Going out in downtown New York of late, one of the scarier questions you can be asked is “Where?” The options have become, shall we say, limited. It’s less a problem of gatekeeping than geography—the southern regions have been so overrun that spots in FiDi, such as T. J. Byrnes, are hosting miscellaneous art parties.

A recent Friday provided a respite, and an easy answer to the question: the photographer Daniel Arnold’s show—his first major exhibition in the city—at New York Life Gallery, in Chinatown. What a relief not to have to search out downtown, when you know where all of downtown will be.

Arnold at the opening of his show.

Once codified as a rising “street photographer,” over the past decade Arnold has emerged as not just one of New York’s definitive shutterbugs but one of its essential voices. His candid, surprising photos, which can range from attractive to gloriously off-putting, reveal a city and its people, taking bites at commercialism, race, poverty, style—everything, really. He grasps flashes of New York’s multitudes.

Slightly punk, always cheeky, Arnold’s lens never seems unsympathetic. To accomplish all this, in a single moment, might make the difference between street photography and art. Accordingly, he’s attracted a collection (if it had any meaning left, one might use the word “community,” including his 363,000 Instagram followers) that feels as rebellious, flamboyant, authentic, young, and creative as we can hope for in today’s deeply professionalized, expensive downtown New York. And on Friday, they came in force.

Arnold’s Mott and Pell, 2023.

The first entrants to the building—which also serves as photographer Ethan James Green’s studio space, five floors up on Canal Street, a stone’s throw from the Manhattan Bridge—were Arnold’s acolytes, young men and women with cameras around their necks. They ranged from 19-year-old N.Y.U. students to full-grown debt collectors—“every skate rat with a Leica,” as one veteran photographer put it. A quick glance around the room picked up a Canon AE-1, a Konica T4, a Nikon Z 6II, an Olympus XA, a Fujifilm X-T4, a Polaroid, and a Contax G2, like Arnold uses. “It’s a great camera,” he says. “It makes everything sleazy.”

Which is not to say the room was filled only by kids with cameras, or folks from the literal lower reaches of the island. Far from it. Easily spotted was a New Yorker editor from uptown and a former Vice executive from Brooklyn. There were professionals, and established artists: Bella Newman, Brad Phillips, Chris Verene, Martine Gutierrez, Farah Al Qasimi, Mary Manning, and Cheryl Dunn. There were adults aplenty, but the right kind—nowhere in sight was a single quarter zip, that botched sartorial circumcision so popular in Midtown and Brooklyn Heights.

Guests at the opening of the show.

“Daniel is really loved by downtown New York culture,” said a 28-year-old artist and designer. “Everyone here is someone, and everyone here loves Daniel.” Rock stars, like Dev Hynes; fashion designers, like Adam Selman, and Zoe Gustavia Anna Whalen, plus the fashion director Dara Allen; and models, like Richie Shazam and Ella Emhoff, were also in attendance.

“I’m a friend of Daniel’s,” said Emhoff, who is Vice President Kamala Harris’s stepdaughter. “Downtown friend. Party friend. Familiar-face-at-the Met friends.” By this she means the Met Gala, which Vogue has hired Arnold to shoot in recent years.

Coney Midway, 2014.

A decade ago, Arnold was getting kicked off Instagram and selling four-by-six prints of his photos to pay the rent on his apartment. Since then, the pirate has become a privateer, hired by prestigious editorial clients—Italian Vogue, The New Yorker, and The New York Times among them—as well as commercial clients, like Prada.

“I often think of my work in terms of actions, not just images, and someone needs to be there and document the action,” said the creative director Ferdinando Verderi, who has masterminded campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Prada, and who has worked with Arnold since 2016. “For me, that’s Daniel—he finds the truth in any fiction, and that’s what I’m interested in.”

Guests included artists, designers, and fans.

Yet Arnold has eschewed normal paths to artistic success. He’s never taken on a permanent gallery or dealer. He’s had an agent only since March. “It’s a really worthwhile source of discomfort,” he says, noting his age, 43. “I’ve just been in a really rare, juicy spot for 10 years. And my instinct throughout has been to keep success—a very broad word—at arm’s length, and to be really protective of this little spark that made all this happen.”

Watching Arnold at his opening, one believes he might achieve this, a retention of authenticity grounded in his own—which can be located somewhere between a wicked eye and true menschiness. Open arms to the city he’s made in these prints, and that has made him.

Grand and Essex, 2023.

A 25-year-old man named Aaron approached Arnold, asking him to sign a biography of Richard Avedon. (“Sorry, Richard,” Arnold wrote.) He complimented a young street photographer on his work. Another snapper told him that people complain that her pictures look like everyone else’s. “I hear that all the time, too,” says Arnold. When another woman went to introduce herself, Arnold immediately recalled their meeting once before, in Washington Square Park. There was no fake. A little awkwardness. Much grace.

“He’s my bro,” said Dunn. Arnold had lent a hand when Dunn was raising money for her photographer friend Jill Friedman, who’d spent the Serpico years riding along with, and documenting, New York’s finest, and had fallen on hard times. “We made her, like, $40,000.”

Cameras were everywhere at the opening.

This recalled the last time I ran into Arnold. It was months ago, in the West Fourth Street subway station. He, his girlfriend, Kay Kasparhauser, and their friends were handing out food and supplies to the unhoused. It’s something they do every weekend, with a loose attachment to West Village Mutual Aid.

As the clock struck eight—the advertised closing time—most of those left were the young and camera’d, itching for their moment with Arnold, which he gave without exception. By the west wall, near a Rockaway Beach scene where gulls flap around a woman in a hijab, and others are barely clothed, two men were getting a last look at the photos.

Coney Island (15th and Riegelmann Boardwalk), 2018.

“I overheard someone say that if you come during the day, the noise from Canal Street is so loud that it’s like a soundtrack to the show,” one told the other.

A woman in Doc Martens, camera in hand, who’d been waiting to introduce herself to Arnold, stuck her hand out. He paused. “Do we not know each other?” They had met once before, she told him. “I knew it,” said Arnold, and he gave her a hug.

Daniel Arnold’s photographs are on at New York Life Gallery, in Chinatown, through December 22

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John Ortved is a New York–based writer whose articles and essays have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s