Cheryl Dunn, Interviewed by Christina Tian Qiu (Gallery Intern), Alyssa Laverda (Associate Director)
In our current exhibition, (OTHER) STRANGER, we had the privilege of collaborating with New York Street photographer, Cheryl Dunn.
Dunn’s compelling black and white photographs are viewed alongside the works of Lisette Model in our second gallery space, creating the “Stranger” portion of this exhibition. Model was a prominent street photographer working in the ‘1930s and ‘1940s, and her rare prints have become a treasured addition to Seraphin Gallery’s illustrious photography collection.
Despite the near sixty-year difference between Dunn and Model, their photographs present us with unfiltered documentation of urban society, drawing us closer to the fabric and feeling of life lived in the present.
We were able to sit down with Cheryl Dunn at the public opening of (OTHER) STRANGER to discuss her works in finer detail. The conversation with her explores the artist’s process, motivations, and theories on street photography.
Left: Alyssa Laverda (Associate Director), Right: Cheryl Dunn
CD: Cheryl Dunn, TQ: Christina Tian Qiu, AL: Alyssa Laverda
TQ: We have included your works in the “Stranger” portion of the exhibition, highlighting the anonymity and ambience of living in an urban environment. To what extent are your subjects strangers? Do you talk to your subjects?
CD: In most instances, no. I try not to effect the natural scene. But it’s sometimes unavoidable and if that happens, I engage them. And people are generally trained to smile, and then I keep shooting a little more in off-moments, so hopefully I got what I wanted. Usually it’s something that strikes you, either the composition or the light and that’s why I’m drawn to look that way, and I want to get that picture. Once your presence effects their natural behavior it totally stops them, and that’s not what I’m going for. The exact thing that strikes me, that’s what I want, and it’s hard to do.
TQ: Did the old lady in the Broadway White Hair know you were capturing her image? Can you tell us more about her?
CD: No, she didn’t know. I was trailing her from behind for a little bit. She had no idea. The light really drew me to her. It was just a beacon of glowing blazing beam of sunlight hitting this woman in black with white hair in a very contrasting scene. The streets were empty of cars because there had been a big parade. I really follow light and what the light was hitting. It’s so extreme down in Lower Manhattan, the nature of the height of the buildings.
TQ: So in this case do you see your subjects as individuals or more like the mass that makes up urban identity? What do they mean to you when you photograph people in the streets?
CD: They are usually more like symbols of characters. They symbolize things to me, like the downtrodden businessman. I’m not like, “what’s that guys name?” They are symbolic characters.
TQ: As a street photographer, how many shots do you typically take a day and how do you decide what you are going to actually develop, name, and produce?
CD: I’m shooting film. There’s a lot of chance. I’ve been doing it a long time so I have an idea when I think it’s a good one. But I don’t know for sure until I get my film. And often there are so many surprises that I didn’t think of. There are a lot of images that I take that are meet-ups to other things. Because street shooting for me is just like being inside the portrait of someone. There’s like an ebb and flow; there’s like an energy rise that peaks and punts. So you go out on the street and in the beginning you’re not warmed up. You’re like missing stuff, and then you get into the rhythm of the street, and your reflexes get tighter and you get better at things. But it changes constantly. Sometimes there is no weird characters, or whatever you’re looking for out there. So there’s a lot of chance. You just have to put in the time.
TQ: So a lot of this is accidental in the way that you’re just capturing what’s going on?
CD: Yes, a lot of this is just when I’m running an errand. I ride my bicycle all the time in New York, and that’s a different point of view, and I definitely take pictures from my bicycle. Sometimes you can cover a lot more ground, and sometimes I double back, and go back, and I get off my bicycle and I try to take that picture, and then I whip away very fast. I’m doing a lot of bike shooting. I always have my camera with me.
TQ: Is there a political message behind works such as Forgiveness, Angry Pacifist, or Bill Clinton vs. Bill O’Reilly? And if so, what do you want your viewers to recognize from these socially charged images?
CD: Well you know I live a block-and-a-half away from where the World Trade Center used to be. And I had a crazy experience that day. Every time something crazy is happening on the streets of New York, it’s around there. City Hall is there. Occupy Wall Street was there for a year.
That day, Forgiveness, and the Bill Clinton were both on the ten-year anniversary of the World Trade Center. And people came for the ten-year anniversary and then that’s when Occupy Wall Street started. Those people stayed there and started Occupy Wall Street. So it was really in lieu of that. It was all sorts of messages happening, because all eyes were on that area. It was up in the news.
That guy with the forgiveness sign… I didn’t talk to him. I knew nothing about that guy, but he stood in front of that church and he held that sign, and he looked like Jesus Christ. And people had put all these white ribbons around the church. And there was this guy playing the flute, and it was just a crazy scene. He stood there all day. It was very unusual because most of the protesters, like the the Bill Clinton photograph, were aggressive. What’s ironic about the families of victims of the tragedy of the World Trade Center is that for the most part they were mainly anti-war and they were for forgiveness. They were not about Iraq, and going there, and doing any of that. So he [Forgiveness] was sort of representative of that.
Those other people were the doomsday guys. They thought the US government were the ones that did it. I don’t know why those guys had Bill Clinton and Bill O’Reilly on a stick.
But then people had photographs, they were playing music, they had signs, and they became the full time residents of Occupy Wall Street. They walked down and they started sitting in that park and that’s how it started.
And though Angry Pacifist was wearing the Occupy Wall Street face, it was a climate change march. It happened a while after Occupy Wall Street was done. So it was just ironic because he was laying down in the middle of Broadway.
TQ: This is a climate with a lot of different political messages coming through. Do you have a particular political message you want to project, or do you just want to present New York City as it is?
CD: My opinion of street photography is pretty much the most unbiased type of representation of the voice of the people. It’s not about big media. You just go to the street and things unfold before you. It’s about documenting and not altering the scene. It’s pure. It’s as pure as you get. Nothing is pure, but it’s as pure as you can get.
And so that’s what I love about street photography. That’s what I love about being a catalyst to represent those messages.
They have something to say, and they are going to the street and saying it. And if I can just present what happened on the street today, not through the filter of big media. I’ve been around it enough to know how skewed that is.
Just being down near the World Trade Center, having a very close and involved experience with the collapse of the World Trade Center… And then I made a movie. I spent a year working on that. I was homeless. I had no where to live; I had no work. I did a photo series of people’s grief after tragedy and how people display that on my street and how it evolved after a month-and-a-half. It really did evolve. Shock, prayer, and no one can make sense of it and they needed to see it with their own eyes.
I learned from that experience that I had an obligation. If I had access to something that was a bit inaccessible, it was my obligation as a citizen with access to use imagery to tell as much about the truth as possible. I had a driver’s license that got me into Ground Zero, and there would be explosions in the middle of the night, like man-hole covers blowing out of the sidewalk, smashing into a store window. I remember going down there asking if we should leave the area, and the guy was like “I wouldn’t stay here if I were you.” And no one lived in this area. The only people who lived on my side of Broadway were artists and senior citizens. Glass was falling out of the buildings into the street. I was seeing this and I was documenting this stuff. It was ridiculous. I was breathing that air for months.
TQ: In a past interview, you refer to your camera as both a window and a shield; could you elaborate on this?
CD: We were just talking about in the World Trade Center situation, so I immediately started shooting the second I heard the sound of the first plane. I ran down and I never stopped for a year. Because I had a function, emotionally I was a bit protected from trauma in a way because I had this camera, and I had the adrenaline to do this. I felt like this was my obligation. I blocked emotionality from this experience with this camera. That’s a shield.
I was shaking, but when I picked up the camera, I was fine because I are thinking of the variables of what I have to accomplish.
AL: So does that only happen when you are in extreme situations, or is that a face that you wear? Or a role that you play?
CD: I think it’s innate, and you don’t realize you have it until you are faced with extreme situations. And when the World Trade Center happened, I really saw that super clearly.
AL: And I think part of it is that you are an observer, and most of the people are very much in their own world.
CD: When you are a documentarian you are a passive agent. You aren’t good at it unless you are a good listener. But most people are thinking about the next clever thing they’re going to say. They aren’t listening. So you need to have that quality to be a good documentarian, a good observer. And you learn that everyone wants to be listened to. You can’t fake it; it has to be the truth. You can’t fake that you’re not afraid. Being genuine and being true and being interested in a listener is key.
TQ: Could you also mention a little bit about the window part as well?
CD: Window to me is like having access to things. Which is a little less these days than it used to be because it’s a little more common. Everyone is shooting. But I used to shoot a lot of fashion shows in the ‘90s and I remember going to Paris and this was going to Washington Post and another magazine, and both my credentials were messed up. So I snuck into 21 fashion shows, I would load all my cameras on my neck and get behind the guy from the New York Times. Every situation was different. But having these cool-looking pro cameras, I could walk into anywhere. I could fake it and get in doors. So that’s a window.
Or maybe I’m shy and I’m at some show, and I had this camera so I had a function to engage with someone.
AL: So is function and purpose the same thing for you?
CD: There’s a difference. So function is like maybe I’m feeling weird and I’m standing by myself in a crowded room but I’m doing something; so that’s a function.
A purpose is when I need to do something for a reason. I need to do it for myself.
TQ: Why did you choose to develop these photographs in black and white? Does it add to a sense of timelessness, or is this monochromatic spectrum used to highlight specific details of the street that we often overlook?
CD: I like to print, and I miss doing that. There’s something magical about black and white. I shoot both, and I usually do one body in black and white and one body in color. I think there’s a directness that I get from black and white. I’m not as distracted. Right now I’m in this show with Lisette Model, because the work is in black and white. So this is thrilling to me. It is a timeless choice. Like, I hate to have cars in pictures because it signifies time and what year we are in. I love the timelessness about imagery in black and white. It definitely lends itself to that. Even things that are more contemporary look more timeless in black and white because it’s just tones and not like colors that give you more information. Sometimes less information gives me a more direct message.