It takes exceptional fortitude to quit an office job to pursue a dream vocation. Regular paychecks, health insurance, stability and other perks can make life a comfortable, cushy cruise. Giving it all up might seem unimaginable, even while enduring the slow bleed it saps from your spirit. Most people will never have the courage, or even the chance, to seek out their calling, and Daniel Arnold knows the feeling. A little over four years ago, the prolific photographer acted on that, and probably can’t imagine life any other way now. His brief but highly ambitious career has already crossed multiple benchmarks and milestones, like the first and most monumental moment: when Arnold earned $15k in a single day by selling 4x6 prints on Instagram at $150 a pop. The news of his photo hustle became a viral national media story. From there, the enigmatic photographer continued to share countless, raw “how did he take that?” pictures. And it wasn’t just a handful of incredible photos, but a barrage every day, with no end in sight. Instagram would eventually kick him off for a particular post, but that only garnered more attention.
Arnold’s personal work has now been printed in a considerable number of zines, publications, and books, and have been the subject of several dedicated exhibitions. He regularly shoots editorial work for well-known clients, always in his unique style. Daniel is one of the most noteworthy, contemporary additions to the exceptionally talented lineage of New York street photographers, but his work is much more expansive and personal to be simply labeled “street” or “New York.” Or anything, really.
Austin McManus: No doubt, every day is different in your world, but you’re always lurking on the streets at some point. Can you give me an idea of a typical day and night for Daniel Arnold?
Daniel Arnold: I love the morning, but I’m a late-night guy, so the day starts off pretty foggy. Tomorrow I have to shoot Bigfoot around Midtown at noon for a favor, and it’s already two a.m. here, and I have a bunch of editing to do, so that puts bedtime around four. I’ll be up at eight, probably snooze for an hour, out of bed by nine, and out the door by eleven. Out the door by eleven is a pretty good rule for a person with no enforced structure in their life. If I can get out earlier, I’ll go sit somewhere and drink coffee. I feel like a crazy person writing all of this out, but I’ll eat breakfast and do crossword puzzles or emails. Once I’m on the train, the day kinda takes over and it moves in an involuntary way. Usually I have a proper errand or two to enforce randomness, otherwise I just mindlessly and automatically get off at 53rd and 5th everyday. To be honest, most of my errands revolve around food cravings. Say I have this meeting on Canal, and I got it in my head bad that I need a wonton soup, and my camera is busted. I’ll take the train to Canal, do my meeting nonsense, and walk up to 39th in a zigzag to drop my camera at the shop. But once I get as high as 39th, there’s no way I can resist 42nd, and once I’m at 42nd, I gotta go see what’s up in the 50s and at least look over the park. So I do all that and then have to go all the way back downtown to drop my film at Lafayette and Broome, hopefully getting through another roll or two on the way, putting me in prime wonton soup zone. I eat a wonton soup, really enjoy sitting down for an hour, and take the train back to Brooklyn where I’ll sit and pick on my roommate, eat Seamless, make fun of TV and edit all night.
Midtown Manhattan entices you so much.
It’s full of costumes and people with agendas. Nobody is at home or paying attention or acknowledging that they exist. Everybody is on their way to something they have to do. It’s loaded with stories and impossible arrangements of people, every single type of person, and it’s full of garbage and awful loud giant vehicles and signs and words everywhere, and it’s the most classic city backdrop on the planet. It’s delicious.
Where would you take someone who has never been to New York?
I would put them in a blindfold, drive around in circles for an hour, push them out of the car at 42nd and 8th, and drive away.
How essential is it to have an exceptional pair of shoes for all the walking you do?
Well, I'm an idiot. I walk around all day, every day in boots. My feet barely work at the end of each day, but suffering is part of the experience. So, completely inessential. I'm sure someday I'll change my mind about that.
Your work is synonymous with New York City. Are there any other cities that pique your interest for shooting photographs? I did enjoy the images you made in San Francisco for your show at Mark Wolfe a few years ago.
I’m interested in all the cities, all the states, all the countries and continents. I just happen to spend the most time in NYC. In February, I shot in New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. In April, I'll shoot in Liberia, and in May, Japan. I loved shooting in Paris, but I also loved shooting in Green River, Utah. The things I'm interested in aren't city-specific. I'm interested in revisiting more intimate ways of working with all these street-focused years under my belt.
What’s the longest you’ve gone without going out and shooting since your fascination with photography began?
I don’t know. The only time I remember noticing a gap was years ago, maybe 2008 or so. I had a girlfriend who was always mad at me or didn’t like me that much. I don’t remember, but the stress of it would make me super absentminded. There was one time we were sitting in a park chatting, and I had my camera bag with me, and I ended up just walking away without it, so I didn’t have a camera for a few months. At that point, I was shooting pretty obsessively, but I wasn’t really any good at it yet, or at least I didn’t really have any focus. And being forced to stop shooting for a couple months, I sort of accidentally stumbled into a great love and appreciation of editing. I started seeing shit I hadn’t realized was there, threads and prevailing moods and tricks, and pictures of nothing that managed to still look pregnant and spooky like the movies.
Are there ever hooky or sick days, or is it always a go?
Sure, I skip sometimes. I’m 37 and a lazy fatso. Usually my brain and my body function as enemies, but definitely there are days when they’re friends. My life is kind of hooky now. I worked in a cubicle for ten years. Now I just wander around all day and do whatever I want. What’s there to skip? If I don’t leave the house, I still end up with a picture or two, and I still end up going through old stuff and seeing things differently. Okay, new answer: No, there are no hooky or sick days.
I know you don’t ask for people’s permission before you take their photograph. Can you recall the worst and best thing anyone has ever said to you after taking their photograph?
I don't recall any particular lines. I hear “fuck you,” and “what the fuck?” a lot. Once in a while, people say, “thank you.” But there usually isn't much conversation.
I was surprised when I found out that you have never really been beaten up. I just figured that taking pictures of people daily, without permission, would eventually lead to an altercation. How often does fear or resistance emerge when taking a photo?
Every time. Always. But I’m a pretty good sweet talker.
Tell me about your attraction to a private moment happening in a loud public space?
It’s a visual relief. I guess all of these devices come down to storytelling. A private moment in public is loaded, it radiates emotion. It raises questions and implies a story without filling in many details. It’s like a scale model of the bigger picture of the job. When you’re trying to manufacture moments, live collaging all these chaotic parts into a story that doesn’t necessarily exist to anybody but you, a private moment becomes a story in itself, an irresistible thing to work around. I’ll see a couple kissing on a corner. Can I find another couple fighting, or a guy passionately eating a sandwich, or carrying flowers, or a billboard for divorce, and fit it into the frame before the kiss ends? It’s a shortcut that helps a second last a little longer than us.
After all the hype that Instagram brought you at a certain time, how’s your relationship with it these days? I enjoyed it when you intentionally posted photos of yourself and things you knew people probably wouldn’t be feeling as much.
What's Instagram? It’s definitely a complicated relationship and a word that I'm ambivalent about being so heavily associated with. I have never treated it like an art gallery or a place for anything serious. I like the community; I like having a platform where I can tell tons of people about things that I like. And I do think it's a positive addition to the creative process to have such a personality-laden, ongoing workshop built into my practice. It's cool that legends of previous generations are on there posting experimental iPhone pictures. But yeah, I don't worry about alienating anybody. I'm a pretty honest version of myself on there.
What excites you the most about your life right now?
Not to be a pill, but I'm not a big excitement guy. I’m into drudgery and ritual and analysis. I am very grateful to have a life that offers more and more time and space to indulge in those interests, and I'm grateful to feel snapped out of the fantasy of being a young person.
How accurate are you at this point at shooting without looking through the viewfinder, and what do you like most about shooting from the hip?
I guess the answer is in the pictures. I screw up plenty, but a lot of the time I get it right. It's nice to screw up a lot. It connects back to the eternal endeavor question, or how you hear from married friends that fights are different now because theoretically there's no exit. You get in a bad fight but, in a way, it's kinda no sweat because the rules have changed and your problems become just little stains on a nice long thread. Like how you can take a shit in the ocean because it's so big that nobody will get sick. Messing up pains me less and less because every day, there will be more pictures tomorrow, and screwing up makes me better. When you go every day, screw ups are where you end up learning. Friday pictures are better than Monday pictures, unless it's the following Monday.
How often do you lose, ruin or have the printer screw up a roll of film? What’s your average at this point?
It's pretty rare. That's one of those screw-ups that are so devastating that you really learn your lesson. I'm careful as hell about the pocket where the film is. I don't go process at sketchy new places, I pay a little more for a reliable lab. The list goes on. The most recent catastrophe was in Utah in February. I was at a Wal-Mart at noon on Super Bowl Sunday, and it was so mesmerizing with personality and oddness that my heart was pounding when I changed my film, and I didn't wind it right, and shot the whole next day on an empty roll. There was a roadkill deer with a helium "get well soon" balloon around its neck on the side of the road; an elderly couple that looked like they loved fishing, driving down a dusty gravel road holding a living cat out the driver’s side window; a great big fat couple kissing with their eyes closed on a motorcycle in Zion National Park. Thinking about it makes me wanna die. I won't make that mistake again.
Can you recall the last time you saw an image that truly resonated and actually moved you?
Well, hopefully I have a new answer every day. I saw a funny book the other day called Animals That Saw Me, Volume 2 by Ed Panar. I just randomly flipped through at a bookstore, and at first thought it was a pretty funny, stony book, all pics of animals making eye contact. But then I get to the back and there’s this whole academic engagement with the restorative emotional powers of being seen. So I flip back through, and sure enough, the animal eye contact starts stirring something in me like I almost wanna cry and wonder sincerely if I’m being healed, but also go off on ten other simultaneous thought tangents about how I mostly avoid eye contact in my pictures and what a missed opportunity that is, and how I have to try to work that in and see what happens—all while also considering the fact that I often look people in the eye while shooting them from my belly button, so maybe there’s some implication of intensity elsewhere. Anyways, my brain is a busy mess.
What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
People seem to think I'm mean and that my name is Arnold Daniel.
Is there anybody on this planet that you would like to photograph for any particular reason that you haven’t had the chance to or maybe never will?
I wish my grandma wasn't dead. I don't have enough pictures of her. She was a trip.
Should the world expect anything from Daniel Arnold in the future?
It would be great if they didn't, and everything I ever did could be a pleasant surprise. I'm not really goal-oriented. I like the long haul. You can expect me to stay delighted, overwhelmed, manic, blabber-y, miserable and working my ass off. Tomorrow, I'm going to Africa, so expect pictures with shorter buildings. I have lots of new walking-around work coming soon to The New York Times. Keep an eye on Vogue for the Met Ball and a trip to Japan. Oh, and hey, I’m teaching a Foto Wax workshop in Mexico City in July. I never did that before. You should come!
With the type of process and photographs you shoot, does it ever feel like an eternal endeavor with no finish line?
Yes. Always. There are no advancing triumphs. No benchmarks. I usually can't even tell if a photo is any good for a few months or longer. The pictures are a nice byproduct, but they're not really the point. It's more about the eternal endeavor. It's a whole-life kind of story. It may not always be photographic, who knows? It's a simple matter of honoring involuntary expressions of personality while doing the weird, painful job of being alive.