The Winehouse Mag: In Conversation with Cheryl Dunn (2013 Hot Docs)

Photographer and film maker, Cheryl Dunn, has worked with preeminent fashion and music magazines, Vogue and Vibe, and commercial brands like Adidas and Nike. Unaffected and boldly curious, she has made a career of seamlessly immersing herself within diverse worlds, including the fierce and once closed world of boxing.

In her latest feature-length documentary, Everybody Street, Dunn has cast her lens on revolutionary New York street photographers of past and present. The sweeping film captures the photographers at work on the streets that drive their endless creativity, and the thrilling unpredictable energy of New York City. In spirit, Everybody Street is a love montage to NY’s crazy and matchless history.

Dunn and I met during Hot Docs to discuss the film, her dream of having iconic and elusive Robert Frank give her the middle finger, and if New York, New York, is finally “pictured out.” Chaka V.

 “It’s about waiting, watching, looking, listening, anticipating, instincts, patience.” Cheryl Dunn

How did you become a photographer?

I come from a family of blue-collar workers, no one is in the arts. And I grew up in New Jersey, next to New York City. So, you look at the city over there but you’re not in it, and all you want to do is be in it.

I studied Art History in college, and I liked fashion, so I moved to New York and got a job. And I hated it. My boyfriend at the time was discovered on the streets of New York to be a model and he moved to Milan. So, I was like, “Fuck this! I don’t want to work in this terrible office, with these creepy people. I want to be a photographer.”

I got three jobs, saved money and I split out of New York. I moved to Milan and started taking fashion pictures.

Did you move in with your boyfriend?

He was there for a month and then he left but I stayed for two years. You could live there for five dollars a week, or something, at that time. I did test pictures of models and we would do shoots and travel around. Then I came back to New York and became a photo assistant. I did that for about four-and-half-years until I could do my own work in commercial photography.

But all along the way I did a documentary project, I photographed boxing. I had this into this really closed world, it was very closed at the time, and I used the subject [boxers] to really hone my skills. It [photographing fights] was just for me, not for something [editorial or commissioned].

Did you like boxing?

Yes. I watched boxing with my dad when I was little. It was really kind of a special thing during the Ali [Muhammad Ali] years.

Later, there was this guy who was trying to date my sister, and after the ‘88 Olympics he started to manageRay Mercer, who was a heavy weight US Champion, and two other boxers who went to the Olympics. He built a gym in an old Ballantine Beer Brewery in NewarkNew Jersey, which I had access to.

At that time the only way to see a fight was to buy a really expensive ticket and be there in person or payperview, which was a satellite in a room. People would pay 100 dollars for each fight and that’s why the purses were 30 million dollars, it was this payperview money that they [the boxers] were getting pieces of.

It was very exclusive, and it was this crazy world. My observations were that it was very reflective of the real extremes of our society, in terms of racism, and sexism, and violence. I was a woman in this superman world, but I knew about the sport and I befriended the fighters, and they could be vulnerable with me. These guys have to be tough tough, tough. They can’t be vulnerable to anyone. But they would talk to me because I was a chick. I was like a nonperson in this world. Women were just…either you were the gangster chick girlfriend or somebody’s mom. There was nothing else. So, they didn’t even know what I was as a type of a person. My ego was totally nonthreatening. I really kind of used this for years as I documented this world. I learned so much about people doing that, during those years.

At the time I was shooting editorial photography and I would go to Vibe [magazine] and say, “Here’s these pictures!” And no one cared. A few times I got them published. But now the pictures are twenty years old and people think they’re the greatest thing ever. [Laughs] Because of the age…I guess that’s what happens.

Do you think you need a specific type of personality or trait to be a successful street photographer? Did you notice a pattern amongst the photographers you interviewed?

There’s so many traits and I tried to show that. You know how Vanity Fair does a yearly Hollywood issue and they’re like, “The Renegade,” “The the…” That’s the way I thought about the characters in my film.

Like Ricky Powell is a crazy New York cookey character. He is like a character that people document. It’s about him and his persona and how he gets people to talk to him, and that’s a very important aspect. He’s that guy.

Then there’s the technician guy who’s quiet and does this [mimics stealth physicality]. He doesn’t call attention to himself. He is the fly on the wall. And that’s a quality as well. There’re many traits. Mary Ellen Mark says, being a woman was helpful to her. There’re downsides of being a woman [in this profession] and then there’s up sides. It’s this kind of trust that’s not necessarily given to a man. So, you can knock at someone’s door and they’ll let you in and they may not necessarily do the same for a guy. So, she used that, and I do as well. I can sit in a corner and cry about how things are not as fair for women in business or I can use what I have to my advantage to accomplish my goals.

Instincts is definitely a consistent trait.Great observational skills are another. It’s not about you. It’s about “that.” It’s like when you have a conversation with someone, being a good listener is really important and not a lot of people are. They’re thinking about the next thing they’re going to say to make themselves seem smarter. Being a street photographer is not about you. It’s about waiting, watching, looking, listening, anticipating, instincts, patience.

What I really enjoyed about the doc was that you showcased a wide range of photographers.

You liked that? Good, because that was hard. (Laughs) I was like, “Why am I doing this?” People were like, “It’s too many people in the film. It’s too many people in the film.” But I can’t…

Like Vanity Fair, you get the sense that you are in one world then another, and you see how each photographer uses their particular traits to adapt to different situations. How did you narrow down the photographers for the film and were there any you had to leave out or wish you could have included?

I cast a wider net. I definitely wanted more women. Initially it was a short doc. It was a commission from a museum, and my turnaround time was really tight, like June to September. So, at that time there were people that were not available or not interested. Then when I went back in and decided to make a feature length, I revisited a few people and got Elliot Erwitt who then was available, which was like the day before Christmas. When people travel all the time, usually they’re going to be home a couple days before Christmas so that was like the day, I got him, December 23rd.

One person I tried really hard to get into the film is Robert Frank. And I’m still not giving up. I did a screening of my short and Michael Stipewas there, and he came up to me and said, “This is great, but you need Robert Frank in this film.” I was like, “No kidding.” He said, “I’m going to help you.” And I said, “Okay, cool.” So he calls Patti Smith and she asked him [Frank], because Robert Frank made a film about her, and he says, “No.” I don’t know how much more of a heavy hitter I can get than Patti Smith asking Robert Frank to be in my movie. So that never happened.

Then about a month and a half ago a Japanese journalist came over to interview me and she was like, “Oh, I shot Robert Frank. He was on our cover two years ago. My friend works for him, archiving his stuff. I can hook that up.” The film was done already, and I asked, “Is he in town…I’m just going to kind of stand outside his door with my 16 millimetre.” People do do that and catch him.

If I can have Robert Frank say to me, “Fuck you! I don’t want to talk about photography,” it would be like the greatest ending of the movie. I’m still going to try and do it when I go back. My dream is to have that as the last thing. Even if I had a chance to interview him, I don’t even know if I could do it. I’m just so exhausted from it. But just that visual of him

You interviewed many iconic photographers. Was that intimating?

The people in my film have very lengthy careers. Elliot Erwitt is 89. Rebecca Lepkoff is 96. If you’ve been doing something a long time, you’ve heard the same questions again and again. It’s annoying. So, I liked the challenge of someone telling me, they’re going to give me thirty minutes, and then I knew what I was talking about and asked them good questions and they hung out with me for half the day. I loved that. It was true for a few subjects where they’re people were like, “He’s so and so. He’s not going to give you his time.”

I spent five days prepping for Elliot Erwitt’s interview. I read every single thing that was ever written. Every word in every book because I thought that was important. Watched every video online. It’s hard to prepare for an interview with someone that’s 90. Who’s been doing what they’re doing since they were teenager.

Rebecca Lepkoff is 96?!

Yes! Isn’t she Amazing? Rebecca was in the Photo League, which, God, it’s such a story onto itself. There was a film about thePhoto Leaguea couple of years ago.

Rebecca is bad ass. She’s punk rock. But people portray older people in like, “Let’s put the typical music and this…” and I really wanted to contrast that and flip it because she’s punk rock, that chick. She still calls me up saying, “Are you going to my show?” I see her in the park walking by herself, shooting pictures at the dance parade and I’m like, “Rebecca, what are you doing here?” She’s incredible.

And the parallel of the Photo League, particularly in the last two years of the Arab Spring, is we know the power of imagery and what it can do and how it can change things. She was in the Photo League, which started as a film club and then turned into photography. The big photographers of the time, Paul Strand and many others, were teachers there. It was really for the immigrant children of the Lower East Side, who were incredibly poor. It was the depression and it was a place for young people in that area to go and learn about photography, and they were encouraged to document their neighbourhoods.

And their lives.

And their lives. They were creating works that were showing the slums of America and the government didn’t like it and shut them down, called them communist. Then you jump to Clayton Patterson in the 80’s, the police riot in Tompkins Square Park in 89. It was a huge riot. The police beat people up. They turned their badges over. He had a video document and nobody else had one. People who got beat up by the cops used this document in the court cases and won. They arrested him. They [the police] did everything to not let this come out. So, you go from the 30’s to the 80’s and it’s the same stuff.

As you speak, I’m reminded of the importance of documentation. In many cases unless you have documentation your stories are not heard, respected or believed.

Right. Can you even believe what just happened in Boston [Boston Bombings] and how fast they caught those guys? Because of photographs, and documents, and pictures. In two days! That’s incredible. Those guys thought they were going to get away with it. Then they saw they’re very legible pictures on TV and they were like, “Oh, shit.” I believe that that is a really good message for people if they think they’re not going to be detected doing something like that.

In the doc there was discussion about how to approach subjects on the street. Some like Bruce Gilden believe in just shooting and no apology others like Bruce Davidson and Jamel Shabazz believe in approaching the subjects? What is your style?

Something in the middle. I don’t attack people. I feel bad. I like people not to know that I’m taking their picture. If I see something, the compelling thing, the one second of amazing visual that I just want to capture now, if you disrupt that and you talk to someone it always changes. If you see someone’s face and they’re like incredible looking, I tend to try and get the picture I want. Then they look at me and they’re mad or something. Then I’m nice to them and I take another picture and its nothing compared to the one I just took if I got away with just taking it. But it’s a social thing.

I respect people. I don’t want to disrespect people and they’re certain times that I would die to take that picture but out of respect I’m not going to take that picture. I have a conscious and I don’t want to hurt people. But I personally don’t like people looking into my lens. That’s not my style.

Would you say that the paparazzi are a hybrid of some street photographer’s style (minus any artistic merit)?

Paparazzi is about celebrity.  Street photography is really not. It’s about the everyman. There may be similarities because it can be done on the street, but the intent is totally different.

 “Knowledge and understanding breeds compassion. People are racist and sexist and assholes, usually because they’re ignorant.” Cheryl Dunn

Most of the photographers, besides Jamel Shabazz, were white and their subjects were minority groups in urban situations that were deeply disturbing. Where is the line between reflecting what’s happening and exploitation?

That’s a good question. I am white. [Laughs]. I am drawn to cultures that are different than mine. I love Jamaica. I personally am interested in more soulful cultures that I don’t belong to. That inspires me.

Like Boogie says in the movie, he’s white. He’s Eastern European. And what he did I don’t even know anyone who could have done that and be trusted in that community. He said a really interesting thing. He has this really crazy Serbian accent and he said, “I didn’t sound like anyone they hated.” And that really helped him, even though he was a white guy. But it’s not like he just rolled in there and started snapping away. He nurtured relationships. And, in a way, with Bruce Davidson, his photo album, that was a nurturing thing. So many of those guys at that time actually followed up and sent pictures to people. And Jamel Shabazz would go every Friday night to Times Square or to Downtown Brooklyn, he was the picture man. He nurtured that relationship and he became known. He was respectful. He gave back.

But yeah, there is a fine line with exploitation, but I think you can tell the difference in what kind of images come out of that. People are instinctual and smart. People can read you. They can read your intent. Strangers can look someone in the eye and read your intent. And it’s such a personal thing. I can appear just like this chick right here but I’m emoting energy and your emoting energy and you can’t fake that.

Has Boogie ever done anything in Serbia?

Oh, yeah. He has.

When it’s such neglected communities, and like we see now with sex tapes and everything, people are willing to show anything for that kind of attention. Do you think that plays into why they allow it?

That was 2006 that book came out [It’s All Good, Boogie]. I don’t see that parallel.

I live on avenue D in the east village there are ten blocks of projects that I live right next door to. Kids are shooting each other up 24/7. Kids don’t finish school. It’s dire. And those kids [in It’s All Good], I don’t even know if half of them are living anymore. The life expectancy of a teenager living there is very short. I think he was paying attention. Like Bruce Davidson said, “They just want someone to pay attention to them.” And he wasn’t judging them. He wasn’t exploiting them. And he wasn’t afraid of them. He was a teenager in Belgrade when it was getting bombed and he lived in a war-torn place. He was not afraid of guns. He had already lived through hell and experienced hell, so his none fear and his like, “Yeah, show me your gun. Cool.” He was genuinely curious.  And like, “Wow, that’s awesome.”

This is what they have. This is their power because they don’t have any power in society. I’m not in their world but this is a perception of mine. So, he’s celebrating their power.

I think an important aspect of being a street photographer is that you are showing a truth. Like he says, “I’m not judging people.” But he’s presenting some deep insight into their lives and what’s going on in these buildings. Knowledge and understanding breeds compassion. People are racist, and sexist, and assholes, usually because they’re ignorant.

So anytime that you can present a truth is only going to be a good thing. Even if that truth is hard to look at. 

 “Good pictures of New York have to do with the people that are taking them.” Cheryl Dunn

Do you need to find an “untapped” underground community in order to get cred as a street photographer?

No. But it’s just about going deep into something, no matter what it is. The definition of street photographer is loose, some people say, “You’re not a photojournalist. You’re not trying to tell a story. You’re out there documenting the streets.” It’s just about being deep.

I think underground is a hard term to use anymore. What is underground? Things are underground for one second and then their blogged about and they’re not underground anymore. It’s just about being in-depth and putting in the time. The difference between winging an interview and researching an interview. It’s about time spent exploring. If you take 5000 pictures and you pick 10. What are the differences of those ten pictures as opposed to if you went out and just took ten? Those are very thoughtful choices and that’s a deep portrayal.

Have you ever left your house without a camera and thought, damn!?

Absolutely!  It freaks me out. I usually go back home and get it.

Will film go by the waste side or will it be what records are for Deejay’s?

It’s going to be like that. It’s unfortunate for people that want to use those tools because they’re harder to find and they’re way more expensive because they are making less of it. It’s not bulk production of it so the price of film has quadrupled in some cases.

I live in one of the photo capitals of the world. But I’ve heard from people in different cities that there is nowhere to buy film and I’m surprised at that. It’s just not going to be a mainstream consumer product anymore, more of an art thing. I hope they never stop making it. Companies have gone out of business, but then other companies will buy them. Polaroid went out of business but then someone else bought them up. I don’t think people are going to let it just fade away. There’re just too many people that love photography.

And I think there’s somewhat of a kind of backlash like, “Why do I want to take a picture that looks like everyone else’s picture?” I shoot at a lot of music festivals and here I am looking at a 100 thousand young people in one day and seeing what they do. They’re behaviours, they’re patterns. There’s a lot of girls that buy these cameras online on eBay for two cents because nobody wants them. And they all have their film cameras personalized and cool straps and their little cases. Teenagers don’t want to be a carbon copy of the next teenager and they’re doing it photographically as well. “They’re like I want my pictures to be my pictures and my tool to be unique.”

Is New York City “pictured-out”?

It can never get pictured out. It changes every day. They knock another building down, they build another building up. I’ll go away and come back, and I don’t even recognize a block. Stuff evolve so fast there. People never stop coming there, ever. I’ve known people that lived there, and they come back five years later and they’re like, “I don’t even know where I am. It looks so different.” I think historically that’s been something about New York that’s been historically consistent. This island just gets changed and redecorated. It’s the immigration portal. What is the influx of immigrants coming to New York now? It happens in waves and that changes what the city looks like and what cultures are making restaurants and doing murals. It’s always different.

Good pictures of New York have to do with the people that are taking them.

How did you pick the fantastic music for the film?

I picked what I liked. I tried to pick New Yorky stuff. The main music is a band called Endless Boogie that are my friends. I wanted to pick New York bands. I have to buy the “right’s right’s” eventually and that may change a few things. (Laughs)

I also asked a group of friends who are very knowledgeable about music, “What music do you think about when you walk down the streets of New York?”

I love your use of the Cat Power rendition of, “New York, New York.”

Oh, God, that’s going to cost me. I know her but I don’t know Frank Sinatra. (Laughs).

I had a different song at the end, and I did a little focus group and people were like, “I don’t know.” I was googling New York songs and I happened upon it. I had never heard it actually and I just started crying. For one because I was just completely depleted of energy and two, you go to a Yankees game and you hear Jay-Z’s song about New York, and it makes me tear up. I swear. It’s an Anthem, I guess. That song [Power’s, “New York, New York”] is so jammy and beautiful.

For me, and for so many people it’s like, “I wanna live in New York. I wanna live in New York.” It’s a dream for so many people. It symbolizes a lot of things.

A chance

A chance. A chance to be what you really want to be. Live your dream.

It’s possible there.

What are you working on next?

I have two film projects on the horizon but currently I’m making a series for, I am Other. It is a U Tube channel launched by Pharrell Williams. The show is called, Creative Growth, which is an art center in Oakland California for adults with disabilities.

I’ve been shooting there for 7 years and this series will be a compilation of short documentary pieces I’ve made of these artists, along with films that they have made themselves. It is an insight into the genius of many of these artists, many of whom are world renowned. It provides a deeper understanding of the capacities and intrinsic human need to be creative. If you were nonverbal and your portal to the world was through art making, how intense would that drive be. The answer is very intense.

Chaka V. Grier  is a writer, journalist. This piece was written in 2013 for the Winehouse Mag.