A Conversation With Dario Calmese

A Conversation With Dario Calmese

A true multi-hyphenate, Dario Calmese is a photographer, writer, artist, and podcast host. He also serves as the show and casting director for notable fashion brand Pyer Moss. Earlier this week, Calmese’s photograph of actress Viola Davis, inspired by slave imagery, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair—making it the publication’s first cover image to be captured by a Black photographer. The 10,000 spoke with Calmese on the historical cover, his new podcast The Institute of Black Imagination, and his work as an artist and photographer living in NYC. Read on for a glimpse at some of Calmese’s latest work.

You recently launched your podcast, The Institute of Black Imagination. Can you tell us more about the kinds of conversations listeners hear on the podcast?
Hi, yes!  We launched the podcast at the end of May. Listeners will hear conversations from what I like to call “The Pool of Black Genius”; extraordinary individuals—some famous, some not—who are at the vanguard of shaping culture and actively working to create a more equitable future across the design spectrum. When I speak of design, I’m not only talking about the fields of architecture or industrial design, but fashion, art, music, business, the written word, etc. These are all design elements; ways of manifesting and guiding thought.

Was there anything specific that inspired you to start the podcast?
Yes, there was!  A few years ago I encountered the great artist Geoffrey Holder, or more specifically, his vast book collection. Geoffrey, himself a multi-hyphenate (dancer, singer, director, fashion designer, costume designer, actor, painter), collected books across a broad spectrum, from stage design, art, and fashion, to mythology, the occult, and erotica. Being one whose work crosses multiple disciplines, it’s not only challenging explaining to people what you do, but also finding mentors to model after.  With Geoffrey I felt a kindred creative spirit, and realized these books were a roadmap; Geoffrey left behind a blueprint to creativity, and a very Black, polymathic way of expression. Unfortunately he is no longer with us, but my aim with the podcast is to collect multiple blueprints, a tribe of mentors for the current and future crop of Black creativity.

Self-Portrait of Dario Calmese

You shot the most recent cover of Vanity Fair, the magazine’s first Black photographer to shoot the cover. What message do you want your cover to convey to the magazine’s readers?
I’m not sure that I have a direct message for the viewer; I prefer that they bring their own stories and histories to the work. However, this image is about transmutation, transformation, and reclamation. The image is a powerful allusion to the carte-de-visite portrait of the runaway slave Peter Gordon entitled The Scourged Back by McPherson & Oliver which was featured in the 1863 Independence Day edition of Harper’s Weekly .

This image reclaims that narrative, transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering, to the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty. Viola personally exhibits this narrative: transmuting pain. Given the times we’re in, I knew that my #1 goal was to render Viola with all of the grace and dignity she deserves, but also to offer Black peoples, and in particular, Black women, an image of themselves reflected in a place of beauty. 

Dario Calmese’s cover shot of Viola Davis for Vanity Fair

You multi-hyphenate in several art forms, and do each exceptionally well! How did you first get involved with the arts in NYC? Tell us more about your progression from photographer, writer, creative show director and now, a podcaster.
How much space do you have?  I kid I kid. My entré into NYC was first as a stage performer. I began acting professionally when I was 15, training classically in voice, dance, piano and later… acting. However, after a few years in NYC, I became disillusioned with the profession; I realized helping people forget about their problems for two hours in the theatre was insufficient for me. While still an actor, I booked a month-long trip to Europe and bought my first DSLR to document the trip for my family, and while there, fell in love with taking pictures. Upon returning to the states, I continued acting but began to get small photography jobs until it began to conflict with my auditions and performances, and I had a tough choice to make, and I chose photography.

In the process of figuring out how to use this machine, I found that I kept wanting to say more within the frame and enrolled into the photography department at the School of Visual Arts Masters program, where I was introduced to the fashion brand, Public School through an initiative with the CFDA. They were a young, small team, and a single assignment turned into them bringing me on as their visual director, shooting all of their campaigns and casting their shows. It was a wonderful opportunity because I not only was able to observe and help transform the image of an emerging fashion brand, but also being a casting director allowed me to see all of the new models every season and establish relationships with the agencies.

Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to Kerby at Pyer Moss, another emerging fashion brand.  As with Public School, I came on board to assist Kerby in translating his brand visually. One year, Kerby decided he wanted a few opera singers for the show, not knowing my background in performance and music. When I showed up with a 16-person chorus and a 5-piece string quintet, I began to officially direct the fashion shows, and like the aforementioned cover, realized it was an opportunity for us to tell larger stories via the spectacle of “the fashion show.”

Around the same time, my art practice began to emerge and I was selected as a New Museum IdeasCity Fellow, an urban design-focused program in Athens, Greece. That’s when my interest in design really took off, realizing that the skills I’d acquired in fashion could be scaled out to organizations, communities, and municipalities. The trip, combined with my previously mentioned encounter with Geoffrey Holder and his book collection were the fodder for what is now The Institute of Black Imagination.

Calmese Directing Pyer Moss by Noemie Marguerite

Your work for Pyer Moss, specifically the 2015 Fashion show, was recently featured in the New York Times. What was the experience of working on that show like, and how did it and experiences like it compel you to keep pushing social injustices to the fore in your work?
Yes, that show was pivotal and prescient in many ways. Kerby really put himself on the line with that show, and his bravery was contagious.  Interestingly it wasn’t that long ago, but at the time, being unabashedly Black in the industry was not a thing. We see tons of Black models now, but that was not the case then. We have a myriad of Black fashion designers in the cultural landscape now, but again, was not the case back then. And so, for Kerby to take this stand, and play a 15-min video of police brutality before one model touched the runway was an act of courage that cost him dearly, almost to pariah status.  

But in that process I learned that we must bring our full selves to whatever spaces we occupy.  Culture does not happen in a vacuum, and neither does art or fashion (or business, design, etc). Telling our own stories had long been a part of my practice, but this show made space for a more honest and untrammeled telling.

What role does sound play in your creative process? Is there a genre you gravitate toward when looking to feel inspired?
OMG, sound just plays a part in my life, period. Classical for sure when I’m writing; the beautiful movement without the mental distraction of lyrics. I listen to binaural beats along the solfeggio frequencies for meditation and general thought, and the vocal power of gospel music always lifts my spirits. I love the embedded narrative, characters, and drama found in musical theatre, and pop music when I want to get physical, either on set or in the gym. I say all that to say, I’m all over the place.

In my practice, particularly in my art activations, I use sound to take audience members on an emotional journey; there is a psychology to sound, as movie composers are well aware, and its ethereal quality is perfect for taking others on a journey with you, and with themselves.

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