One recent morning, artist Daniel Arnold left Dimes, a New York restaurant on Canal Street with a cult following, and made it all of two blocks before he ran into an old friend, whom he greeted with a bear hug on the street. With his Leica M6 camera strapped around his left shoulder, Arnold shared pleasantries and then parted ways. It was one of many interactions of the sort that he’d be having that day.
“I have such a relationship with the city,” Arnold said. “I sort of now feel like the city has a relationship back with me.”
This Sunday, at a gallery called Larrie on the Lower East Side, which is around the corner from Dimes, Arnold is showing a new group of photographs featuring odd scenes he’s witnessed around New York. It’s about time he had his first show in the city, as his wildly popular work has been in magazines such as Vogue (he memorably shot the last Met Gala), the New York Times, and the New Yorker, and his Instagram has a cult following in itself, boasting a hefty 238,000 followers.
Arnold is most at home when he’s shooting his fellow New Yorkers, but he expressed a twinge of apprehension about having his first gallery show here. “It felt daunting enough that I never wanted to do it,” the Brooklyn-based artist said. The gallery scene, he went on, “is weird for photographers. Galleries don’t seem to know what to do with photos. And honestly, it’s hard for me to think of putting photos on a white wall. It’s hard for me to think of a way to make that interesting.”
This was a task made all the more difficult by one incredible show he’d seen recently, a Garry Winogrand survey at the Brooklyn Museum. Winogrand is best known for his perceptive black-and-white images of city slickers, but the show focuses on a largely unseen part of his oeuvre—his color work, displayed via a series of projected slideshows.
“The genius of that show is that you come in, and there’s this rinky-dink, dim, little bullshit slideshow, and then you go through the curtain and you’re like wow,” Arnold said.
Like Winogrand, Arnold takes photos that capture the humor, horror, and heart of what happens in a city that changes constantly. The results depict a breadth of familiar yet strange New York City sights.
The scenes that Arnold captures, while gnarly and often tongue-in-cheek, also convey a sense of tenderness. In one work that will be in the show, a woman poses for a selfie with a coconut drink in front of a nucleus of policemen. In another, a towheaded baby holds a sign that reads, “Does life have a purpose?” And in yet another, a woman shows off her pet snake with a look of triumph. The scenes are funny, unsettling, and beautiful, all in equal measure. He describes his headspace while shooting them as being “like a falling-in-love level of intense brain chemistry.”
With the show soon to open, Arnold remains suspicious of the art world and its exhibition spaces, partly because he believes it wouldn’t be appropriate to immortalize a city that’s constantly changing. In spite of all that, Arnold speaks confidently of his work. When asked what the show captures, he brought up the story of Carl Sagan and his partner Ann Druyan launching a golden record into space, so that it could be found by extraterrestrial lifeforms.
“They, in their demented ‘in love-ness,’ decided to record their biorhythms at the height of their being in love, convert them into audio, press it into a gold record to be shot into space,” the photographer said. “Very romantic, not necessarily the most practical. But as a gesture, to be like, this is the ultimate human thing. Sentimentally, that’s the through-line of the show. I’m trying to make this emotional fossil.”
“I’m not on a photographic mission,” he told me later. “I’m having a human experience that I’m trying to not even capture—I just want to have it.”