Interview: Street Photographer Cheryl Dunn On New York, Her Idols And Photography In Flux
"The beauty of street photography is in the very small details."
Photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn has been documenting life on the streets of New York City since making it home in the '80s and with her candid, kinetic documentary style, she has captured the gritty reality and brash energy of alternative Americana subculture for decades. In 2013, with a little help from Kickstarter, Dunn released the documentary Everybody Street, in which she follows some of her personal idols and New York's most iconic street photographers including Bruce Davidson, Elliot Erwitt, Rebecca Lepkoff, Jill Freedman, Martha Cooper, Jamel Shazaam and Bruce Gilden, to provide a fascinating interwoven portrait into the styles, lives and personalities of her subjects. We interviewed Cheryl in the lead up to her appearance at Semi-Permanent Sydney where she'll be discussing Everybody Street, New York City and more.
Suz Tucker: Hi Cheryl. Your photography is so strongly linked with New York City. What was it about the City that made you want to move there after college, and what sections of New York have meant the most to you?
Cheryl Dunn: I grew up in New Jersey, close to New York. I was a kid during the gnarliest time in New York: Every night on the news, it was all about murders and chaos and the black-outs. Every time I went over the bridge or through a tunnel, I swear my heart would race in fear and excitement. You would drive down the West Side Highway and it would be littered with car carcasses. If you got a flat tire and you had to leave your car, your car would get stripped.
The city was bankrupt, so they had no money to pick up these cars... You would just think "If we break down we’re going to die here". I guess I was drawn to that energy. I didn't know what I wanted to be in life but I knew I had to live there. One thing about this town, it is always in flux. People move here everyday to make their way. It's a hard town; it's a town of hustlers from every walk of life. I go on a trip and come back two weeks later and a building is gone. Something new has popped up. It's a town of reinvention and the speed of change is pretty fast these days. Mixed with the history of what has come before… New York is a constant source of amazement for me. I have lived downtown most of my 31 years here. I live in the East Village now and lived there in the mid '80s so I would say this section really means a lot to me.
What is your most vivid memory from the filming of Everybody Street? Was there a photographer whose experiences documenting NYC were particularly relatable to?
Shooting Bruce Gilden ducking out of the way from getting hit by a woman in the diamond district then all these guys with bottles and cans suddenly came out of nowhere all up in his face. That was pretty memorable. He got very wound up afterward, and went on about what he would have done to those people if this were back in the day when he was more wild. And shooting 16mm of Bruce Davidson on the subway.
Bruce Gilden photographed in action by Cheryl Dunn
One of the most fascinating elements of the film was seeing how the different photographers approach their subjects. With street photography it seems that in order to take great photos, the photographer's personality is almost as important as their technical skills - how watchful they are, how they engage with their subjects, how they create relationships with the people they document... What do you reckon?
I purposefully wanted to present very distinctly different personalities and working methods because street photography is so much about individual's personalities and want kind of images they make. All the characteristics that are displayed with this group of photographers - the quiet and observed technician, the crazy in your face hustler, the documentarian who spends months with their subjects… Someone who doesn't do this as a practice wouldn't understand the nuances and the diverse approaches, ways of working, personalities…how they really influence the work in very different ways. The beauty of street photography is in the very small details. What detail this photographer would pick out in a broad scene versus what someone else would pick out is so different. Unless you do it, you might not understand that. Someone who does this and searches for it is in tune with those details. I wanted to show the capabilities of a trained eye, perhaps. It's a real thing.
What is it about everyday individuals that capture your attention – especially compared to subjects like celebrities, politicians, etc?
I'm attracted to real emotion rather than manufactured emotion. I'm drawn to level playing fields. I hate when people think they are better than everyone else: that's not interesting to me. That's not my scene and that's not what draws my eye. I like to point my camera at something that isn't getting attention - I want to find stories in your average person's face or actions.
Dash Snow by Cheryl Dunn
Street photography seems to have changed over the past decade. For one thing, Instagram has made taking and sharing photos more accessible and more democratised than ever. Then there's 'street style' photography in fashion, which found this insane popularity on the Internet and is now a recognised style of photography unto itself. In what ways do you think these two phenomena have been good or bad for photography?
The public's reaction to photography changes exponentially every couple of months. What is the trend? What is people's behavior like in front of and behind the camera? It's constantly evolving. One month people are nervous about being slandered on the Internet with images, the next it seems like everyone's looking for a little bit of notoriety and are stoked to have a camera poked in their face. Who knows what new app, way of shooting/sharing images is going to exist in six months. I just try to stay the course and do what I do. I alter my behavior based on people's reaction to me and their relationship with photography so that I can shoot the images I'm trying to get, that's all.
What was the turning point in the late '90s that inspired you to focus on a different art form other than photography through filmmaking?
I love them both and I feel they both inform each other – I still split my time between the two mediums. In this project, they are very equally utilised and the stillness of how I showed the artist's photographs statically, embedded in the often frantic, handheld film camera footage, seems to balance the experience. Very early in my career I did more photography, but when I started to make films myself, I always incorporated the still image, and I think visa versa - my still photographs have always been infused with motion, and actually breaking the frame when I did start to make film was very liberating.
You’ve done work for adidas, Nike and Quiksilver. How do you decide which brands and branded projects you want to work on?
Luckily, I am at a point in my career where I get hired to do my own thing, and people respect what I am known for and don't ask me to make work that looks like somebody else's. The brands I have done advertising work for tend to be youth or street culture oriented, so its a natural fit with my aesthetic.
Cheryl Dunn for adidas
When you were part of Beautiful Losers, did you find it weird as hell being in front of the camera instead of behind it? Have you actually watched the documentary and if so what was the experience like?
Like most photographers, I like to stay behind the lens. But my good friend Tobin Yelland was the one making that film so it was probably as comfortable as possible... It's weird to watch yourself on film, but I was proud to be amongst such a talented group of artists (and friends).
Cheryl Dunn self-portrait
You’ll be in Australia for Semi-Permanent next month. What kind of traveler are you? Do you get into the tourist attractions? Are you all about the local food and restaurants? Will you be doing any work while you’re in Sydney?
Sometimes I do the tourist thing - I was in Israel the other week showing my film and I got to see the Wailing Wall and some historical sites like that with a bunch of tourists. But really I just like to roam the streets and public transport and see what it's like to really live in a city as a local. While I'm going to be in Australia I'm taking a trip through The Outback with two of my closest friends. We're doing a road trip from Darwin to Broome. I'm a little scared…
Do you have a favourite quote or line from a movie/poem/person?
My mantra (which I keep on my bathroom mirror) is: "Think like a man, act like a lady, work like a dog."
But from Everybody Street, I like Bruce Davidson’s quote in the end: "A street can be like a nerve ending. It's not the street, it's where the street takes you that's important."
Cheryl Dunn is a speaker at Semi-Permanent Sydney which runs 22 - 24 May 2014. She will appear on an impressive bill of speakers that includes skate legend Tony Hawk, notorious filmmaker and pop artist Mr Brainwash, illustrator Jeremy Fish and many more. For tickets hit the Semi-Permanent website.