A warm beanie pulled snuggly over his head, the bushy-bearded photographer Daniel Arnold takes a seat on the patio of a Brooklyn bar on a frosty evening in early March. Despite the cold, Arnold opens up like a steamed clam, quick and easy: in the first three minutes of conversation, he reveals that it’s the eve of his 33rd birthday, a day that always makes him anxious, and that he’s just resigned from his job as the animation manager for Nickelodeon’s website, a decision that he’s still grappling with. In a word, Arnold is candid—and that makes a lot of sense.
You see, among millions of Instagram users, Daniel Arnold has distinguished himself and attracted a well-respected following by offering stunning images of New Yorkers that are at once raw and perfectly-balanced; refined and utterly frank. His work is so well-known in New York’s media circle that when Instagram booted Arnold for posting a photo of two topless women on a beach in the summer of 2012, it actually made news. Despite his limited following at the time (roughly 1,500), Gawker’s Adrian Chen penned “The Best Photographer on Instagram Got Banned for Posting Boobs,” a story that garnered nearly 100,000 views. Since then, Arnold’s changed account names (you can find him at Arnold_Daniel) and attracted more followers than ever—more than 17,000. That might not sound impressive by @badgalriri’s standards, but consider what’s on offer here: a portrait of a woman gingerly combing out a wig in the subway; a sharply dressed man neatly bisected by a building’s shadow; a man’s head floating over a banister. Chen compared Arnold’s work to Walker Evans, but there’s something of Robert Frank and Diane Arbus here too: an eagerness to unmask his subjects, or indulge in the dark and the abnormal.
In the last few months, many of Arnold’s posts have focused on New York subway riders. We caught up with the photographer to discuss the ethics of taking photos surreptitiously, being compassionate to his subjects, and Instagram’s primal nature.
I understand that when you first moved to New York you wanted to be a writer?
Yeah, I wanted to write about music. I started off as a die-hard music guy and got a job at this teenybopper website that doesn’t exist anymore. They hired me to run their music page and basically forgot I existed on day one. I parlayed that [job] into access to the whole music world, met as many people as I could, and went out every night. That’s where the photography thing started. In addition to feeling really excited about bands, I’d take pictures, just for my own satisfaction. I was so overwhelmed by New York, coming from Milwaukee. I took pictures to keep track. My mom bought me a camera for Hanukkah and I just started using it obsessively.
What brought you to the subway?
I was always taking pictures, and I’ve always had a real romance with the subway. Before I had a phone that took pictures, I’d go on there and scope everyone out and think, If I had the opportunity to take one person from this car and I had the balls to be like, ‘Can I take your picture?’, who would I pick? Who is the one person on this car that is interesting enough to take a picture of? So, when I finally did end up having a phone that took decent pictures, it was a totally natural, mindless thing.
So by the time Instagram came around you were ready for it?
By the time Instagram started—and I was late getting into it—I had a huge backlog of cartoony subway photos and around town photos. I just took to it really fast because I was ready to go.
Your Instagram account took off pretty fast, right?
It definitely feels like it happened right away. I mean, it didn’t happen right away. I was lucky enough in the very beginning to stumble into a kind of influential audience. Definitely getting kicked off [for the topless beach photo] was a huge moment.
Do you regret taking the photo?
Oh God no. I mean, not in an ambitious career way, at all. I don’t feel like I did anything bad. I was at the beach and there were topless girls putting on a show for each other and they were in plain view. I get shit for it. People think I’m a creep, and I don’t blame them. Out of context and not knowing me, it’s a pretty weird hobby I’ve fallen into, but I definitely didn’t feel any guilt about that.
What’s the impetus behind these subway photos?
I have a 9-to-5 job in Times Square. I spend a huge portion of my free time commuting and I have an obsessive photography habit. I go into this place every day, which is full of unbelievable characters, emotion, other worldly situations, and fantastic lighting. And people are so shut down in the subway. Well, not shut down, but isolated. It’s the perfect venue.
What’s your method?
There’s no regular method. It’s just something I’ve gotten really tuned into. When I’m on there, I get in the mentality of looking for interesting situations. You can tell in a crowd, with some accuracy, who’s going to do something interesting. Like, there’s a group of friends talking loudly or goofing around. You learn that if you hang around them for a few minutes, they’re bound to do something interesting. Or a lot of it is, for lack of a better word, fashion-based: Someone who draws the eye. Someone that, when you spend enough time with them, creates drama around them or makes their surroundings look more significant than they are.
Do you care if people are aware you’re taking their photo?
I care to the extent that I don’t want to have a confrontation. I’ve gotten grief about this from friends. I don’t care in a moral way. A lot of people take away from what I’ve been doing an exploitation factor or a mockery, which I can see, but—I feel goofy defending myself—that’s not my motivation at all.
There are definitely some cruel things said in the comment sections of your photos.
Oh yeah, it comes up in the comments and at parties. Angry drunk people being like, “Do you have compassion for other people? What are you doing?” I don’t know. More than anything, [New York] is such an endlessly interesting city. Person to person, people put on so many layers of artifice and armor. They’re so consciously prepared for the world. Inevitably there are moments when all of that becomes transparent and they’re just a shitty, honest, basic version of themselves no matter how dressed up or guarded they are. I think that’s what keeps me looking.
Have you ever had a violent confrontation?
No. The worst was when I was on the subway on the way to work one morning and there was this little girl, probably 8 or 9 years old. She was sitting there, seemingly by herself with these big red apple cheeks and glasses. On one of her cheeks was this big, hook-shaped scar. It was stitched up like a baseball and her face was just…you couldn’t look at anything else in the room. So, I pulled out my phone and took a few pictures casually. This guy, who I didn’t notice was sitting next to her, kind of rears up and looks at me, squares his shoulders, and says, “You taking pictures?” And I say, Yeah. And he says, “Well, I hope you’re not taking pictures of my kids.” Which is such a devastating line because I’m, like, in the insolated world of a harmless little project, but if you’re some angry dad whose kid is getting their picture taken on the subway, it’s a whole different story. So, I immediately change my story and say, No, no. There’s a guy sleeping down at the end of the car. I just had my phone out. You see so much on the subway, I figured just in case.. He’s like, “Okay. I hope that’s true.” And I was like, Yeah. Yeah. That’s true. That’s true. Thank God the train stopped at the station at the point. I got out and went to the next car.
I got to the end of the next car, not really fearful whatsoever. I thought we were at the end of our conversation and that it was done. So, I’m in the next car, flipping through photos, seeing what I got, and a stop or two goes by and I get a tap on my shoulder and I turn around and it’s the guy. And I have my phone in hand, photo album open. He’s like, ‘Hey, you mind if I take a look at that?’ And I’m like, ‘Alright.’ Thank God I was a ways back. I was at photos of the sleeping guy in the car that I had specifically mentioned to him. So, he starts flipping through.
It was the craziest feeling. When I was 13, I got my tonsils taken out and they left a little hole in the back of my throat. I hemorrhaged and threw up two liters of my blood onto my chest. It was one of those crises moments that gives you this really matter-of-fact state of mind where you’re like, Okay. Something really bad is happening, but there’s nothing I can do about it. That was how I felt. He’s flipping through my photos and I swear to God, he gets to the point where the next picture on my phone was a close-up of his daughter’s face. I just feel like the worst fucking piece of shit on earth. And, for some reason, he says, “Okay,” hands me my phone back and apologizes. He goes back to the other car where he’s left his poor kids alone so that he could be a good dad.
As a photographer primarily known for your Instagram photos, do you worry about not being taken seriously?
Because Instagram is so novel, undeveloped, and cell phone-based, in terms of credibility and actually translating it into work, it’s pretty unstable. I have 10, 15 years worth of non-cell phone photography that I feel proud of, but it’s different. It’s a little scary to be new to the public eye and have the threat of being pigeon-holed as a cell phone photographer—as this novelty act. It fucks with my confidence. I don’t feel convinced that I have something to offer beyond sneak pics on the subway. I do in good moments, but it’s an easy trap to wonder what I’m actually doing.
But that’s an issue a lot of artists face, Instagram-based and otherwise.
Totally. My overall creative experience in New York has been majorly seasoned by this problem that, no matter what you do, no matter how innovated and inspired and talented you are, there are a thousand assholes doing the same thing. In your own head, they’re doing it worse than you, but that doesn’t really matter. It can be such a stumbling block to look out on the world and be like, Why even bother? But I think with [that question] also always comes, Why not? I don’t know. I don’t have great expectations, I just want to give in to the tide and see what happens.