31 minutes with Daniel Arnold
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published April 28, 2018
- Portrait by Jonno Rattman
Daniel Arnold, a New York City-based photographer, does not have a boredom problem. Armed by his curiosity, this becomes visible while observing the fleeting moments he photographs. It doesn't matter what you put in front of him, or where, because Daniel packages the observations around him into a photograph that generates a bucket of emotions from the viewer. Below, Daniel and I talk about his lack of boredom, where it stems from, and why he's lying to you.
Mo: What's new in your world?
Daniel: I've been sleeping for three hours a night trying to get through this big edit for Vogue. I did a job in Chicago where I camped out at a Southside hair salon called Issues, and did a three day documentation of their world, so I'm just trying to narrow down about a 1000 photos. Right now I'm at 68.
Mo: How long did it take to get up to 68?
Daniel: I’m two or three days into editing, and we're talking about 12 hours a day of editing. It's a process.
Mo: What's the structure for editing your personal work?
Daniel: I keep saying it, but the truth is that I'm really obsessed with my job. This is what I do with my free time, so there's no real schedule to it. Whenever I have a job, I'm working on stuff for the job. And whenever I don't have a job, I'm kind of out doing my own thing and keeping sharp for the next one, assuming I'm not in an editing k-hole for three days. I'm at the lab pretty much every day. So I think I drive them a little nuts.
Mo: I'm assuming there's a lot of trust with your lab, especially with odd assignments that have a next-morning turnaround.
Daniel: Unfortunately, that really has not been an option thus far. There hasn't been a lab that's willing to really have my back like that. Nothing gets done same day, and if I do have a job where they need a fast turnover, I have to shoot digital, which has become a problem lately because I don't have a digital camera. I did a big event job in September where I had to turn over images as I shot, and I bought a camera for the job. It's the stupidest thing in the world to go into something with gear you've never used, and I ended up shooting myself in the foot, botched it, and haven't heard from the client since. For better or for worse, I'm pretty good at letting go of this shit. With the nature of the job, I have gotten used to swallowing my errors and learning from them—it's part of it, I'm a student.
Mo: I think we all are. It's important to stay hungry.
Daniel: Yeah, hungry is good. So is a hands-on relationship with mortality. It’s very liberating that this is all gonna be over soon.
Mo: What makes that hunger tangible?
Daniel: Family is certainly a part of it. I think that coming from a big family and being the oldest of six kids, I think that I have developed, early on, a very natural instinct for what little mundane things are precious and worth making note of and keeping. But really more than family, or anything, what has really put me in tune is carrying a camera all the time. It has totally shifted the way I receive the world.
Mo: Regarding your relationship with photography, how has it changed how you look at the world?
Daniel: It has changed the way the world looks at me, which can be confusing. So far humility isn’t a problem. I’m in constant contact with my inner loser, but prioritising my practice over my story can be a conscious effort. I know that these bright spots don't last and I'm sure at some point it’s gonna get real quiet—I try to always keep that in mind and just focus on doing the work. But then fatigue and boredom become big predators. It’s hard to work constantly and mindfully. But it helps that I come at this as such an amateur that every six months or so, I finally understand what a camera does for the first time, and there's so, so much to learn. And because I don't have formal training, I'm learning by odd necessity; I'm learning by making mistakes; I'm learning by experimenting. So that keeps things very fresh.
Mo: How do you challenge yourself creatively or personally?
Daniel: I just do the damn work every day. It doesn’t matter if I'm depressed or burnt out; I have to go and take my stupid walk. I have to find a reason to be outside. And like today—three days into sitting still—it's really starting to drive me nuts, because ultimately I think I'm really hooked on having something new to look at every day. I want results to come through every day and working with film, the only way to do that is to work every day because you're already a day behind yourself in terms of processing.
Daniel: The other big ongoing challenge is being a professional photographer. Whether it be through novelty or—more often—self-sabotage, most assignments push me beyond my means and certainly beyond my education. It’s a job of being extremely uncomfortable and charming the crowd as I find my way back to solid ground.
Mo: What's a good example of doing that?
Daniel: I did a totally straightforward job for The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. I had to show up at an architect’s house at 7 a.m. and stay with him till 10 at night. I felt anxious about the difficulty of making dynamic, exciting work at an office, and I was in a bad pattern of staying up and editing until five in the morning. This is how I managed to get one hour of sleep the night before my professional 7 a.m. rendezvous in Park Slope. So now I've got this very basic, straightforward, potentially boring job, but I’m walking into as ragged and raw as I can possibly be. So I did my best to keep a straight face and did my job in an instinctual, non-intellectual way. And not only did I get some beautiful photos, but I connected with my subject much more intimately than I would have on a more calculated, reasonable approach.
Daniel: In terms of having to push my own personal bar all the time and not taking the same scrappy from-the-waist photo every time, I felt like I made some visual progress too. And I had a really cool experience, which ends up being the real pay-off of that self sabotage. I don't have much capacity under those circumstances to protect myself, so success becomes a function of survival mechanisms. Like what I'm doing now. I haven't stopped fucking talking this whole time. I just keep throwing shit at the world and testing every combination of things until I'm back on some confident ground.
Mo: What happens if you don't have the opportunity to self sabotage?
Daniel: Like, where everything goes right? [both laughing]
Daniel: What a great problem to have! The Vogue salon job I’m working on now went very smoothly. Social comfort took a minute because I was a major outsider, but there were no disasters. But it’s funny, now that I’m editing those photos, I don't have the traction that I would have if I’d overcome terrible odds. Maybe having a specific disaster to overcome or wondering if the photos are even going to come out can be helpful. In those scenarios it's such a relief to have anything work that maybe it lowers the bar a bit and makes the editing more emotional and visceral and not quite as objective.
Mo: Maybe those situations allow you to be more present.
Daniel: Definitely. Generally, the big payoff of having a manageable dose of fear is that it keeps you in the room.
Mo: But what consistently makes you scared in your career?
Daniel: There's a lot of things; there's interpersonal stuff; there's obviously an instinctual desire to be accepted in a new crowd. But generally, it’s just my emotional investment in what I do. This job is so personal. I just want to do justice to every opportunity, to make the best work I can and to not waste my time.
Mo: Or other people's time.
Daniel: Oh my god, for sure. When it's a produced situation where someone has given their day, that can be terrible anxiety. I get asked to shoot weddings once in a while and my terms as a sometimes-wedding-photographer are that I’ll only do it if you hire a wedding photographer. Get somebody else to bunch everybody up and say smile so I can just lurk around and do my rogue, personal art project thing.
Mo: What's something you're looking forward to exploring in your practice in 2018 or the near future?
Daniel: Ehhh, I'm more of an addict than I am an athlete. I try to cultivate that what’s-next mentality but it doesn't really come to me. I wish it would. I love the idea of making movies, but I think I’d need about ten years of secretly doing it on my own terms before I did it publicly. For now, I just try to keep a little hook in my brain that reminds me to do a video instead of a still any time I pull out my phone. I have all these cameras I walk around with everyday that only take pictures so let the phone be a different tool.
Mo: Speaking of the phone, I’ve been a fan of what would happen if Instagram disappeared. I always think that Instagram might give people the illusion that they're looking at themselves, but without it you're actually able to see who you are and why you're doing things. Instagram just distracts you.
Daniel: Yeah, I agree. I have a hard time getting from the start to the end of that thought because it is such a distorter—that whole experience. I think in some ways it's really valuable because it’s incentivising really voracious, democratic work. In that way, the evolution of communicating emotionally with images is super fertilised by Instagram—at least that's my experience with it. I didn’t know I was a photographer, but I always liked taking pictures. I would get a satisfaction out of it and stumble into making something that felt bigger than myself. But really it ended up becoming this unconscious language. I didn't study classic photography. I followed my instincts through it.
Mo: You have a platform like Instagram exploiting the idea of nothing under the sun is new to thresholds that weren't imaginable a decade ago. Obviously, because something is being derived from you, it's naturally or stylistically going to be different. Similar to the idea that if you put two photographers in the same room with the same subject, the photos will be different. Instagram reminds you that your shit isn't special. I hope people are now realising how to have a healthy relationship with the app because of this. How do you have a healthy relationship with it?
Daniel: I don't. I definitely don't. There's some article making the rounds on social media where Trent Reznor says that all recent music is no-risk bullshit for vegan restaurant customers. It's a very specific insult, but I think that it kind of stuck with me as a person who is unhealthily attached to this artificial thing. I think there is a tendency to normalise. But I also wonder how much of it is the novelty of us giving it such scrutiny. I guess information travels like it never has before, but there's always been enormous mass culture mediocrity and there have always been visionary punks who see that as a perfect wall to piss on. I think that's human nature and that it's nothing new that we're drowning in boring bullshit.
Mo: I think maybe the difference is accessibility but the concept has always been there.
Daniel: And visibility, too. I guess a legitimate point in that conversation is the extent to which we have become slaves to this group-think morality where if enough people click a thumbs down the world changes. People lose their jobs. I think maybe that that phenomenon more than accessibility and visibility is where people have anxiety. We're becoming so weirdly puritanical.
Mo: Maybe that's true because there's no dislike button on Instagram.
Daniel: But there is! These social media revenges are so quick and vicious. Obviously sexual harassment should be dealt with in totally merciless terms, but I don't know. These media takedowns feel so shallow. People throw out a name and that's it, the person gets a couple days of bad news and it goes away. We’re already so used to it. Anyway, it's a very touchy subject obviously but interesting to watch, I just wonder how long till it falls apart.
Mo: I don't think I have the agency to talk about it, but it's interesting to see. I don't know what to say. [laughing]
Daniel: There's no good way out of this topic. It's really crazy territory. It's hard to conceive of any possible narrowing of that channel. How is this going to come under control and be taken seriously without being whispered about behind its back?
Mo: Going back to social media, what do you find the responsibility of your online presence to be if you think there is any? And how does that contextualise itself within the creative industry and culture?
Daniel: That's a hard one to take a big enough step back from to really know. It's such a matter of instinct. I certainly have a lot of opinions and am not apolitical by any stretch of the imagination. [But] There are certain things I don't want to fuck with.
Mo: I've had that conversation with a lot of people. There are a lot of things you don't want to touch. When you think about it, and sorry to be political here—
Daniel: —it's inevitable.
Mo: When you look at advertising the past two years and you look how slow things were for a while and how things change, everyone had to rip all the pages out of the book and write new rules. I think, for me, and maybe you, everyone is seeing what those new rules are and how to abide by them cautiously and honestly.
Daniel: I wonder. I think that culture can only redirect those impulses. I don't think it can erase them, at least not in the short term. So all that shit goes somewhere. And being a guy that spent years working in a corporate office, I know firsthand that having arbitrary ruling forces imposed on your unmovable nature ends up squeezing the truth out in unexpected places and ways. I don't think there's any worry that human nature is going to get erased, although people do talk that way. I think it's interesting when you get squeezed. I have always liked constraints. I have worked much better through unreasonable rules because it's easier to know where to break them. Our culture needs some major maintenance, I do not dispute that. But I think human nature isn't just nasty and ugly. It’s also loving and creative. It’s no surprise that we’re so lost.
Mo: I find that a lot within the idea of things being torn down to the very bottom, that's where they need to be in order to be built back up. Within you finding those rules and breaking them, have you found yourself in a situation where you probably stretched them wider than you should have?
Daniel: I suppose, but I don't think I would put it in those terms.
Mo: What terms would you use?
Daniel: I get so comfortable in my lens that I maybe lose sight of external public standards. I sometimes snap out of my grandiose imagination of things and think, "You're probably pushing anti-social territory here and should reign it back in a little bit." And that's gotten a lot easier to keep an eye on the further I get into it. When it was early on and untested and I didn't have any kind of reputation or progress at stake. I think I was much more daring in my experimentation. Hundreds of people have offered to beat me up; I’ve gone to jail... things happen and you refine your process. It’s very frustrating to deal with a world that can’t read your mind, and one that would rather react than think, but there’s no way out of that one.
Mo: I think when people react to something and ask why you approached that photo from a certain view, they'll forget that the act of taking a photo is a fleeting dance. A lot of things become whispers when clicking the shutter and even when sharing that photo. Because taking a photo can be a personal relationship and when that photo is shared the relationship becomes bigger. A lot of people don't understand the risk of that. Same thing happens in advertising.
Daniel: Yeah, and I think I kind of end up in wishy-washy territory because for me intent is not what it’s about. Actually taking the picture is a secondary act. I'm just trying to be in my world and make a note when something is interesting or weird. It's a collection. I'm just collecting things more than I'm pushing standards. So when there is that kind of dissonance it's always as much of a surprise to me as it is to the world.
Mo: If you're out on the street, there's no predetermined context. But with an assignment, there's a safe space for knowing what's going to happen.
Daniel: There's license at least.
Mo: When you've photographed the past two Met Gala's, it's interesting to see all these things associated to the faces in the photos, because it might not be safe if its an unflattering photograph—but then again, what’s an unflattering photograph?
Daniel: Even that's safe.
Mo: You’re right, because people want to see that. That's what interests me most in those photos. They're not filtered. They're vulnerable.
Daniel: And that one is an exception to what we're talking about because its almost an athletic assignment. That's a rare occasion where I'm in an aggressive sprint of storytelling. So I'm trying to make every second count. I'm trying to not ever look at my shoes or ever stop to think. That's one instance where intention is much more of a factor, but there's also plenty of terror involved in that job.
Mo: What terror?
Daniel: It's a time thing. You have two hours with this insane, unheard of opportunity so there’s a fear of not making the most of it; it's a fear of fucking up; it's a fear of not doing it justice; it's a fear of not topping last year. It's pretty cheap stuff but it gets you through the night.
Mo: How do you cope with that fear? Do you ignore it or arm it to push you forward?
Daniel: That's where walking every day pays off. The daily thing is a grind. It's not like I'm coming out of it with exciting new work every time.
Daniel: It's not about the results. It's about automating the problematic parts of it so that you have this psychological freedom no matter what the circumstances are, because your hand knows the job by heart. You still can screw up, but hopefully the technical shit gets baked in to some degree.
Mo: I know that the answer to my upcoming question relies on hindsight, but how do you know when the process becomes disingenuous? Obviously we have our bad days, weeks, and even seasons.
Daniel: That's where fear comes in. It’s very hard to lie when you’re afraid. And then you get over it and collect your thoughts and see what you’ve learned.
Mo: I know I’m constantly wondering what I'm going to learn next, and what I have to do to allow that. Where do you find the purpose in all of it right now?
Daniel: I don’t know about purpose, but there are a lot of collateral benefits. Enough that I don't think too much about purpose. I really like what this has done to my life and to the way that I think. Having a ritual makes my world more manageable and more interesting. It's a clean little path through a giant noisy mess. I guess that's as much of a purpose as I have. It's an organising principle that makes my life less boring and the world less overwhelming.
Mo: Have you ever found yourself bored the past 10 years?
Daniel: Its rare. I'm a pretty easily entertained, curious guy. I could walk down the street and laugh five times. I don't have a boredom problem. I'm very curious.
Mo: On the flip side, do find yourself ever taking a hiatus from the things that excite you?
Daniel: I think about it. I've said a thousand times that I need to break my legs if I'm ever going to make a book. But this kind of energy and interest has to be finite and I know that my body is finite, so I’ll indulge deeply in this work until I can’t anymore, and then it will change. Like what we were saying before, I don't expect this shit to last. I think that people are probably used to me. I'm sure some are sick of me. A lot of people never cared and never will. Eventually it's not going to hold my attention the way that it does now. But I don't think there's a hiatus.
Mo: Walking back to the history behind this period of your life, what was that like when you were still figuring things out?
Daniel: I don't think that period ever ends. I'm not trying to avoid the question—it's an interesting question. But I think it's one of the great poisons of our minds is this sort of movie fed fantasy that at some point you hit this peak of mastery or comfort and the world slows down and spreads out for you because you've succeeded. That sounds like a death trap to me. I think a decent human feels always on the verge of meaningful success and simultaneously on the verge of being exposed as a worthless phony. Neither one ever happens because nobody cares that much, but it’s a productive line to walk. Anyway, I think I'm still in the full time seeking mode. I'm not resting or enjoying.
Mo: But do you think it's important to enjoy?
Daniel: No. I think it's nice to enjoy. I think it’s super important to play and have fun. But I think this whole notion of happiness is another trick of expectations that makes everything feel not good enough. I like, not to suffer necessarily, but comfort feels like an end to me. And I definitely have an instinct to seek comfort. I think it’s been my reaction to maybe boredom or being stagnant. I think I'm just dissatisfied.
Mo: All the time?
Daniel: Yeah, but not in like an aching, torturous way. When I enjoy a thing it’s great. but it's not the goal and it doesn't feel like the reward. It's just part of the story.
Mo: Do you think you’re patient?
Daniel: I definitely have noticed that living here has been majorly corrosive to my practical patience. I could lose my mind waiting for a fucking elevator. Not being able to do what I want to do right away becomes very irrationally stressful. That's a consequence of living here for 15 years. There's so many different offices of patience. I don't feel in a hurry about anything. I feel very content to be hopefully early in a long story and not too concerned with giant achievements. I want to keep an upward trend going. I think generally I'm a patient guy. Let's ask my sister. Am I patient?
Daniel's sister: Yep.
Daniel: I'm the oldest of six kids so that's a patience maker.
Mo: Are there things in your life that you secretly hope to achieve? Because I've talked to people who have and haven't and it always interests me to see who says what.
Daniel: I surprised myself working for The New York Times. By the time I got something in there, I already had access beyond my wildest dreams. There were a lot of unexpected achievements that happened fairly quickly and easily and still years into that, working for The New York Times is like, okay, this is a real thing. But then of course you're three weeks into it and you don't care anymore and you're dissatisfied again. I wouldn't be disappointed if the art world never cared about me, but as a New Yorker, the idea of getting work in one of those big museums is exciting. But again, I have some extreme patience for that and if it never comes that's fine.
Daniel: When you're doing something so amorphous and so process-based, it’s nice to have those little benchmarks that remind you that you're not rolling the rock up the hill. But I can live without it.
Mo: I think you've answered this in some way, but if you do, are you afraid of setting expectations for yourself?
Daniel: No. If I'm afraid of setting expectations it's the automatic ones that I don't know are there. I think expectations are great if they're self-imposed. I think big cultural expectations of falling in love and being happy and all that shit is scary. But I'm very used to it. It's been 38 years of it. I think expectations are fine. I just keep them very vague. My expectation is keep working and don't be swayed by bullshit and focus on the process, not the result. Try to have your time and enjoy. There I go saying enjoy when I told you don't care about enjoying. Enjoy is such a loaded word, so I don't know. Just try to be there. I might be lying.
Mo: Do you lie to yourself about career or personally related things? And if you do, do you fabricate and continue the lie?
Daniel: I think that I'm called upon to lie about myself. I have this conversation—an interview—frequently and I like this conversation and puzzling through the questions and seeing how my brain bounces off of them. I have a job where I spend a lot of time walking around alone with my mouth closed and have a lot of time to think. So I have answers. But sometimes it feels very claustrophobic to be called on to lie so much on the record. Not that I'm intentionally lying, I'm just sure most of this shit is gonna end up not being true. I'm figuring it out as I talk, making it up as I go. I'm not satisfied with a lie so I keep thinking and trying. But how can you help but lie. Nobody really knows anything. I just try to get better little by little at telling the story right.
Thanks for reading
- I want to give a quick shoutout to my buddy Jonah Miller for introducing Daniel and I. This wouldn't be possible without him. It's funny how Daniel said you'd have to break his legs for him to make a book, which I now believe since it took us nearly a month to publish this interview. Thanks for tolerating all my texts, Daniel, and for being a part of the Viewfinder series.
Discover more conversations in the