Daniel Arnold: The Blackbird Spyplane Interview
Sneak-gifting the homies, filling yr crib w/ cool art, and photographing NYC’s open secrets
Daniel Arnold — he’s walked around New York City for the better part of a decade FLICKING UP THE STREETS ingeniously!! He started out on some amateur-enthusiast s**t, a young Milwaukee buck stepping timidly thru the metropolis… Then became a Professional Photographic Don, shooting for places like the New York Times and Vogue while staging gallery shows and FEEDING his excellent IG acct, where his work took off in the first place …
Years before Daniel quit his 9-to-5 as a writer to make pictures full time, photography “was kind of a matter of necessity to me,” he says. “I moved to New York from Milwaukee when I was 23, and inevitably there’s a parade of things you see all day long that you want to keep. So having a camera in hand was a way to manage that overload, and also it was a forcefield for a nervous kid who was scared to even, like, go into bars. Suddenly I could go in any room, and not have to worry about dancing, not have to worry about talking — I could just stand there with my camera.”
Daniel’s taste is Mach 3+, so we asked him to tell us about some rare & cherished possessions — he wound up giving us an “Elite Virtual SpyTour” of his Chinatown apartment … AND tipping us off to an amazing way to ENCHANT yr friends thru anonymous jawn-giving.
Blackbird Spyplane: You grow yr own herbs AND you have an elaborate fire-escape bird-feeder configuration… Can you tell us more about this gorpy urban eden??
Daniel Arnold: “I’m not a guy who goes out of my way for my own pleasure, but I have this cat, Peanut, and now a girlfriend, and I end up doing things to make their lives more pleasant which make my life more pleasant in the process. I felt guilty that Peanut was living under this delusion for 12 years straight that my apartment is the entire universe, so I got grow lights and started growing catnip for her, and with the birdfeeders, there’s this streaming show on [cursed company name redacted] where someone pointed their camera at a birdfeeder, and my cat loved watching it — she’d try to get behind the TV to see where the birds were. So now I’ve got this fire escape and every time I buy these big jugs of Trader Joe’s coffee beans I carve them into these homemade bird-feeder things. I’ve got this weird array of 3 out there, and I’m making a fourth.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Home-growing that LOUD catnip, yes!! Which kinds of birds come by?
Daniel Arnold: “Mostly doves and sparrow-type buddies. Some bluejays, but they’re tougher customers, and a couple kinds of woodpeckers, but they’re rarer.”
Blackbird Spyplane: That’s a lesson for everyone — wherever U R, nature is there, too…
Daniel Arnold: “Yeah, I’d never expect any interesting wildlife in Chinatown, so when a bluejay comes to the window I feel incredibly flattered. It seems impossible.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You were a set photographer on Uncut Gems, a Top 5 All-Time Blackbird SpyFilm — how’d that come about?
Daniel Arnold: “Well I was a more extensive set-photographer on Good Time. Josh and Benny Safdie had this idea where, on the set of Annie, John Huston got this unbelievable line-up of photographers to rotate through, like Gary Winogrand, Eggleston, maybe Stephen Shore — there’s a book about it. So they wanted to do a modernization of that concept and had a few people come through before me, and when I showed up I said, ‘I want to be here all the time.’ With Uncut Gems it was a bigger production where the set photographer was a union job, so I couldn’t do it, but I came for the last few days.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s an affinity between you and the Safdies, and with John Wilson, who we also love & interviewed for the newsletter — you all take New York City, this place that’s been endlessly photographed, and still find surprising things to show us about it.
Daniel Arnold: “John and I were doing very likeminded obssessive work in unison without knowing it for years, and finally enough people who know us both said, You gotta meet. What he pulled off with his show is amazing. I’m blown away.
“But yeah New York’s a very romantic place, and it’s changed my experience of being on the planet. To begin with, it’s so ‘target rich',’ but then you get obsessed because it’s this place that shows you so many different ways of doing it. Of living. It’s addictive to study what people do and why, all against the most perfect backdrop.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I know yr a big eBay digger — what do you look for on there?
Daniel Arnold: “The answer connects to how I do everything, which is I take random sideways stabs and try to be surprised. I keep it in the clothing category, but I’ll think of a name or a place and see what turns up. And what ends up happening because of being inundated with stuff is that I buy friends presents anonymously — stuff randomly shows up at their houses from me. I like the power that the internet gives you to create inexplicable little pieces of magic: a thing shows up at your door for no reason.”
Blackbird Spyplane: That’s fantastic — U R like a Year-Round Jewish Secret Santa!
Daniel Arnold: “I connect it to my grandmother — she’d show up for visits with a suitcase full of garbage for you, like, every book from the Judaica bookshop that had your name in the title. It’s a little rebellion against chaos, to connect a piece of flotsam in the world with someone who’d appreciate it.”
Blackbird Spyplane: All right, so what’s up with this faceless Mona Lisa on yr wall?
Daniel Arnold: “My grandpa painted this 60 years ago, for my mom to wear as a Halloween costume. The story’s that my grandpa had this house in White Plains for decades, and he’s from another planet — he’s the kind of guy who, in a way I feel very connected to, couldn’t walk past garbage on someone’s lawn without taking something home to tinker with. His whole house was customized. It had a round living room that he intended to put a hot tub in the middle of, then that was too glamorous for my grandparents’ lifestyle so it didn’t happen, but there were all these pocket doors, secret cabinets… His personal touch was everywhere.
“He invented animatronics when he was young — there’s a bit of family lore where he showed his prototype to Disney, they held on to it, and then they put out ‘It’s a Small World’ without him. He made the animatronic Howdy Doody puppet for NBC — he still has it, it still moves and talks.
“He’s industrious, because he grew up in the Depression, hanging out in his father’s furniture reupholstery store. Then he ends up with three kids and all of a sudden his whole art-fantasy of life gets edged out by a more practical, necessity-based life. But there was all kinds of stuff like this painting around the house, which no longer exists.”
Blackbird Spyplane: When you don’t know it was a Halloween costume, it’s pretty eerie.
Daniel Arnold: “Ha ha yeah, and that’s my main trick, too — remove the context and things become a little more magical!
“My great-grandpa was an artist, too — he painted this from a photo, for a woman whose husband was killed at war. But she was too heartbroken and never picked it up.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Damn…
Daniel Arnold: “We only overlapped on the planet very briefly, but he was this unappreciated, low-key-great portrait painter — I think about it as like a DNA thing that’s been passed down to my grandpa and to me, like I’m continuing the story. ‘We’re all on the same mission.’ I don’t think that actively, but it’s nice to think of yrself as part of a lineage, at least in terms of these mementos.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Yr place is also filled with artwork by friends. What’s the drawing hanging over the desk?
Daniel Arnold: “That’s by my good friend Meriem Bennani, who has blown up since this was drawn. She’s got a video playing in the middle of the atrium at the Guggenheim now. But at the time she drew this, we were both scrappers in obscurity, and it’s probably a throwaway for her, but I love it.”
Blackbird Spyplane: It’s great. I also love that you have 2 drawings by Joe Roberts a.k.a. LSD WORLD PEACE resting on either side of a Tide-box cat-bed …
Daniel Arnold: “I’ve been in this apartment a year and a half and haven’t gotten around to putting nails in the walls! But yeah, when I make money from print sales I’ve used it as a way to spread money around to other artists — when I got these, Joe was a little bit further behind in his meteoric rise. I met him through this random vaguely corporate commission where I got flown out to San Francisco. I have an ex-girlfriend who’d worked with him at Amoeba in the past and had a big crush on him — then I met him and saw what he did and I said, I guess I have a crush on you, too. He’s a true weirdo, and very deeply engaged in what he does, because it requires constant mind-alteration.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Yeah, for readers who R unfamiliar, he’s fantastic — he eats psychedelics and paints his visions…
Daniel Arnold: “I’ve got this cool 3D one of his room, too. He’s not bound by any formality. He takes a bunch of DMT and sees what happens.”
-Daniel’s on Instagram here and his site’s here.
-He’s photographed NYC for the Times a bunch, including here, here, here and here.
-You can see some of his favorite Met Gala shots at Vogue here.
Every “Blackbird Spyplane Interview,” w/ such luminaries of the arts & jawn sciences as Jerry Seinfeld, André 3000, Emily Bode, Lorde, Online Ceramics, Nathan Fielder, Phoebe Bridgers, Rashida Jones, John Wilson, Ezra Koenig and more, is here.
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