When I first sat down to write, I felt an uncomfortable compulsion to defend the work of photographer Daniel Arnold against comments posted on his Instagram. Three weeks later, after his one-day sale reported on by Forbes, there's much more to defend. It's anathema to me to have to defend art. With no inherent purpose, art exists outside of both defense and recrimination. Besides, to defend art is to give credence to the accusations levelled against it, and in the case of Arnold, the accusations and animus are puerile and fatuous.
Primarily a documentary photographer, Arnold takes many pictures of New York. But I want to address the photographs he takes on the New York City subway system. Arnold manages, with an iPhone and a few apps that allow him to change the temperature and depth of field, to capture moments of extreme poignancy. Beautifully composed in close quarters, each photograph tackles a number of problems that would usually make compositional consideration impossible. Unseen or discreet, he's photographing people who are just feet or even inches away in a subway car full of people, with little or no room to step back or use the full mobility of his arms. He's taking the photograph while being afraid of being seen taking the photograph. The pictures are of weary people, happy people, tired people. Children, workers, eccentrics, and the elderly. His subway photographs are a classical catalogue of types and emotional states; the results are consistently heartbreaking and visually impeccable. On the subway he is a portraitist with a sniper rifle.
Arnold held a one-day sale on his birthday, selling 5 x 7 prints for $150. At the end of the day he made around fifteen thousand dollars. Not exactly a fortune, especially for someone living in Manhattan. As the Jeff Bercovici in Forbes points out, the sale was initiated at his only having $90.03 in his bank account and no idea how to make rent. People were outraged at this. It seemed a great deal of his almost 50k followers just wanted to enjoy his photographs freely on their phones, refer their friends to look at them, and tell him that he was either gifted or exploitative. I had people send me private messages on Instagram asking why I'd support his work now that he'd "sold out and got rich with it." Being an artist myself, I've never been subject to castigation for selling in galleries, yet Arnold's Instagram followers claim a kind of ownership of his feed and his recognition that it could be monetized was seen as an act of agency that signified some bizarre internet community betrayal. With so many followers and so much praise for his work, it shocked me that the commentary around this sale wasn't focused more on how he was making it possible for people to own one of his photographs for very little money. This may be in part because we are in an era where the physical object has lost much of its value in the face of its online reality. However all artists are entitled to make money off of their work in whatever way they need to, so long as no one is harmed. Arnold needed to pay rent; we all need to keep working and living.
The other accusation I find confusing is that the comments on his Instagram often focus on whether or not he gets permission: Did they get mad? How can you? A photograph of a woman with a burned face is outrageous. Disgusting. Exploitative. A photograph of a black man is racist. A photograph of a woman with a harelip is cruel, unfeeling. The missed point is that these photographs are taken on the subway, where all manner of people can be found. Photographing the human swell as it lives in public is nothing more than traditional documentary photography. Most of these accusations just offer insight about the people objecting to the photographs. A woman who complained about the horrifically cruel nature of posting a photograph of a woman with a burned face, wearing a pantsuit, probably on her way home from work, really just tells us that @miss_angel88 is uncomfortable with bodies altered by trauma, and demonstrates more about her narrow concept of beauty than Arnold's photograph does about his.
When I think of the Oscar Wilde quote, "When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong," I'm reminded of Arnold's photographs, and find it an auspicious connection in terms of the merit and impact of his work. What's confusing and disheartening is that, whether due to a lack of art historical knowledge or a false sense of moral disparity between photographs shot from a distance or from point blank range, these photographs are not unique in their approach. Between 1938 and 1941, photography icon Walker Evans shot photographs of people unawares on the very same subway system using a camera painted black and disguised inside his coat. Evans explained that on the subway "the guard is down and the mask is off" (quoted in Belinda Rathbone’s Walker Evans ). Arnold shows us a similar vulnerability in the faces of people weary from work and shot without their knowledge after long days and tiresome commutes.
Other heroes of photography—William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander—shot people either without their knowledge or without their approval. Eggleston's work is full of street shots of people in windows, walking past him, in vulnerable environments. More contemporary artists like Philip-Lorca diCorcia also devised ways to photograph strangers in New York without their knowledge. There should really be no issue with a photo shot in the subway at close range, a photo like diCorcia's, shot at a distance, Shore's, shot with a zoom, or Eggleston's, shot as fast as a pickpocket. The history of documentary photography is indelibly tied up with people being photographed without their knowledge. Diane Arbus made a name for herself setting out to photograph "freaks" with their approval. That the occasional "freak" appears in a photograph by Arnold is evidence only of the variety of personalities and types in Manhattan, not of a "creepy" or "exploitative" personality.
Everyone is ostensibly being watched in public (and in private) in 2014. Somehow the fact that Arnold is doing it in the context of art, and publically (as opposed to mounted on a wall), makes people uncomfortable. What's strange is that they aren't uncomfortable with the fact that the Metro Transit Authority also has photographs of people on the subway. There's an inherent hypocrisy in objecting to these photographs, especially as they're made earnestly in the service of art, not for sake of keeping track of the populace.
I first saw these photographs in a magazine called Millions made in Toronto by Claire Greenshaw and Tony Romano. I knew that they were good right away. It did something that happens to me rarely: I began to unconsciously mimic it myself as I might with painting or literature or a good accent. Arnold is on the subway a lot, and like most good artists, he's obsessive. When something is able to get inside of my already fixed ideas about my own work and how to make it, I'm alternately scared and enamored of it. In art school I caught myself blurring half dried oil paintings with a flat brush. I stopped myself and realized I must have thought Gerhard Richter was a great painter.
For certain artists, there's really no time when they aren't working. I feel this way myself and I felt it in these photographs. Arnold describes himself in an interview as taking photographs "obsessively" and as a way to "stabilize his brain," descriptions I relate to and have seen in the work of other artists I admire. We document the environment obsessively as a way to create order and stability within one's own mind as we relate to the chaos of the world around us.
My best friend and I had told each other for some time that no kind of straight photography could be art anymore. That if art is problem solving, certain photographers like Nan Goldin and Lee Friedlander solved photography. That Cubism was started and finished, and so was photography. When I saw Arnold's photographs, I was shocked to see that they upset my firmly established idea about a medium having died and been eulogized. His work stood out from contemporary photography, and from the hordes of other people shooting pictures on their phones.
Arnold's pictures are detached and democratizing, with a tendency towards leaner mental states. I have always made my own work looking at pictures but thinking of literature, thinking of painting as a marathon novel. What struck me about looking at his photographs as a stream of images was that I felt I was being shown character studies and loaded scenarios, images from the books of my favorite writers. In depicting people often commuting to and from work, looking weary, stressed at being in transit and having no space, his photographs draw my mind to St. Petersburg or London. I can see the faces I've imagined for the characters in my favorite books. Nabokov's Luzhin, vacant faced in a party, replaying a chess game in his mind. Bellow's Humboldt, battling a drunken stupor against a pole, or Mr. Sammler, paralyzed with fright when cornered and shown the cock of a black man he fears. Bulgakov's Woland, about to disperse into vapor. Raskolnikov realizing his murder in Dostoyevsky. Madame Bovary with her red flushed face from the bumpy carriage ride. These classic novels' focus on mental turmoil is mirrored in his work as a sketch. Arnold appears patient, waiting until stress in the face or the body manifests. And because of the patterns of the busy street or subway car, his images become painterly, involved in a larger human story unfolding in dark times. I also see the paintings of Velazquez and Frans Hals. Snapshots with the hyper prefix of realism focused on emotionality and the common beleaguerment of the human experience.
Susan Sontag has described a writer as "someone who pays attention to the world... a professional observer." She's also said that "real art has the capacity to make us nervous." In this way Arnold's photographs again remind me of writing, and the amount of discomfort apparent in the comments on his Instagram feed would, if we believe Sontag, qualify him as a serious artist.
Arnold told he was surprised and happy to see the appreciation of his work, which was mostly a way to "deal with depression." Detached and democratic as he might be, there is a great deal of empathy in his photographs. As in Dickens or Tolstoy, there appears to be genuine compassion for the commuters on the New York subway. Faces and bodies look broken and exhausted from the daily grind of going to work and back. As Arnold attempts to get through the day like everyone else, staving off malaise or fatigue, riding the trains for hours on end, he's also a fellow commuter. It's also his workday. His experience jockeying for space in crowded subway cars alongside people travelling forty stops to get home by necessity makes him a comrade in the grind, neither below, fetishizing his subjects, or above, exploiting and commenting on appearances or any of the race/class/image politics his Instagram comments are littered with.
Using a very modern implement (iPhone) and a very modern exhibition platform (Instagram), Arnold manages to carry on with a traditionally compelling social realist sensibility, reminiscent at once of literary giants obsessed with individuality within a suffering mass, and the tradition of great American documentary photography. Criticism we hear about his work is symptomatic of the brand new collapse of dialogue between artist and audience. In the past no one dared speak to a painter about the works at his opening. It's the anonymity of the internet and the nature of inclusionary media platforms that have exposed Arnold's work to accusations that, perhaps quietly whispered in the past, are now typed in bold.
Today in San Francisco Arnold was robbed of his wallet and had the film ripped out of his other camera by a very angry Hispanic man he was photographing. The man showed him all of the stab wounds on his body and told him that he could expect the same. He had walked twenty hours non-stop photographing in the city. Few (if any) artists right now in North America are being threatened with murder for using a camera to make a nice picture. The singularity of that experience alone makes his work something to take notice of.
(All images: Courtesy the artist)