Daniel Arnold Is the Poet Laureate of Instagram Photography

How to go from street photography to shooting Justin Timberlake for Levi's

October 18, 2019 8:39 am
Photographer Daniel Arnold
Daniel Arnold (Daniel Shaprio for InsideHook)
Daniel Shapiro

If you walk the streets of New York, there’s a chance that Daniel Arnold has considered taking your picture. The Midwestern transplant uprooted himself from a traditional 9 to 5 in favor of an endless devotion to photographing the smallest moments of everyday life in the big city. In the years since his Instagram photos brought him into the spotlight, Arnold has gone on to shoot for publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Vogue and the New York Times.

Still, Arnold has never put his work on full display in NYC —  until now. InsideHook sat down with him a few days ahead of his show at Larrie, the Manhattan gallery that is showing his work through November 24, to discuss the inspiration for that body of work, a life enriched by failure, his Midwestern roots and photographing the core moments of our times.    

InsideHook: What made you pick up a camera in the first place?

Daniel Arnold: It’s so long ago at this point, I don’t really even know. The convenient answer would be New York, because that was when I picked it up with a level of voraciousness that applies to today. I was always curious about a camera. Early on, 35 years ago, which is a crazy period to talk about, it was voodoo. It was like a magic trick. I remember taking pictures of my little brother when we were four and six. It was the very simple, original novelty we totally take for granted. The insanity of being able to keep time, to screenshot your life. That was exciting to me as a little kid.

Why New York?

I moved to New York from Milwaukee when I was twenty-three. I always wanted to move here but the actual, practical reason was that my cousin was running for judge on the lower east side, I was wrapping up college, and she needed someone to run her campaign. So I came here to run it.

Once upon a time, Instagram helped you in a way that most can only dream of. What’s your relationship like with the platform now? 

It hasn’t changed that much. I guess in the beginning there was a little more wonder to it. I’ve never had a very ambitious relationship with Instagram which is weird to say considering how much of a presence I have there. Instagram is kind of like a younger sibling. I goof around with it, I bully it, tease it and I take care of it. But then I guess in a very non-younger sibling way, I also don’t really care about it and wish it were dead. 

“I just sometimes want the quick, easy pat on the back of the first five minutes of Instagram attention” (Daniel Shapiro for InsideHook)
Daniel Shapiro

I can’t tell if you started the trend of posting to Instagram then taking a photo down, but sometimes it seems that way. What gives?

There’s no calculation to it. I’m giving you a tagline because I’ve said it so many times, but it’s true: A thought passes. Let it pass. Instagram is not some leather-bound autobiography. It’s a game, a toy. It also feels like in my fantasy of the relationship, it gives it more of a life, that it comes and goes. That it’s not just this garbage bucket that never gets emptied. It’s more of a conversation. To be totally frank, there’s probably some element of addiction there too. That I just sometimes want the quick, easy pat on the back of the first five minutes of Instagram attention, and that’s it.

What aspects of your upbringing in the Midwest have you carried over into your adult life and also your work? 

I can’t pretend that any of it was escapable. At this point i’ve been here for sixteen years and I feel like there are skeletal changes since then aside from the natural stoop of my body. I feel like my life before New York happened to someone else, which is corny but it’s sincere. I think about being in college and I don’t know, that was not my life. My life feels like it started here. But I come from a very lovely place. I come from a modest house. I have five younger siblings. Two of them have been my roommates for the past couple of years. I have said it before but it’s true, I am pathologically decent. I have this unfightable, unthought imperative to be good and to do good. And to seek my own comfort by making the people around me comfortable. I have a deeply, deeply Midwestern baseline. Although my mom is from New York, so this has always felt like my identity in a way. But I think it’s a gentleness of interacting with the world.

I don’t know if it’s Midwestern or just my particular neuroses, but I guess it’s putting the world before myself and trying to make myself inoffensive and invisible. Obviously, there are contradictions to that because I’ve also made myself extremely visible, but in a way where I still feel like I still get to hide. I’m sitting here in a totally comfortable room with you, deep in a hoodie that I’m pulling tight around my head. I don’t know if that’s Midwestern, but it feels of home.

Were you raised with with any religion or spirituality?

My father grew up on a dairy farm in the ’50s, in rural Wisconsin. Protestant. My mom was born in the Bronx, grew up Jewish in White Plains. They spent the first maybe fifteen years of their marriage being very minimally Jewish. Culturally Jewish. My dad converted when he married my mom. But it was always just High Holidays and “do unto others-” type deal. When I was thirteen, coincidentally, my dad got really, really into Judaism. He got so into it that he grew a big beard, got a black hat and tzitzit, re-converted and remarried my mom, the whole bit. I don’t know exactly how long that period lasted but it was intense. The timing for me, it was not meant to be. He took me to high school the first day and handed me a yarmulke and said, “If you put it on today, it will get easier every day.” I was like, no guy, I’m not going to be a soldier of your religious experience. I’m fourteen, I’m so nervous and it’s hard enough for me to figure out what the normal me is. I can’t be the normal you, too. And so there was this long experimentation with heavily observant Judaism in my house, but I always stayed on the fringes of it. I think the practice of it became too much of a burden on the other part of his life and it sort of slipped away. But it was long enough of a period and my siblings were young enough, that it is definitely immovably infused into our identities. 

A thought passes. Let it pass. Instagram is not some leather-bound autobiography.

How has your work changed since you arrived at your particular method and style?

The evolution of the process, in a way that’s typical of aging, is that the further I get into it, the longer I go, the looser my grasp. The more patient my appetite. There was this transitional moment when all of a sudden, the world just exploded with opportunity for pictures. Everywhere I looked. I just wanted to gobble everything up and I did. And that lasted for long enough that there was a sort of escalating discernment. I’ve taken a lot of trash pictures. I don’t need to take so many anymore. At this point, with a fairly juicy body of work behind me, I just feel a lot more comfortable letting things go. And so it’s almost… well, I’m about to lie to you…It’s not a pleasure to see something incredible and not get the picture. It still haunts me. I have one in my head right now from a month ago. But there is just a loosening of the grasp. Instead of being in a position where I feel like I’m chasing something, it has now become so organic and so natural. A lot of the time it’s thoughtless. And so that’s a nice thing. It’s gone from lifting weights to muscle memory.

Then the work itself has changed radically. I don’t know exactly how to articulate it. One thing that comes to mind that has been kind of making me laugh recently… As I make myself vulnerable by being interviewed and stuff going online and being subject to comments…There is this really funny continual line of criticism that I’m this aggressive, abrasive creep getting in people’s faces with a flash. I love that because where is that photo? Where do you see a flash photo up close in someone’s face? It just doesn’t exist. I mean maybe you read an interview, or see that Vogue video where I’m playing a comic version of myself. I think there was a point where there was more evidence of experimentation with a flash and being up close in the street. But the work has become more patient, I think gentler. It’s become subtler.

What have you learned from the constant fear of failure that comes with film photography?

Fear of failure is pretty inescapable. Most significantly, I’ve learned to try and cross off the fear part and just go with “of failure.” I’m very at home at this point in constant, daily failure. Which is really a gift to the rest of my life. Not that I don’t slip back into that same old dread. But it’s been a great therapy and a great new way of going through the world, to be so comfortable failing all the time.

Isn’t aging wonderful?

It’s the best. I wouldn’t go back a day.

What corner of this earth has offered you the most, photo-wise?

Abstractly, it’s the same as the last question. It’s fear. Any time I’m afraid, even if I do fail, it’s the most rewarding work and the most interesting perspective. The most personally valuable. Those are the photos that I’m most attached to and most proud of. The ones I had to be afraid to get. More specifically, I guess it’s hard to argue against New York in general. I mean a corner of New York? Midtown, Chinatown, Diamond District? It’s everywhere. New York for our purposes, it’s a shame to reduce it to a corner, because it’s so nice to try and get lost in a place that you know so well.

There are a great many photographers seeking slices of life out in the street. What do you think motivates people to dedicate themselves to this insane practice?

I think a big part of it is our natural desire for order. Our natural inclination towards addiction, religion. It’s an organizing principle. I couldn’t have told you this when I started, but I can look back now and see that I’ve turned my life into this game. And I can always play the game. I sort of can’t not pay the game. It’s this great loophole where everything becomes valuable. Pain becomes this fascinating new filter. And I don’t experience anything any duller, but I sort of have this new place to put it all where life becomes more tolerable, more entertaining because there’s this great purpose for everything.

For me, the hunt for the slice of life is sort of incidental. There was that at some point. I was trying to figure out what my picture was at some point, but now it’s incidental. I just want to play the game in a way that I think a lot of those of us who do this obsessively will agree with. I don’t ever care that much about the pictures anymore. I know when a picture’s not my picture, for the most part. But I just like to play the game. I just like to do the job. I like to have this sort of browser plugin that lets me go through the world in a way that I wouldn’t bother to otherwise. It just makes my life cooler.

Opening night of Daniel Arnold’s show (Daniel Shapiro for InsideHook)
Daniel Shapiro

We keep reading or hearing of street photographers being attacked physically and also threatened online by those who often misinterpret their objectives. Do you feel this community has a sense of privilege in taking pictures of all private moments in public spaces?

I think that it’s dangerous to narrow the lens that way because it is a really tricky conversation. I think that a big part of the trickiness is unfair parameters. What are these photographers doing that isn’t done globally? Especially in this city. I think New York gives you a sort of warped sense of access. There’s just no argument on the street against a photo. A million people go by and see what’s plain to be seen. And the city is covered in surveillance cameras, people are surveilling themselves with their phones. Everything is on camera. Look, I think there is definitely bad faith street photography out there. Shortsighted and ambitious. It’s as nuanced as a personality. There are photos that push this argument more than others. I just don’t think there is a sound, fair argument, when all things are considered. 

In June, you directed your first music video, for Zsela. It looked as if you referenced one of your Mason Ramsey photos for the camera setup. Tell me about making that video.

It’s the exact same spot at 44th and Broadway. In that photo and in that video, the position of the camera is the front door of what was once my office. It’s the front door of Viacom where I sat in a cubicle for 10 years. And there’s also a Midnight Cowboy reference to throw in the mix. The Zsela video was interesting. She came to me with a concept, said she liked my pictures, and will I help her make this video. I said yes, sure, I can try that. And it flopped miserably. The shoot was to be done at magic hour, which at the time was lasting fifteen minutes. She was performing the song live with elaborate choreography, multiple moving parts and acting. The night before we’re blocking out the end of it where Zsela has to do a bit of light, mime level acting and she says she hates acting and can’t do it. The morning of the shoot we had to scrap half of it and try to plot out a path where we were. The original plan required us to have a theater, so one was rented in the East Village. The block that we were going to use was just an impossible place to make a story of density.

I put out a call on Instagram thinking to get all these extras. We had ten lovely people who I was very grateful for, but we just couldn’t make what we wanted to make. We did our best and sat on the footage for a week thinking we could salvage it, chop it up. In the pit of our stomachs we knew that we were lying to ourselves. So I was talking to my buddy Mika who shot it and we both had the same idea to begin with. To just go and let Times Square do the work and just be in that washing machine of people. Mika happened to have some leftover 35 mm film and access to a camera. So we went to Zsela and her manager and asked if they’d indulge us, if we could just do one hail Mary, and they said yea let’s do it.

Logistically it felt doomed. I had major nightmares leading up to it. We didn’t have a permit. We were in armpit, dead-center Times Square with a big-ass movie camera, with a tripod so big we used one of the concrete traffic blockers that aren’t there anymore, and it was too big to rest on it. We brought in plywood to put on top of the block and basically be this big rock in a stream of people and just wait for the cops to shut us down. And the cops walked by several times. All they said was to be careful. We probably shot for 15 minutes and the first take is the video. It just worked right out of the can.       

 When the opportunity to shoot commercial work arises, is your approach and experience the same as when you’re out shooting your personal work?

To a certain extent I only know how to do things a certain way. Ultimately, I am in the same mode that I am when wandering the street. The job is very different. I am not used to being watched. And even if it’s not babysitting, even if it’s an adoring kind of watching, just having people watch me changes things and I don’t like it. I think the major difference in the job and I think one of the biggest challenges psychologically with continuing to do it, is that in that job I’m not there to be a photographer exactly. Or I don’t function as a photographer. The things I’m “good at” photographically just don’t matter in that room, except as muscle memory. When I have a job where the entire marketing team and talent handler and catering are all around, I feel like my job is host. And my energy goes to making everybody feel comfortable, making everybody feel heard, making everyone feel like they had a bit of input. Making the talent feel comfortable. Conspiring quietly with the talent about what nonsense the whole thing is.

I recently did the biggest commercial job of my life, earlier this year. My understanding of it was that they were filming a commercial and I was going to steal a little campaign on the sidelines. The night before I get the call sheet and I can’t find my name. I realize that my name is centered at the top of the call sheet. I’m like what the fuck? And I managed, by either their design or mine, to get to the night before this job not understanding that it was my job. That I was in control. That I was supposed to direct the action. And I went into it the job with that same feeling, that maybe it was a mistake. It’s such a giant part of learning about failure, getting comfortable with failure. But also having spent all this time learning the virtues of failure, although I feel stressed out and a little bit terrified in that situation, I also think, what could go that wrong? I am in a crazy fucking room. It feels like performance art. It feels like I’m a spy. And it feels like I’m getting away with murder. And that kind of outweighs any stress that I feel in that situation. Because even if nobody ever sees it and it’s not part of the final statement of what I did in the world, that I get to go and feel that way for an extended period of time and make proof of what my brain did in that chaos is so interesting to me and so hilarious to me that I do keep going back for more. Although my tolerance is waning. 

Is this the Levi’s ad with Justin Timberlake that just came out? And if so, how was it to work with him?

Yes, and I don’t know how to talk about it or feel about it. I’m so amused. I’m also sort of terrified, sort of embarrassed. That was a great job. I was so flattered to get it. Justin Timberlake is lovely. But the whole time I’m thinking how did it come to this? It’s just such a giant feat of performance art. Which has been such a funny, surprise byproduct of this whole thing. Having an Instagram root to everything that happens, the variety and depth of storytelling that I’ve stumbled into where I get to A, tell the stories of the pictures. B, tell the stories of my own weird acceptance into the world. And now these outlandish new worlds that I get to explore? It’s so much fun to create. I can’t believe it’s real sometimes.

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Through happenstance and assignment, you often find yourself at the center of many of the core moments of our times. In those moments, do you feel a certain responsibility that extends beyond your own aims?

I go in with it and I do everything I can to shake it off and to resist it. Yes, certainly there is some feeling of responsibility to tell a story properly. I don’t think I’m a monster and I think that my true reaction is pretty universal, which is that I have to take the best fucking pictures of all time here. I have to do this like nobody has done it before and nobody here will do it today, and I have to make this shit mine. If I make it to the end of the day thinking that the whole time, I’m going to make trash. So what I try to boil down my responsibility down to, and my outlook in a space like that, is that my job is to truly be there. What could be more interesting than proof of being an actual human being in the middle of that kind of iconic moment that’s going to be totally removed from individuality. It’s the story of our culture. It’s not about a person. And so I try to remember that the giant privilege and opportunity in that moment is to not shoot for the moon. It’s to actually be there and think about the fact that everybody is touching me.       

(Daniel Shapiro for InsideHook)

This Sunday is the opening of your first New York exhibition. What prompted you to put it together now and what does the title 1:21 mean?

The truth is that I got kind of bullied into this show. The gallery owner is a friend of mine through Emily Rosser who was my editor at Vogue for years, and who curated this show. For a year at least, Emily has been pushing me to have a show here. I resisted and resisted and there’s a lot of reasons for that. For one thing, I have a hard time making a show, making a book, even businessy stuff like getting an agent. All those things feel difficult in that they are backward looking and I am just hooked on making new work. Much more than I am on having good work. I don’t want to have a greatest-hits show. If I’m going to make the effort I know it needs to be something other than that. Also, at this point I’m fairly deep into this big story that a lot of people are looking at and this is a very small room. I hate going to an opening and you can’t see a goddamn thing. It’s a lot of really excruciating small talk. You can’t lift your arms. So I felt like what kind of a sadist, not to mention masochist, I would be to have my first New York show in a tiny room when I don’t even have an idea for a show. As Emily chipped away at me and as I relented, I started to come around to the idea that all that build up is a curse. To have to think about what I would do because of how I’m received? That sucks. And the closer it got to becoming a reality, the more I felt that doing something in a small room among friends, that is not a retrospective, feels so much more honest an extension of my day to day work.

And so I was just going to show photos that I took in Brazil in the Spring because I never got to. They’re nice photos and they tell the story of the ongoing payoff of extreme vulnerability, where I had one these trips where everything was fucked up and I couldn’t really think about the work. And now I had all this proof of a feeling than an event. That was my first idea and it twisted and evolved and then the work felt not muscular enough. It was all sort of pretty. 

Meanwhile, I generally had a very internally chaotic year. A very manic year. And obviously when you’re manic you have the downside that comes with it. Bouts of mega anxiety scattered between walking-on-air grandiosity. And at this point, to me, waking up out of my mind is kind of the same as waking up and finding there’s a parade. That’s an odd day for New York, I have to see what that’s about. So I’d wake up with this crazy head and tell myself, take this shit outside, bring your camera. Don’t worry about what you make, don’t even look back. Just go put this brain into the world and see what it does, because you don’t always get to have it. I was doing that for my own sake and was not thinking of it for this show because it wasn’t really a quality minded thing. And the idea when you put something on a wall and declare it, you’re supposed to show the strongest shit. And I wasn’t making the strongest shit. I was just making something really personal that in a way only registered as personal to me. It really peaked this summer, particularly the manic half of it. There were some real pitfalls that came with it too, but for the most part there was shit lighting up, making crazy connections, and wild coincidences everywhere I looked. I did a lot of assignment work but every free moment I had I was pushing it and pushing it on the street, trying to make some emotional fossil of this weird time I had. So this show is just this period of mania, this summer. The show is called 1:2:1 because in this very distracted time, it was very easy to get so emotionally caught up that I’d walk all day and be so in my head that I didn’t do any work. And so I set myself these random alarms to snap me out of it. A reminder that I’m on earth and to let myself do something outside of my own head. And 1:21 is one of the alarms to pay attention. That kind of became my thread. And the work represents all of this in a way that is only visible to me. This is not what I imagine a gallery show to be. This is another exercise in vulnerability and a representation of this practice that I try to steer to the best of my ability, not to be some ambitious charge into the world after I’m gone. Although I have said those words, but I only think it’s interesting if it’s a true experiment of what my brain did with this world and not a celebration of success, notoriety and attention and Justin Timberlake. I’m just trying to make something vulnerable and personal.    

With the passing of Robert Frank, there have been a great many tributes. What does his work mean to you?

I’m not some great exhaustive student of Robert Frank’s work. I have The Americans. I have some of his later experimental things that people have bought me as misguided gifts. What I know about Robert Frank and what I think about at least once a week if not more, is that Robert Frank was at the top of the game and said fuck this shit, and did something else. And I think about that constantly. And I’m so actively, regularly inspired by it. I love that. I don’t know how he did it. The world is obviously different now. There’s much more of a prison of your persona, I think. But to me that is the thing about Robert Frank. Oh, you’re the best photographer working? Nah, I’ll make some documentaries that nobody likes. I love him. Just do my fucking thing forever, till I’m 95, talking shit on a lawn chair on Bleecker street. So cool. The best way to do it.

You can take one final picture. Last frame. What is it?

Hopefully somebody’s around who I love. Hopefully I’m not alone.  

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