Arnold, who first made a name for himself on Instagram (where he now has 141,000 followers) with a stream of candid snaps of strangers on the street, is not a street style photographer in the way we’ve come to know them. Instead, he takes a faded page from Bill Cunningham’s book by capturing the normals of the world en route to work, riding the subway or navigating the city’s erratic weather. His work, done using a Contax G2 or Leica M6, both film cameras, is not sexy or glamorous, or perfect — and so, in many ways, it feels anti-fashion — but that outsider perspective has clearly seduced a few insiders.
“It all started very innocently,” he said of his decision to pick up a camera about four years ago when he left a career in writing behind. “It was a way to manage visual and emotional overload, and it was also an excuse to walk into rooms where I wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable.”
Mary-Kate Olsen at the 2016 Met Gala, shot by Daniel Arnold for Vogue
Thanks to the Vogue relationship, he’s now walked into a few of those rooms on the fashion scene — including the Met Gala and shows at New York Fashion Week. The magazine first hired him in 2014 to photograph a hair-cutting event they held in Madison Square Park with famed hairdresser Christiaan. “I had never heard about him before,” said Arnold, describing the event as “the expected frenzy of pretty New York women.”
Due to the glut of street-style photographers, like Adam Katz Sinding of Le 21ème and Nabile Quenum of J’ai Perdu Ma Veste, we’ve grown used to seeing pretty New York women (or pretty women from anywhere, really) captured in photos. Arnold’s pictures, however — even those of pretty women in the park — offer something a little more raw than the hyper-stylized results that churn out of fashion week and other industry events.
“Arnold takes more of a photojournalistic approach to his work – not just in the subjects he shoots, but in capturing what Henri Cartier-Bresson dubbed ‘the decisive moment,’” said Kane Giblin, a digital imaging specialist at the Utopia agency. “You can tell that he keeps a camera on hand at all times to capture spontaneous moments and eccentric characters.” This is a breath of fresh air, she said, from “the endless hordes of Pinterest-worthy fashionistas” that have become the industry’s bread and butter.
Of course, that hasn’t always been the case; though fashion has long been a perfectionistic industry, street photography itself wasn’t always so contrived. Photographers like Cunningham, Amy Arbus and even Richard Avedon (who shot on the street alongside his better-known editorial work) were not part of a street-style system that forces event attendees to dress-for-photographic-success and photographers to gather en masse to capture their photos. Their subjects were not always the pretty people, but simply those who, in passing, stood out.
A couple on the street, shot by Daniel Arnold for The New York Times Styles
Alexandra Jacobs, a former fashion critic and editor for The New York Times and now features editor, laments what she sees as the lost art of documenting social history. “What is being documented now at fashion weeks is narcissism and peacock behavior, and … at events, [it’s] corporate product placement,” she said. “A million cameras are now oriented toward the enrichment and promotion of the individual, and trends in dress have all but vanished, but for broad-swath changes like people wearing sweatpants to the airport.”
“There is certainly something lost in a staged street-style shoot,” said Giblin, adding that the roots of it lie in a form of photojournalism with appeal that was born directly out of its spontaneity. “Photojournalism is a way to tell a visual story, and while fashion photography isn’t storytelling in the same way [the work of] Martin Parr or Garry Winogrand would, it is still a way to tell a punctuated story,” she said.
But what story is being told when such imagery is endlessly thought-out and prepared for?
Arnold, for his part, said the beauty of his partnerships with Vogue is that the publication is open to his perspective, and it never pushes him in a certain direction. “The most instruction I’ve gotten from them all along is, ‘Do your thing,”’ he said, referring to the Vogue team as his family of sorts.
NYFW spring 2016, shot by Daniel Arnold
It’s not a bad family to have. Vogue has sent him everywhere from Paris to the Midwest (where Arnold grew up) for a wide range of special projects, from capturing the fashion week hordes to highlighting “real” American women for the glossy’s 100th anniversary.
When asked what he thinks his appeal is to this uber-particular cohort, Arnold is quick to make a distinction between Vogue, the magazine, and Vogue.com (where most of his work resides). “They’re very different beasts,” he said. “The magazine does more to uphold the long story and to guard that stately reputation, [while] Vogue.com is more future-minded, more daring and experimental.”
And at a time when so much imagery seems tweaked to perfection, he believes calculated photography is less exciting: “It’s become a much easier job to make things look perfect.”
Even, and especially, at a chaotic event like fashion week.
“Street-style photography [should] allow us to see beyond the outfit,” said Giblin. “It falters at an event like New York Fashion Week [because people dress] solely to be seen.” And the bulk of photographers sitting on the sidelines are just there to capture those hyper-stylized looks, usually after directing their subjects to pose a certain way, or five.
Arnold doesn’t take that track. “My general process is just to have fun and worry about the clothing in the edit,” he said. As such, he found his one turn at New York Fashion Week for Vogue in 2014 to be overwhelming and “silently declared to never do it again.” Careful not to trod on those who do partake, however, he added: “I have lots of respect for whoever is hustling that hard, but it’s definitely a different approach than mine, and I found it really difficult.”
Christopher Bailey and Blake Lively at the 2016 Met Gala, shot by Daniel Arnold for Vogue
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Arnold capturing that chaos in the contrived way the industry has chased after for so many years. The results from that one turn, like the photos he’s taken at the Met Gala, have a much less polished, quirkier appeal than its counterparts. Rather than paparazzi-like, each seems to capture something honest about the subject, be it the actual stress of fashion week or a private exchange with a friend. “[Deciding what to shoot] is very abstract,” said Arnold of his process. “It’s an emotional game: What do you feel moved by?”
As long as he has that freedom to operate on his whims, he’ll continue to enjoy working in fashion. “I really like [fashion] to the extent that it is a foreign planet that I constantly have to re-figure out, and a microcosm that has so many standards and internal rules that are just begging to be broken,” he said. “It’s a very fun place to work because, if you are given enough leeway, there’s a lot of language to screw around with.”
Fashion, always intrigued by those outsiders who don’t simply submit to their tried-and-true rules, seems equally smitten. “[Arnold’s work] is like Visine for the eye, [one] exhausted by the mass fakery and posturing of the internet,” said Jacobs.