Dario Calmese (UNFINISHED 2023): “The best way to get people to understand where you’re coming from is to tell them a story, to root it in narrative”

At the nexus of art, fashion and academia, Dario Calmese is an artist, creative director, and urbanist currently based in New York City. In 2020 he made history as the first Black photographer to shoot a cover for Vanity Fair in its 106-year history with his portrait of Oscar-winning actress, Viola Davis. In 2020 Dario launched his widely-acclaimed podcast, The Institute of Black Imagination, featuring conversations from the Pool of Black Genius through the lens of design. This exciting yet highly educational podcast explores questions around design while centering on the equity and inclusion of Black people who have continually remixed spaces, objects, and ideas not initially made for them. During his Loeb/ArtLab Fellowship, Dario produced this podcast from the Mead Production Lab.

Dario Calmese was one of this year’s UNFINISHED Festival speakers and a great person to interview. I was excited to ask him more about his passions and art and how has he developed them through the ideas, as well as what he stands for and how does he see himself as an artist.

an interview by Romanita Oprea

When have you first discovered your passion for photography?

I discovered photography inadvertently. I had taken a trip to Europe and it was my first long trip to Europe. And I just wanted to buy a nice camera to take pretty pictures of the Eiffel Tower or, you know, the Colosseum. And my friend convinced me to buy a DSLR, which I had never used or heard of. And it was during that trip, really, just to take photos for my mother that I really discovered a machine that was able to translate my own ideas and vision.

What about your signature and what makes you unique?

If we’re talking about my photography specifically, I would say that my work has in general a kind of an air of surrealism, but also, is really imbued with reference. I’m very much interested in the history of photography. I’m very much interested in history itself. And so, in many ways, a lot of my photography has little Easter eggs in it or hints at something else, but is definitely rooted in a real lens, or a way of seeing something that is slightly supernatural and then also rooted very much in the archive.

You are a classically trained singer and actor, and you’ve been playing piano since you were ten. Why not take that professional path?

Um, well, I actually did take that professional path. I started performing professionally when I was 15 and continued all the way through my 20s and stopped, probably right around grad school, which was in 2012. So that was the last time that I was on stage. But the great news is that these talents really build upon themselves. So, by the time I was directing fashion shows and working on larger platforms, much of that work was very much imbued with my performance background in music.

My piano playing allowed me to read music, conduct choirs, conduct orchestras, so it never really left. I just use it in different ways.

You embrace the role of storyteller in your photographs, how do you find inspiration and why is storytelling so important to you?

I find inspiration everywhere, mostly in reading, photography and travel. And nature. I mean, anything that I think provides some type of stimulus for my thoughts or my mind is something that I feel has the potential to be inspiring. And why is storytelling so important to me? It’s interesting. I didn’t really think of it intentionally. It was just something that naturally began to happen. But I found, particularly through my writing practice, that the best way to get people to understand where you’re coming from is to tell them a story, to root it in narrative, and in that way, they’re able to not only come along with you, but then also maybe put themselves in whatever position you’re trying to advocate for.

What is the most important professional story of your life and why?

I think there are many important things that have happened throughout my career. I would say one of the most fascinating aspects of my career has been directing the shows for the fashion brand Pyer Moss. Taking ideas from the creative director Kerby Jean-Raymond and translating them into something that is forward facing, that is much, much more elaborate and fleshed out. One that’s rooted in performance for me. That’s something that’s exciting. And I think it’s also important because for me, it’s in that space where I really feel like all of my engines are firing.

Meaning, you know, we had a question earlier about my background in performance. Well, this is like performance, storytelling, music, fashion, beauty. It’s all of the things that I love.

How is your training in psychology helping you in your everyday work?

Well, I mean, it always comes in handy. I would say professionally, when you’re working on sets with, you know, 100 people or you’re having an intimate portrait with someone, when you’re in a meeting with someone new. Any of these instances where you’re engaging with another human being for any given reason, psychology always comes into play.

lt’s always very important and allows for, I think, a level of empathy when you’re engaging with someone and also when you can tell when someone may not be in the best mood. Maybe he / she needs something or is trying to say something that he / she can’t really say. In leading the Institute of Black Imagination it’s really important who you’re working with and how to best lead them, how to best create or tailor our management style or our work environment that suits as many people as possible, but also to take into account individual needs. Psychology comes in handy as well.

And then I would say, in my research, as I read and really study design, the history of design, how we come to know ourselves, as people, as a culture, individually, collectively. I’m always looking through the lens of psychology. I’m looking through the lens of consciousness and the ways in which our thoughts, our ideas, our desires have been shaped by pre-existing constructs, the way in which language actually shapes our thoughts.

I’m always very much interested in the phenomenological cognition that psychology gives us access to.

You’re the first black photographer to shoot for Vanity Fair, with its 2020 portrait of Oscar winning actress Viola Davis. What does that milestone represent for you?

On one hand, I would say it represents an incredible opportunity to say something at a global scale. I also think it was really important and it felt amazing that the magazine knew that there was something to say and they trusted me to say it. In many ways they kind of give you their platform and that’s a really huge ask.

I’ve said previously that although I was the first black photographer to shoot a cover, I definitely wasn’t the black first photographer who could have shot a cover for Vanity Fair. And so, you know, sometimes historical moments happen by happenstance, but it does mean something to me and it is an honor and a privilege.

How do you like to push the boundaries?

I think I’ve kind of always, since I was a kid, always pushed boundaries. I just want to know where the territory is. I want to know where within what can I play and what is out of bounds. And so, in many ways, one, I push by asking and then, two, sometimes I push by not asking. A big part of my practice is subversion.

So, how do we leverage different mediums: image, fashion shows, the spectacle, the institution. How do we actually play within the frame of those different outlets, but then subvert it with the content. How do we change the interiority of the frame in which we find ourselves in or the medium that we want to work in, so that you really have an opportunity to really push and play with something that still feels familiar? Because you’re playing within an existing frame.

What can you tell us about your collaboration with Adobe Lightroom? What are your goals?

My collaboration with Adobe Lightroom was actually fun. But my goal was really to leverage technology to correct the historical lack of inclusion baked into technology. I mean, I think it’s something that we’re coming to terms with, with AI and facial recognition as well. These are technologies that have not been developed with a diverse data set of information. And because of that, those who sit in the blind spots of that singular or skewed data set suffer deleterious consequences because of it. And so, to the opportunity to work with the technology itself was incredible and a great privilege.

What is your secret for being able to have all those activities under your belt and do so many things at the same time?

I don’t know if I have a necessarily secret to it, but I just listen to my desire and I just flow with the energy flows.

Not all valves are running at the same speed, at the same time. Also, a lot of my work is complementary, so they feed into and off of each other. So, it may seem like I’m doing a lot of different things, but I’m really kind of doing one thing in one direction, using many different mediums that are in a constant state of expansion. And then also I spend time with things.

I started playing piano very early. I started singing even earlier. By the time I added acting and photography onto it I have been photographing since 2008, so this is probably 15 years in. I started working in design in 2016, so each of these have had their own moment where I have dedicated, concentrated time to learning about them, while continuing to stay curious and kind of let life take me where it wants to go.

How would you characterize your art?

My art exists in a multitude of mediums, but I think the through line is my art is rooted in, clear vision or providing clear vision that reflects life and returns to individuals their agency. When I say clear vision, I mean, how do we provide people with a better understanding of their lived experience? How can we give them the tools with which or the vocabulary through which to articulate their lived experience in whatever strata-space place they find themselves in? You know, one reflects life, right? I think when I say, working with Adobe Lightroom or working on certain campaigns, I’m always cognizant that we’re telling a real story about real people, that this isn’t about an idealized human form that ignores the general populace.

And yeah, when I say returns to people their agency, I think that without understanding where you are and where you sit, it becomes difficult to know how to move or navigate. So how does one echolocate or how does one locate themselves in culture, society, history? I think these things are all very important.

What does the concept of unfinished represent to you?

Actually, it’s something that I need to learn more how to do, just let something go, because I have the curse of perfectionism.

What were your expectations from the festival and also from Romania?

I actually didn’t have too many expectations of Romania. I do have a couple of Ukrainian and Romanian friends, so knew that there was a real “joie de vivre” that exists in these regions. But what I really met was a group of individuals who were so warm, so kind, so considerate, extremely open, really curious, and I think just all around great people. I mean, I feel like I made some new friends and I really look forward to coming back.

More about him

Dario serves on the global advisory board for Estee Lauder Companies and is a professor at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York City. He is also a NYC Urban Design Forum Fellow and his show direction for the fashion brand Pyer Moss has been consistently hailed in Vogue and The New York Times as the “best show of Fashion Month.” Most recently, he collaborated with Adobe Lightroom to design presets specifically for people of color.

His artistic works have been shown both nationally and internationally (Fridman, Steven Kasher, Jack Shainman, NYC), National Museum of Turkmenistan [Artist Ambassador for the U.S. State Department]. He is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and The Business of Fashion and is currently a NYC Urban Design Forum Fellow.

His essay, “To Be American” on the life of fashion designer Willi Smith, is featured in Street Couture for the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, published by Rizzoli in 2020. 

Selected clients include: The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Pyer Moss, Numero Berlin, CBS, Public School, Beyoncé, The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), The Plaza Hotel, New York University, Restoration Hardware, Suited Magazine.

Classically trained in the performing arts, Dario uses his knowledge of movement, gesture, and psychology to create complex characters and narratives that explore history, race, class, and what it means to be human. Dario received his master’s in photography from the School of Visual Arts and his bachelors in psychology at Rockhurst University in Kansas City.