A Conversation With Dario Calmese
February 12, 2021
A true multi-hyphenate, Dario Calmese is a photographer, writer, artist, podcast host and teacher. He also serves as the show and casting director for fashion brand Pyer Moss. In August 2020, 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 about the historical cover, his new podcast The Institute of Black Imagination, and his art and photography practice. In February 2021 we caught up with Calmese to learn about the course he leads at Parsons School of Design, “Decolonizing the Gaze: Fashion, Race and the Aesthetics of Visual Design" and in September 2021 we spoke with him once again to learn about his work with Adobe Lightroom with new presets centering brown skin.
Header image: Dario Calmese directing Pyer Moss, photographed by Noemie Marguerite
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.
Billy Porter for Vanity Fair, shot by Calmese
Numero Homme Editorial by Calmese
Calmese for 3.1 Phillip Lim
You shot the July/August 2020 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 .
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.
Viola Davis for Vanity Fair, shot by Calmese
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.
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.
Tell us about your class at Parsons at the New School, “Decolonizing the Gaze: Fashion, Race and the Aesthetics of Visual Design.”
Well, the visual world we perceive has been designed. By whom? For whom? Embedded in the images we consume and the spaces we inhabit are codes: hidden cues that program our minds, define our values, and inform us of our place in the social hierarchy. What is beauty? Whose life is worth saving? Why do we desire what we desire? What do we consider “orderly”?
By viewing our visual landscape through the lens of design, my course at Parson’s interrogates and deconstructs the world as presented; revealing the power dynamics that lie just beneath the surface. Students will be encouraged to interrogate their own thoughts and desires, and proffer innovative solutions for a more equitable future.
What advice can you share with our readers regarding how to best unpack and deconstruct the images and media we see in today’s world?
Google “Edward Bernays”.
You are a self-described storyteller. What are you currently working on, and how do you plan on continuing to share your work with your audience?
OMG, do I have an audience? I think I much more prefer “tribe” or “crew” or “co-conspirators.” Beside my teaching, art practice, editorial and commercial work, my focus and energy at the moment is going towards the rebranding and expansion of my project, The Institute of Black Imagination. Phase one, which was the podcast, was launched May of last year, and we were recently awarded a grant from the Mellon Foundation for the buildout of phase two, which will be a digital interactive site, to be released later this year. Phase three will be an actual physical space, coming in 2022. It’s a LOT of work, and I’m really trying to balance it all, but I’m also so excited to share this vision of equitable futures through the lens of design.
As host of The Institute of Black Imagination, what conversations and voices are you excited about sharing with your listeners in the coming months?
We have so many great conversations coming up with artists, writers, and some living legends, but one that I’m super stoked about is Heather McGhee. She has a book coming out titled, “The Sum of Us” which illustrates how the racism and white supremacy embedded in America’s economic and municipal systems is ultimately most harmful to white people. It’s absolutely required reading, and is a perfect example of what The Institute of Black Imagination is about: liberation for all peoples.
Tell us about the recent work you did with Adobe Lightroom to design a suite of presets that center brown skin.
Over a series of months, I worked with the Lightroom team to design a suite of presets that centered brown skin, which I thought was a deft move by the company. In doing so, they leaped over the erasure embed in the “I don’t see race” expression, and said that, “no, we see you” and want to make sure your specific needs are addressed. That is the lens through which I approached this collaboration. How can we leverage data and design to allow for others to be seen, and thereby enhanced?
I experimented with a lot of options and treatments, and worked closely with the Adobe team as well as the other photographers to ensure that what we created was cohesive and really spoke to the needs of the Adobe creative community. Since the goal was to create presets for medium skin tones, that meant not just those of African decent, but the Middle East and South East Asians as well; the global majority.
It’s important to understand that the world we live in has been designed; and in that understanding, see how oppression can be the direct or indirect result of design frameworks, and with that knowledge, know that we have the agency to correct or dismantle these systems.
Dario Calmese's cover shot of Viola Davis for Vanity Fair