Photographer Dario Calmese talks his most recent project, the Institute of Black Imagination podcast

Jessica Hoppe is In The Know’s culture contributor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter for more.

To me, the concept of a “Renaissance man” seemed to be a myth. I’d never encountered a person who lived up to the lofty ideal — and then I met Dario Calmese

You may recognize Calmese as the photographer behind the Vanity Fair cover starring Viola Davis, the first in the magazine’s history to be shot by a Black photographer. You may admire Calmese’s work as director of several groundbreaking Pyer Moss productions. Or you may know Calmese as the hot new professor of your New School class, “Decolonizing the Gaze: Fashion, Race and the Aesthetics of Visual Design,” with a course description so fascinating I might have to go back to school just to take it.

Dario Calmese
Courtesy of Dario Calmese

Calmese does, in fact, do it all. And he does so masterfully. But perhaps one of the most notable entries on his extraordinary resume is a recent project, a podcast called The Institute of Black Imagination.

Last year with quarantine at peak rigidity, the podcast industry became flooded with new content. Whether amateur hosts were seeking a career change or simply a pastime while stuck at home, Podcast Insights reports that there are more than 1.7 million podcasts in circulation as of 2020 — and 43 million episodes as of January 2021. Over the past year, current events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the social uprising for racial justice inspired countless new podcasts tackling issues surrounding race, health and politics. 

While the Institute of Black Imagination podcast launched in 2020, it was not in response to the times. It is not a response to anything. It is a legacy. “The IBI is a project with a long arc, the fruits of which I hope to see in this lifetime,” Calmese told In The Know. “However, it’s not about my legacy, but ours.”

Through conversations with an enviable group of friends and mentors including the incomparable André Leon Talley, artist Torkwase Dyson, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, designer and founder of Pyer Moss Kerby Jean Raymond and Top Chef Marcus Samuelsson (just to name a few), Calmese crafts fresh volumes of art history — history that exists but has never been told like this — designing blueprints for Black futurism. 

From contemporaries to elders, Calmese’s passion for each topic and each person drives conversation among luminaries seamlessly.  When asked to name his favorite episode, he replied, “That’s a tough one because each episode provides such a unique lens on the Black experience.”

“But one episode I often suggest people start with is E2 with Dr. Mabel O. Wilson,” he continued. “Being an architect, Mabel leverages a wealth of historical knowledge combined with the linguistics of design thinking that provide a fresh vocabulary to Black experience in America. The episode ranges from Mies Van der Rohe to Beyoncé, so there’s something for everyone.”

In an interview with fashion icon Lana Turner, Calmese asks, “What would you tell 20-year-old Lana Turner about being 70?” 

“Find a way to always be yourself,” Turner, whom Calmese refers to as “the Oracle” replied. “Realize that you are not the center of the universe. The universe is your center. Find a place to level your life within it so you don’t then have to consult the oracles. All you need to do is find that place within yourself where it’s silent and it’s quiet and it speaks to you. It will allow you to stand tall in adversity.” 

A woman known for her singular, unabashed sense of style, she went on to advise, “do not wait for someone to give you an invitation to get dressed and go out and have yourself a ball.”

Likewise, Turner did not conflate the experiences of all women, taking time to address Black women directly.

“You are perhaps a Black woman listening to this: You have every reason to try and figure out what makes you truly tick — and not some arbitrary rule of thumb that makes you imagine that you must measure yourself by someone else’s yardstick,” she says. “You should always have one in your personal pocket that you refer to.” 

While podcasts transition into the mainstream, researchers posit that three out of four listeners tune in to learn something new. With the Institute of Black Imagination, you are bound to find the answers to whatever you seek. But you will also find a place to wonder, flow and explore the world around you through the lens of Black creators that have been inspiring you all along.

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