Anticipating next week's premiere of Everybody Street, we asked Lele Saveri, curator of The Newsstand, to interview director Cheryl Dunn at her studio downtown. The documentary tells the story of New York City’s iconic street photographers, and Cheryl will be guest clerking at The Newsstand tomorrow, where she will be be releasing an Everybody Street zine and a set of exclusive artist-edition postcards from each photographer featured in the film. Dunn sat down to tell us more, explaining her own story of the city, and the inspiration behind the documentary.
Lele Saveri: I want to know a little bit of your background, how New York came into your game.
Cheryl Dunn: Well, 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 and 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. The highway was full of cars, covered with graffiti, with no wheels, no motors. Just nothing, just left there. It was like a junkyard. So you go by as a kid, thinking, like, “If we breakdown we’re going to die here”. You just thought you’d be murdered, you know? And you just wanted to be there.
When did you start taking photos?
Probably when I was a teenager. My mother made movies and shot tons of pictures. We would beg my parents to get the projector out on a Saturday. When I was a teenager, I just started documenting things. I came from a super blue collar family of construction workers and waitresses. No one in my family ever went to college, no one in my family had ever travelled outside the country. I had no frame of reference outside of that. So I just started taking the train to New York and got a low level job in fashion.
But you were doing photography?
I started shooting and printing consistantly when I moved to Milan in 1984. It was the heyday of Italian Fashion Magazines, so that is what we were aspiring because there was a possiblity you could get your pictures published. There wasn’t the appreciation of documentary photography. But I think when 9/11 happened, actually, it changed people’s point of view on documentary photography. When 9/11 happened, people realized there was a big wide world out there and they’re a part of it. Documentary media became important again.
So when did you actually start making the film?
Around spring in 2010, there was a commission from the Seaport Museum down here, which has now been since washed away by Hurricane Sandy. That museum was incredible, they had unearthed graffiti from the 1700s. They had wanted to do a filming component to bring another kind of audience down there. Someone reached out to me, and I proposed a film about street photographers and the huge question, “Is street photography an art form?” It’s not just a document, you know, it was and is an art form. That was the catalyst for the project. And to tell a story of a different generation. It worked out for me that I got the people that I wanted into the film.
Why do you think people have the urge to document what’s around them?
There is the act of the hunt, right, the act of finding the picture and taking it. And that’s the thrill. It’s not so thrilling to spend hours organizing it, having meetings. The photographer needs to be in the street making it. It’s a two-part thing and one of them takes a lot of time and a lot of stuff which isn’t too fun. I love to sneak into places, I love to figure out the situation. I also think it’s important to document people who are friends, early in their careers. It’s a period of naivety; they have less of an agenda. They will be some of the most important artists of our time. That’s an important part of documentary work — we take for granted the things that may not exist soon afterward. Who would of thought the World Trade Center would get knocked down? Or Rockaway would get wiped off the earth? Who would think your lovely friend would die at a young age? You can never know. People always look back, and say ‘Oh that thing was totally awesome, I wish I’d taken a picture of it’.
That’s the worst!
Yeah, just take the picture.