“It was the straying that found the path direct.” — Austin Osman Spare
On a warm evening in early summer, nearly three years ago, I went to a bar-turned-gallery in the Lower East Side to see a photo exhibition. I was there to see the work of Daniel Arnold. He only had a couple prints up, stuck to the wall in a back corner: Black-and-white, quiet observations of life. Still, they managed to stand out among the noise at the bar.
On my way out I saw a roster of artist bios touting art school backgrounds and group shows. Then there was his — pithy and single-lined:
I live in Brooklyn, just like everybody else.
Arnold, who’s risen to somewhat of a legendary status in the Instagram world for his renegade snapshots of pedestrians on NYC streets and subways, is a far cry from “everybody else.”
I met with Arnold when the snow was still falling during an infuriatingly late winter, and dedicated my afternoon to figuring out his technique. When looking through his tumblr site, entitled When to Say Nothing, it was as if he was partaking in an underground life in the depths of Times Square, but what was his in?
The night before, he e-mailed to tell me that there was “a slight wrinkle to add,” because he had been slated to shoot a series of portraits at a studio in Chelsea. Our day might be cut short, or at least take place in a photo studio.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
We met in Union Square and headed to a film shop. As we walked the streets, he discussed his plans to survive his first days as a professional photographer — he had just quit his full-time gig at Nickelodeon.
“I actually have no idea what I’m doing,” he said, “this could all really go horribly wrong.”
It became more and more obvious throughout the day why he is so good, and though his fears were real, this new course seemed a fitting one. The ease with which he approached anonymity made the art of observation a natural path.
We walked up 5th Avenue, closing in on Times Square. “Like a time capsule of old New York,” said Arnold.
It was barely 1 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day. There were streams of people: College kids chanting, swarms of bodies packed in front of a McDonalds, a girl clutching knees, hair dangling in the wind as her friends held her steady.
Unlike most New Yorkers, who opt for side streets, Arnold elbowed his way through the crowd, snapping photos of a teenager with a mouth full of braces and another screaming into her phone.
A cigarette dangling between his lips, both arms raised, he looked as if he was tunneling through a mosh pit.
Arnold’s life is a storied one, filled with five siblings and an upbringing in the suburbs outside Milwaukee. He’s become known among peers, aside from his photography, for a self-deprecating sense of humor and perfunctory attitudes towards (past) day jobs. But the thing we all see, the sarcastic curmudgeon who lives in Brooklyn “like everybody else” didn’t show up for our interview. Instead, he seemed self-possessed, unwavering in his convictions and confident.
The confidence is well-deserved; and it can’t go unacknowledged that he’s received massive accolades for his work on Instagram.
“It’s definitely a part of it,” he said. “Just like Viacom (Nickelodeon), I really owe it to them for getting me where I am today.”
When he talks about using Instagram as a medium, he mentions a philosophy called Mindfulness, a practice his mother — a mental health care professional — introduced to him. Mindfulness, is a “spiritual or psychological faculty that, according to the teaching of Buddha, is considered to be of great importance in the path to enlightenment.”
For Arnold, Mindfulness has helped him “harness (his) obsessive energy into photography.” The subways often being his platform, the iPhone his tool, Instagram not only helped him to master his craft, it gave him a way of looking at life through a different lens — honing that quick snap reaction to a moment. For Arnold it’s almost visceral.
Nowadays, Arnold gravitates to Instagram less and less. “I don’t even post much anymore, because I feel like it’s been done. It has to be really good for me to put something up.” Regardless, his photographs have been featured on a number of blogs and websites and garnered the attention of top ad agencies and the photo editor at Vanity Fair.
After four hours of wandering, we headed to the photo studio where he would shoot a series for The Wild Unknown — a husband-and-wife artist collective otherwise known as Kim Krans and Jonny Ollsin — who Arnold attributed as a major support system.
He also acknowledged the influence of Tim Barber, another well-known New York photographer. Barber said in an e-mail that he found Arnold’s photos to be “prolific and consistent,” and Arnold himself was “sneaky, observant and brave.”
Back at the studio, Sunny Shokrae, a friend of Arnold’s, shared lighting tips as they discussed his shoot the following day.
“I know that he is the oldest of (five) siblings,” Shokrae said, “I attribute that to so many pockets of his life. I think it plays a role in his photography, in the way he is such a good observer and so aware of everything, and so quiet when he is doing it all.”