to do but I was very interested in music at that point. So, all of a sudden I had a way to go to a concert alone and stand in the front row and take a bunch of pictures and talk to the band the next day. Without plotting any of that, I found myself in this place where I was forming relationships with people that otherwise seemed totally inaccessible.

On learning to use a camera the “right way."
Just a year or two ago I was way over my head assignments and I go back now and look closely at those photos and nothing is in focus. I mean it's like not even close. I got by so much because film is very forgiving in that way. But I knew that there were things worth pointing your camera at and I knew that I had an idea of what in the room was worth keeping. But I had no patience for a long time to learn how to do it right. Finally now, after a lot of trial, and mostly error, I have some technique techniques to fall back on.

On having his first solo show.
I never had a show in New York before. I've been very resistant to the whole idea and also poorly equipped for it because I'm so hooked on the daily ritual that anything that requires sitting down and looking back is difficult. I do sit at night and go back through things, but I'm so much more energized and drawn to the process of making new stuff. But the way this came to be is because my old Vogue editor Emily Rosser, we have a good friend in common who runs the gallery where we're having a show.

Emily, who ended up curating the show really pushed me to do this. I mean this conversation is probably over a year old at this point and I kept resisting. Finally after a lot of fake yes’s, I was like, okay fine, let's do it. At first, it was going to be photos from a trip I did to Brazil for Carnival. But as this was all evolving and in search of a purpose, I was also having a really intense, anxious year and a big culmination of that feeling happened in the summer. But eventually, I decided that was what the show would be about. It’s all work made since June.

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On capturing vulnerability.
When I feel embarrassed, I know I’m doing something right. And that’s sort of the unifying theme for the show, my general practice, and the way I engage with the world. It’s this ongoing experiment with vulnerability. Although there's obviously a built-in dodge where the photographs are all of other people and there is no direct evidence of my vulnerability, but it's all indirectly an expression of my experience. A big part of this job is being scared and that has become a trusted compass for me. So, when I'm taking assignments and I can't imagine doing a good job or if I can’t imagine how I'll survive the workload or the unreasonable travel, those are the moments when I'm like, you've got to do it. You've got to go be uncomfortable.

On having access to major events like the Met Gala.
A lot of my day to day self-motivated work, the purpose isn't always immediately apparent. I just keep getting nudges from the universe to keep going and, you know, maybe meaning will present itself later. And one of the places where that happens profoundly is when I get access to something that is monumental. I don't know if that includes the Met Gala, but certainly that includes being at Trump’s Inauguration or being at Hillary Clinton’s victory party that never was.

I went into those things with this totally self-defeating first instinct, which is like you have to prove yourself and make the best photos anybody's ever seen. History is in your hands. You know, pressure that just shuts you down. But I have found that being a student of discomfort and spending so many days doing this without any apparent purpose and failing over and over again, one thing ends up being right. My brain is just always doing the job of sifting through visual information and pinpointing those moments where you need to press the button. And when I go into those rooms, I get so overloaded I am basically reduced to a reptile but my brain and my hand knows more or less what to do with the camera.

On his relationship with the camera and his subjects.
Through this work, I get to really deeply mine the experience of being a person in different spaces. And I guess what I've learned through all this practice is that the best thing I can do is pay attention to how I feel and make proof of the stuff that makes me feel big and the stuff that makes me feel small, whatever that big shiny feeling is. I’ve become this emotional sensor and I've spent enough time doing that I know how and when and where to respond. There is a lot of empathy that comes with this job and a hypersensitivity to it, but I am hyperaware of my subjects and always consider and the emotional impact of taking their picture.

Many of my photos looked like I pulled some magic shit out of the composition and it's like I took that photo almost behind my back without looking in a way that makes me feel like a fraud, except it tends to work. I think that ends up being one of the rewards of succession and if you pay close enough attention or if you want something to be in the world, our brains work in such a way that if you're looking for something, you just find it.

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