An Interview With Dario Calmese: How Community Led to Working with Adobe, Viola Davis, and Vanity Fair

An Interview With Dario Calmese: How Community Led to Working with Adobe, Viola Davis, and Vanity Fair

Dario Calmese is the first black photographer to shoot the cover of Vanity Fair. In this interview, we talk a bit about that as well as his recent collaboration with Adobe to create presets better suited for diverse skin tones.

Dario’s path to photography was a circuitous one. Although Dario is creative, he is technical and an academic as well. He’d trained as a performer since the age of 15 but eventually pursued psychology and mass media at university. Talk about a change of pace! After graduating, he made the move to New York and allowed himself one year to pursue professional performance. His work as a performer gave him opportunities to travel, and he’d take images wherever he went.

However, it wasn’t until a three-week trip to Europe that he purchased his first DSLR, which bridged the gap between his technical side and his artistic side. He could work out the technical aspects of photography, such as lighting ratios and shutter speeds, while also being creative and making photographs. When he returned to New York, he continued to work as a performer but began collaborating with his fellow actors and friends to create photographs, such as headshots and stylized portraits.

Despite his many achievements as a photographer, Dario doesn’t consider himself to be one. He uses the skills and language of photography, but that’s only a single means of expressing his ideas, just as dance or music or writing can be a way of expression. In alluding to Deleuze and Guattari, truth isn’t a singular thing. Dario aims to speak truth to places of power and to be that voice within spaces to say what others might not.

What do I aim to do as an artist? I think ultimately, to set people free. And I don’t mean that in some savior complex way. But I mean free to be themselves. Free to find freedom within their own minds. To access their own imaginations. And to dissolve some of the illusions we find ourselves in.

The world doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Having a multidisciplinary approach allows Dario to create richer photographs, informed by a broader spectrum of influences. If you draw inspiration from other photographers, then you are simply recreating what has been done. But if you can draw inspiration from any other place, you can create specific moments that are more than just photographs. For a photograph to exist within the confines of photography, it has to contribute to broader conversations of history, art, or anything else other than photography. Dario very seamlessly creates connections and references within his photographic work. About Guy Debord’s spectacle, it is artists, he believes, who are the ones to hold power to challenge the status quo.

The Vanity Fair portrait of Viola Davis was extremely monumental for what it represented. It wasn’t just a photograph. He believes that going into the work knowing the impact it might have on the zeitgeist and history was both humbling but also a very large part of the photo-making practice. He credits the pose for the image to black women artists, such as Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, who often photograph subjects from behind. Working for a client such as Vanity Fair is a different level of photography, which includes additional resources available to a creative. The stakes are incredibly high, so you have to step into these shoes that you’ve found in front of you and just get the job done, essentially.

Dario is a firm believer in community and creating long-standing relationships. His Vanity Fair cover was not only his first cover for a major magazine but also his first cover for Vanity Fair. He confesses that a large part of this opportunity came about because a stylist he’d collaborated with previously on editorial shoots recommended him to Vanity Fair. Oftentimes, it’s not about just being talented or having the right portfolio, but also having the right connections and creating connections for others.

Because of this, creating a community informs a large part of Dario’s outlook. He highlights Dana Scruggs, who does this brilliantly. For example, she recently shared her insights on negotiating contracts. For those who are in the profession or have been working for some time, this might be commonplace. However, young creatives starting often don’t negotiate their contracts for editorial or commercial shoots. So, even something such as sharing failures or experiences or practical knowledge is a great way to create conversations and community. Someone just starting might not even be aware of certain pitfalls that you may have learned through experience.

Adobe first invited Dario to speak at the Adobe Max Conference, which was held remotely recently. He was later invited, along with Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Summer Murdock, to help create presets for Adobe’s Lightroom. Not only are these free for all Adobe subscribers, but the conversation to help create these was initiated by Adobe themselves.

Adobe saw a need in available resources for processing certain skin tones and proactively worked on a solution. For companies or individuals to say “I don’t see race” erases people. Instead, creating equitable spaces where these paradigms are challenged creates a more progressive and inclusive world. I think it’s fantastic for Adobe to not only have recognized this but to proactively engage a community of photographers to help fill in the gaps of systemic racism in photography.

Stay curious. Keep dreaming.

We are finite beings in a relatively infinite world. Dario urges exploration and the impulse to stay curious and try new things. Access to knowledge, which sparks the imagination, is a privilege. To then be able to manifest that knowledge into the real world is something that not everyone gets the chance to do.

And if given the moment, provide people access to tools and imaginations. Only through creativity and community can we know ourselves and others.

Images courtesy of Dario Calmese.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Ali Choudhry is a photographer in Australia. His photographic practice aims to explore the relationship with the self, between the other, and the world. Through use of minimalist compositions and selective use of color and form he aims to invoke what he calls the "breath". He is currently working towards a BA (Honours) in Photography.

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