Q&A with Cheryl Dunn

Interview: PERISCOPE / All images courtesy of Cheryl Dunn

Back in 2010, South Street Seaport Museum commissioned photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn to make a short film about street photography to celebrate its exhibition about Alfred Stieglitz.  Faced with such a strong and positive reception, Cheryl, herself a street photographer, went onto what ended up being a three year endeavor to expand Everybody Street into a feature length film.  The film features some iconic figures in street photography including Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Clayton Patterson, Ricky Powell, Martha Cooper, Boogie, and Luc Sante just to name a few, but also chronicles the history of New York City, probably the most photographed city in the world, through the eyes of these pioneers.  The film will premiere in New York on November 11th at Nitehawk Cinema and will be available to download simultaneously.  Periscope talked to Cheryl about the film at her studio in the Financial District.

The original project was in relation to the Stieglitz exhibition, right?
South Street Seaport Museum hired a friend of mine to bring in a fresh audience. Historically, it's a really incredible place and the building is fascinating.  One of the floors they uncovered was from an old sailor hotel, it has graffiti from the 1700’s on the wall. The museum houses all these ship parts and a lot of very interesting New York City artifacts. This area had a lot of artists in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. Danny Lyon made this incredible book, Destruction of Lower Manhattan. You could get a loft for 50 dollars back then. It’s a weird and interesting area. And with the Fulton Fish Market, it had a lot of teamster action,  a lot of gangster action, very tumultuous action. Then the World Trade Center got blown up twice down here as we know. So my friend called me and asked if I had any ideas.  I said, “I would like to make a film about street photographers.”  I thought to myself,  “What kind of dream project could this be?,” to be able to film these artists, photographers that I really revered. So we pitched that idea because Stieglitz’s was considered to be one of the first photographers who took the 4×5 camera off the tripod, roaming the streets and documenting the bridges being built and immigrants coming in.  I wanted it to be a historical piece, through the words  and images of living photographers and  those who had made a body of work that was about the New York City streets.  And that is how it all came about.
What made you decide you wanted to turn it into a feature length film?
Well, when you spend 3 hours with Bruce Davidson, and you put 5 mins of him into your film, there is still a lot of material left. I discovered a lot of feedback that told me that people wanted to see more.  So in 2011, I went back into shooting and re-reached out to some additional photographers and shot that whole summer.  I stopped shooting in the fall of 2011, but then we got Elliott Erwitt to participate the day before Christmas. And Boogie was a photographer that we added too . The problem is that you can keep reaching out to people and you don’t know when to end.
Did you make the film for those who are into photography? Or did you consider a wider audience?
Yeah, I intentionally didn’t make it too technical. I did ask everyone technical questions, but in building the story, that part was less interesting to me even though I’m very interested in questions about what camera they used.  It became more the psychology, the way of moving, and New York City.  You know the film went through many incarnations.  It's very difficult to make a film about thirteen characters that is not confusing. So instead of weaving characters, we made the  history section and technology section, a section about danger. We made these other sections that were topical.
Do you feel like it ended up being bigger than street photography?
New York is definitely one of the characters. In light of disastrous events like, say Hurricane Sandy, without these people who are compelled to go to the streets and make a visual record of New York City, it won’t be the same. And there’s also the architecture, the physicality of the city too.  There is obviously the love that all these artists have for New York City because it is their muse.  In the history section, Max Kozloff, who was the executive editor  art editor at Art Forum for many years and is now in his mid 80’s, speaks succinctly in really perfect sentences, using funny adjectives that were from the 30’s and 40’s, expressions like “hugger-mugger” and all these funny words. He talks about why William Klein came to New York.  
You know, New York City photographers have a problem. The problem is people are always going to want to come here to photograph the streets in New York. It’s like no other place. It’s like you go away for one week, come back and are like “Where did that place go?”, it’s in a constant flux. People are constantly streaming here, people move out, new people will come. So it’s just this place that has this really vast history of street photography like no other.  For all of the reasons we don’t even know but there’s that energy of the street.
We now seem to live in a different time, everybody’s got Instagram and everything is so instantaneous. After talking to these icons, how did you feel about the photography today?
Everybody has a phone that takes pictures and digital cameras.  So in a way it’s like “Oh, it’s easy, everyone is a photographer.” But that is not true.  You’re a picture taker. There is more to the  photography than taking a picture. There is, “What do you say with what you’re taking?”.  Taking pictures is just the half of it.  I don’t believe that art forms replace other art forms. The particular art form will exist no matter what happens to technology. When acrylic paint was invented people would still use oil; it became something else. Black and white TV, color TV, there is still black and white film. It just becomes a new thing. Every single frame of that digital camera now can be a fifty-foot billboard. But now the art is editing, finding the frame amongst a billion different frames. So it’s a new medium.  I sometimes go to music festivals to shoot, and I am in a sea of people , there are many with cameras ,  mostly young people in the front row, I see at least 10 to 15 people with a film camera. They are buying film cameras on Ebay really cheap. Those kids don’t want to be like everybody else. They want to be unique. They want to make something that’s not like everybody else. So I found that really interesting and refreshing, cool.
What was the hardest part of making the film?
I would say my darkest moment was summer last year. They say making a picture film is like making a baby, you have to edit it for about nine months but it took me much longer.  So by the end I was editing by myself here everyday, every single day, 7 days a week, and it was the hottest summer.  I tried visualizing what I would be doing instead of editing the film. I would be reading the New York Times, maybe sitting on the beach falling asleep, having a drink, and I was like, “Okay no big deal. I'm making a feature film !".
What was the best part?
What I really loved was the challenge of someone saying they could only give me 30 minutes of their time.  I’d show up and wind up hanging out with them for hours.   People would warn me that some of these guys would be difficult.  Then, when you meet them, they were super sweet.  When you think about how many times someone has been interviewed, if you did not do your homework and asked them the same old questions that everyone has already  asked them, they are going to shut you down.  For Elliott Erwitt’s interview, I read every single thing ever printed about him I could access and every single thing online. I practice this craft, so hopefully I come across informed, because I do it.  I really love that challenge, and being successful at it. That was super fun for me.
Do you think they consider you as one of them when you go in and talk to them?
One thing you don’t do is to  throw your ego in the mix. Don’t talk about yourself. You are there to talk about them. But when I’m doing a photo shoot, when I’m doing a portrait, say, I have very few minutes to do it. It’s helpful to reveal yourself a little bit, reveal your vulnerability because they are vulnerable, they are trusting you. And you don’t have much time to gain their trust, so if you reveal your vulnerability quickly then that happens faster, easier.
It seems that photographers have a camaraderie thing.
Yes, but they are also competitive. One of the photographers, he called me the day after the shoot and asked that one of his quotes not be used in the film.   I had to ask  “Do you hang out with the photographers?”, and he said “Photographers are like submarines. You’d never want to run into another one.” And he laughed. It’s competitive and it’s real.
Do you think doing this affected you as a photographer?
Yeah, it was a great education, like going to grad school. I probably learned more than a few years in grad school.  This group of photographers, some of  their careers are 60 years plus, or more . I feel pretty fortunate that I got the people that I did. I think it’s a well  rounded history of New York City street photography.
  • NYC,1950 by Elliott Erwitt
  • Arthur MILLER, Brooklyn, NY, 1954 by Elliott Erwitt
  • 1950 by Elliott Erwitt
  • Photo by Jill Freedman
  • Photo by Jill Freedman
  • Photo by Boogie
  • Photo by Boogie
  • Beastie Boys by Ricky Powell
  • Basquiat by Ricky Powell
  • Ricky Powell by Cheryl Dunn
  • Boogie by Cheryl Dunn
  • Photo by Martha Cooper
  • 1980 Photo by Jamel Shabazz
  • Photo by Bruce Davidson
  • Bruce Davidson and Cheryl Dunn in his darkroom photo by Mike Fox




Team Periscope is traveling in


  •    RSS Feed