Rituals and Repetition on the Street with Daniel Arnold
"I don’t want to succeed in a way that makes me comfortable. It’s much more interesting to stay a nervous outsider."
Daniel Arnold is a prolific photographer who has gained celebrity status for his raw and experiential images of life on the streets of New York. When I met Daniel earlier this year, I found his outlook on life took me back to being a student, when I would wander the streets tirelessly searching for photographs. I knew straight away I wanted to chat more with Daniel; he would remind me of what making photographs is all about.
We met at his apartment in Chinatown and walked to his local film lab. Late afternoon purple light filled the street, and as we both paced round the bend on Doyers Street I sensed Daniel lift his camera. He swiveled 45 degrees, took a picture, lowered his camera, and we kept moving. The act brought no attention to us. I looked back and caught a woman draped in a red hairdresser’s cape and plastic hair wrap. She drew deeply on a cigarette and stared down at the street. Daniel had seen something in that moment that I had missed. As we reached the end of the street I turned again and made a wide landscape of the scene so I would remember what Daniel saw. There was something cinematic about it. The woman continued to smoke alone. I turned and we popped into traffic and sunlight on Pell Street, a completely different world of New York.
As we walked on, I wondered what I would have felt about the street if Daniel hadn't seen the woman smoking. I’d walked down this street dozens of times and had no specific memories of it. I suspect without Daniel, I would have seen nothing at all.
Adam: I wasn’t in New York for the first few months of the pandemic; you followed it intensely. What happened to this city and the streets?
Daniel: It got really, really, really quiet. And not necessarily in a visually interesting way. I have conversations with people about that first wave of the pandemic. I figured everybody was going to have the same pictures of the empty street—which, true. My move was to articulate that thing to myself ambitiously. You go anyway.
I still can’t make sense of the 2020 pile of pictures. I still think a lot of it is boring. I was in a rhythm of photography being a dialogue because Instagram was so central to my first push. Taking out the participatory editing process changed my relationship with the work and my relationship with the job. It started to feel almost religious because there was no assignment, no guaranteed personal gain of any kind, no audience, no dialogue. There wasn’t even much self-reflection.
It’s such a rare pinpoint to have everybody focused on the same thing in the world and have no escape from it.
Adam: When I covered breaking news as a photojournalist, I always struggled with being surrounded by other photographers. It made me question if my work was essential to the conversation. How do you reconcile that as a street photographer in New York City? When I saw you the other afternoon, there were probably 20 or 30 other photographers in Washington Square Park with a Leica in hand.
Daniel: I know, it’s ridiculous.
Adam: You’re also a street photographer celebrity at this point. I saw people come up to you and say hello or ask to take a photo with you. How do you find your lane?
Daniel: This whole practice is so ritualistic, so repetitive, so unmotivated by any specific trigger. I’m doing it all day anyway. Even when I’m in a crowd of photographers, I’m not thinking about competing with them. I’m thinking: how does this add to the bigger picture of the world? I was working on a commission recently, and there were a ton of photographers on site, tons of social media content makers, and everybody with their camera phone. I couldn’t have got into this place just by walking my usual routes. I guess that’s not great journalistically because it’s very self-serving.
Adam: Do you consider yourself a journalist or an artist?
Daniel: I relate to journalism, but I think being a journalist is determined externally. If I’m not hired as a journalist, I don’t consider myself a journalist. This past year I reached out to different desks at the New York Times, saying, “I’m out there if you ever need anything. I’m ready to go.” And they didn’t even write me back. I didn’t get any journalistic assignments in the most news-driven year ever.
Adam: That’s surprising and kind of crazy. But you ended up doing a big project for the Times retroactively?
Daniel: That comes from having a relationship with an editor. I showed her what I’d been up to, and she was like, I think I can use these. It was never an assignment.
And for being an artist, I don’t know. I have a complicated relationship with that word because it’s so poisoned by context. I’m putting all my free energy—like an unreasonable amount of time and energy—to communicate my emotional experience in some abstract way. I don't know what else is an artist.
Adam: When I see your work, I know it’s a Daniel picture. You see things in a specific way. How have you cultivated your creative vision? A mutual friend of ours once said, “It’s crazy when Daniel’s on the street, shit just happens.” Does shit just happen?
Daniel: Any point of view, any distinct voice that I’ve landed on, it’s not a thing I have sought out. It’s not a thing that I have intentionally fine-tuned. There is a process when I’m editing; when I look back through all the work and think okay, which one gets to me?
Adam: Like trial and error, focusing on what is successful.
Daniel: New York is a city where if you are looking for a thing, you find it. The real value of going out every day—making mediocre pictures and occasionally getting a good one—is that you build up a virtual library in your head of minor failures. This failure cumulatively informs the idea of what you’re looking for. The next time the world is on the verge of doing a similar thing, you are more likely to tune into it in time to catch it.
Adam: Is it primarily an intuitive dance where it all aligns for a moment? Or is it more of a logical and pragmatic kind of work ethic?
Daniel: I’ve always leaned into work ethic over talent. Some people have an easier time communicating visually than others. But to me, it’s a matter of how hard you work, how often you work, how dedicated you are, and how obsessed you get.
I didn’t think one day, okay, I’m going to pursue street photography. I didn’t set out to topple Garry Winogrand or emulate Joel Meyerowitz. I’m ravenous to make something every day. I’m eager to be productive and communicate emotionally and visually.
Adam: Winogrand once said that “Street photography is a stupid term.” I was curious to know how you felt about that.
Daniel: The street is a better place to shoot than my apartment because there are more people there. But if something happens in my apartment, I’ll take a picture in my apartment. It happens that the street is bigger than the indoors and easier to access. If you want to work all day, you can go work all day. I think I’m addicted to working. Street photography is a differentiator between setting up lights and executing an idea. I think it’s used pejoratively a lot, at least by photographers who don’t do it.
Adam: I was talking about how there were a bunch of other photographers there the other day in Washington Square Park. Photography has changed so much since Robert Frank took the images that became The Americans, or William Eggleston’s Guide was published in 1976. Everyone has a camera on their phone; everyone is a photographer. Why do you find random moments valid, journalistically or artistically?
Daniel: These moments change your experience of the world. They combat loneliness and laziness; they make you feel productive and tuned in. Found moments incentivize going out of your way to value your surroundings and to pay attention to your life, to be delighted by arbitrary little things. It’s like every time you go outside, you choose to assign beauty and value the world, the way that a person would do if they were seeing it for the first time.
The early days of Instagram were like watching a language being invented. People had an intuitive sense of how to take a picture.
Adam: You started as a writer. What caused you to switch to photography?
Daniel: I moved to New York when I was 23. At that point, the most crucial thing in the world seemed to be to write about music—it was a very 23-year-old idea of the world.
I made a living for ten years, but there’s a natural curiosity for any thinking person to use a camera. Not because I was a photographer, but because everywhere you go, there’s a thing you want proof of.
I made it a few months without a camera, and then my mom sent me one for Hanukkah, a Hewlett Packard digital SLR, five megapixels. It was the Costco special, but it did the job.
I started carrying it everywhere, and I was utterly incapable of using it. I was scared to death of the city. To take a picture of a stranger, are you out of your mind? I had pictures of people’s feet and graffiti and the view out my window—typical new guy in New York stuff. I had nothing to prove and nobody to impress.
I was too new and intimidated by the city, and the camera was just the best excuse to go places. I could go anywhere and put my camera in front of my face, and then I didn’t exist. I was very interested in music. I would take my camera to a show or two every night and figured out how to use it and make my memories.
Adam: When I first started as a student, I was terrified, and I did a similar thing to you. I’d photograph abstract, obscure things because it was a big deal to engage someone with a camera, especially a stranger. How did you overcome this?
Daniel: The iPhone was a huge breakthrough. Suddenly I had this spy camera. I could stick the iPhone right up your nose, take pictures of your nose hair, and you would never know. Then Instagram comes along, and suddenly there was a use for those pictures. It was just a perfect storm.
I had spent ten years in a creative industry with people doing jobs that are only okay for 23- to 27-year-olds. Inevitably this creative community moved on and spread out. By the time I’m 33 and have this exciting thing bubbling up, I had the perfect network. The pictures went straight to the right people.
Adam: It’s interesting that you start as a product of Instagram, having your cell phone and technology in your hands. But then you come back to working analogically on a rangefinder.
Daniel: I needed some proof of concept to give me the courage to really pursue photography. That was what the phone did.
I had made this superficial splash on social media. I thought I could probably have a book on the table at Urban Outfitters in six months, and then I could remake that book over and over again and be a prisoner of it for the rest of my life. Or I could use this as an opportunity to keep learning.
Adam: So you feel like you let some opportunities go in the short term to retain creative integrity long term?
Daniel: For sure. I think I continue to.
Adam: That’s a tough decision to make as a younger creative.
Daniel: Any opportunity I’ve had for a typical arrival moment, I reject. I’ve had plenty of offers from agents, book editors—career milestones. My feeling is that the longer any of these things take, the better off I’ll be. I don’t know if that’s wise or stupid. Maybe I am indecisive. Maybe I’m just a coward.
I don’t want to succeed in a way that makes me comfortable, or makes me feel like I’m on a defined path. It’s much more interesting to me to stay a nervous outsider. I guess in some sort of involuntary way, I cultivate that.
Adam: It’s hard to make a book. Part of it is not being mature enough to see the work properly. That’s probably the main reason I haven't made one, to be honest. But not doing one kept me hungry also. And I know that when I do make one, it’s going to be better than it would have been earlier in my life.
Daniel: I have this nagging insecurity about it too. Like, “No, you dipshit. You didn’t make a book because you’re some wise arbiter of your opportunities.” You don’t make a book because it’s hard and scary to make a book. It’s a tremendous commitment; it’s a huge job. It’s super overwhelming.
I have a very specific, meaningful, personal book idea. There is a book being made in the background that I have been very hands-off about.
Adam: How do you feel about surrendering editing control to someone else instead of giving it more time and editing yourself?
Daniel: On the one hand, it’s like a spa treatment. It’s interesting to see how somebody else makes sense of what you do, especially when you give them a lot to sift through. It’s like a very indulgent thing. And I’m very lucky that smart people are willing to put their time into a job that I don’t have the patience for.
Adam: When you come back from when you’re out working, how do you edit? What are you looking for?
Daniel: There are so many ways a photo makes it past the first edit. A lot of the time, it’s just the cheap satisfaction of like, “It’s in focus and it’s in the box.” That’s a thing that’s only cured by time; your emotional attachment to success wears off after a while. You can see it outside of your accomplishment of taking them.
Adam: What happens when you point a camera at a stranger on the street? Do people get upset? Do you get much pushback?
Daniel: It used to feel much more confrontational. I think it’s mostly surprise and curiosity now. It’s funny how parks and public gathering places are now overrun with squads of street photographers. Inevitably there are angry people, but I can’t think of the last time I dealt with that.
Adam: There are a lot of metaphors in your work—juxtapositions that speak about social class. Do you see these in the moment or when you're editing?
Daniel: When it comes to socio-political stuff that's often in the moment, it triggers me. I think the second you put a camera to your face and look at somebody and they see you, you lose the moment. I don't spend a lot of time looking through a viewfinder. I'm much more comfortable shooting from the hip.
Adam: To clarify, when you talk about the shooting from the hip, you literally shoot from your hip?
Adam: If you could guess, what percentage of your photographs happen like that?
Daniel: Most of them. Here's a useless analogy: I'm colorblind, and being colorblind inevitably leads to having lots of conversations where people try to have you explain your colorblindness to them. I can't explain my colorblindness; it just is. I have no language for the alternative. Unless I use the viewfinder, you don't know I'm taking a picture.
If I had the discipline, I would love to force myself to be more thoughtful about composition. But the surprise or the success of a picture is so much more gratifying when you relinquish control, when you feel more like a conduit than a craftsman.
Adam: Is there anything about photography that you struggle with?
Daniel: Any path to cultural glory is so confused by external expectations—other people's stories, other people's work. As much as I value community and love how much it connects me with the world, it's frustrating that you can't do your thing in a vacuum.
Adam: It’s hard to take a personal vision and replicate that on demand for paid work. I mean, most paid work isn’t a photographer going out into the world to find pictures that mean something personally and in their own time. How do you navigate this when you get an assignment or commission?
Daniel: For a while, I was getting assignments that felt very specific to my perceived interests. Someone would find something weird or quirky or offbeat and be like, oh, give it to Daniel. But now I have a decent track record of taking something boring and making it feel like my world. There are photo editors who get something and think, how is this possibly going to be interesting? And they give it to me because it’s a problem that I’ve solved before. The flow of assignments has been altered by the past year, although my own thing has had so much space because of it. I’ve really pounded on it, really exhausted myself walking in circles in New York, because having time in the pandemic year felt so precious, like a thing that would never come again.
Adam: How do you operate on a film or fashion set with people who have demands and restrictions around what you can do? Do you do the same thing, or do you have to change?
Daniel: I end up doing the same thing, but in a completely different way. I function by default, like a chicken with its head cut off. It's such an act of desperation. The whole operation is a fucking scam. Nobody knows what they want, and they hire you to be the kind of magic connector; we want a thing, and here are the tools. I've just gotten comfortable enough in that dynamic that I don't think about photography. I know how to take a picture without thinking about it.
There's part of me that cannot help but strive to be a good employee. Hopefully, I get enough vision in the edit to pull that stuff out that makes the cut. As high stakes as a job may be, even though I'm getting paid more than I've ever been paid before, I don't feel that beholden to the outcome or the consequences. I know no matter how glorious an opportunity might be, it just disappears. It means nothing very quickly.
Adam: You don't photograph anywhere else unless you get a job right? Your work is New York?
Daniel: My work is wherever I am. But you are correct in that having a purpose at home does make me less ambitious about going elsewhere. I feel sort of embarrassed by ambition, like the idea of picking a place in the world and going there on a trip to take pictures. Maybe I'm just making excuses for being a cautious person, but I'm also actively engaged in trying to rewrite that part of my nature.
Daniel Arnold is a music writer turned photographer based in New York City. His Instagram bio says “selfies,” although his work has been featured in Vogue and The New York Times.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.