Cheryl Dunn Interview: Talking “Everybody Street”
Last Friday (7th Feb), New York photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn’s feature documentary, Everybody Street, made its debut at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). In a sense, it marked a full-circle journey that started a couple of years ago; the film first arrived on UK screens as a 35-minute short at the Tate Modern in 2011, following its commission by the Seaport Museum in NYC a year earlier. Seaport wanted Cheryl to create a film that focused on photography inspired by the legacy of OG New York street photographer Alfred Stieglitz – basically the guy who is responsible for modern photography being viewed as an accepted art form.
Having screened the short, Cheryl went back to the drawing board and funded a feature length production through a successful Kickstarter campaign, which effectively allowed her to resume shooting. This time around, she captured photographers she was unable to access in round one, telling a more comprehensive story of street photography in NYC. Introducing viewers to several decades of imagery shot on the city’s streets – and featuring everyone from Rebecca Lepkoff to Bruce Davidson – it’s perhaps not an overstatement to mention that in future years, we may look back on Everybody Street as the seminal filmic document of NYC’s history of street photography. While Cheryl was in London for the screening, we managed to catch up with her at the Ace Hotel for coffee, cake, and a quick chat about the film.
Let’s start at the beginning – going back a few years – when exactly did you start work on Everybody Street?
Well it was a short film, so it’s had two different incarnations – it’s been in the media since 2010.
Can you give us a bit of a backstory? How you came to begin working on it?
The film was originally a commission from the Seaport Museum in Lower Manhattan – they were doing an Alfred Stieglitz exhibition and they said ‘come up with a film idea’. And I was thinking, ‘cool, I wanna meet my idols’, so I pitched this idea to do a film about street photographers who followed in Alfred Stieglitz’s footsteps and went to the streets of New York and created this substantial body of work about those streets. It was a very fast turn around but it was helpful that it was for an art institution and I got a lot of people to do it. So that film was thirty five minutes long and it showed during the exhibition, between September and January. We were subsequently invited to a film festival in Derby, England, where a bunch of Magnum photographers were participating and then we got to share it at the Tate Modern. After that I went back into filming and was able to get a few more photographers involved that I wasn’t able to get the first time and it got bigger. In the middle of that we did a Kickstarter – which was a lot of work!
I guess you have to build ‘pre-hype’ to get people involved that way…
Yeah, it’s pre-hype. But with film, you build a network, a community, and what’s interesting about Kickstarter is that people have a vested interest, so they go and tell ten people, so when your film does get out into the world, there’s a big network of people that know about it and are interested and psyched on it.
Did you have a fairly good idea of who you wanted to be involved, in terms of photographers?
It was definitely people I couldn’t get the first time around, and a few more women. I wanted it to be a bit more balanced. Even though there’s only three or four women out of, like, thirteen, but I guess that’s still more than people mostly get to see in things like this. You can try to curate things but you can only do so much – people aren’t available or not interested – but you try your best. I consciously tried to strike a balance and portray different ideas and points of view. You know, like someone who hates technology versus someone who loves it. It’s like if you typed ‘street photography’ into Wikipedia, the subjects of this film might make up the definition of one street photographer, with all of their unique skills and ways of doing things that are very special and different from each other, but they all add up to equal this one person who is compelled to do this.
As a photographer yourself, are these all people you’ve looked up to?
Totally. I grew up outside of New York City, and in the ‘70s we’d come in and the city was completely bankrupt, basically. You know, like Bruce Davidson’s book, Subway, was pretty much how New York City was. Super scary and super thrilling, like every time you went through the tunnel your heart was racing because anything could happen! But I kinda like that, and that kind of work really resonates with me.
Well that’s what street photography’s like anyway, isn’t it? Anything can happen.
I think so.
In that way, how much of the story tells itself? If you’re out there shooting people doing their thing, you must’ve been watching the action unfold…
Yeah, I shot 16mm on the streets with every character, so I would do the interview and be like, ‘let’s go on the street and shoot’. The film is kind of a moving street photograph and that’s how I was able to put myself in it. I wasn’t able to shoot many stills during the process of this film which was maddening, you know, making a film about what I love doing, but not actually being able to do it. But being out there with my 16mm camera was my favourite part of creating the film. We would have this wide scene and you’d see the photographer in the scene, but you wouldn’t actually know it was them until later when we’d go back to the studio and do the interview.
People who tend to shoot don’t necessarily like to be in front of cameras – I certainly don’t and it seems pretty consistent. I mean, you might be familiar with forty years of Bruce Davidson’s work, but do you know what he looks like? It’s kind of play on, ‘is a street photographer magically invisible?’ I mean, some are, that’s their style. Bruce Gilden, not at all… but some, you’re just like, ‘how did he do that?’ There is some weird, magical thing with presence when it comes to street photography, and the film is addressing that in some way.
So how were these guys reacting to you filming them?
I think they liked it and appreciated that I was shooting with a film camera. There is definitely something in how people react to your tools, so I think there was an appreciation that I was using this beautiful film camera which was a pain in the ass to load. After I interviewed Bruce Davidson, who lives close to the subway, I was like, ‘you wanna go in the street for five minutes?’ then, ‘you wanna go in the subway?’ but I think he saw me shooting on this camera and he appreciated it, there was a kind of camaraderie between us both using these tools. So we rode a couple of stops. If I wasn’t using that camera maybe he would’ve only given me two seconds of his time. I like to think about how people react to the tools you’re using. I think, on the whole, people were super psyched to be shot with that camera and be down on the streets
I saw something recently where someone described Everybody Street as a ‘story of obsession’. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s never something that you feel you’re done with. I read the New York Times everyday and during the making of the film I was noticing the obituaries of known photographers, and all of them lived into their nineties. Because you’re never done, you’re never satisfied. There is this adrenalin, this obsession, I mean, I’m riddled with anxiety if I think I’ve missed a shot. I wanna do it as much as possible and I feel like a sucker if I’ve missed something. I’m always looking for a shot.
Why is that? What’s the pull to be out in the street, in the thick of it?
It’s the pursuit, the hunt. It’s taking a chance and winning. I think it’s like the challenge of trying to figure out something really hard, and then doing it. It keeps you revved up. I was doing an interview a couple of days ago and was asked ‘what makes a good street photograph?’ and I thought, it’s when you look at a street photograph and you go, ‘how the hell did he do that? What are the odds that the lights are like this, and everything is aligned at that second, and he got it?’ You’re like, dude, I can’t believe I just saw that.
So when you’re looking at a finished film, and you see that photo…
Oh yeah, it’s like it punches you in the head. And maybe it doesn’t happen for a week but the more you shoot the better your odds are.
How is New York City central to the work of the films’ subjects?
Well, New York, in the the film, is kind of the major character. Most of these photographers live in New York, so it’s their home. When we showed the film in New York I looked at the audience and thought, no one lives in New York because they have to – no one’s making them live there – everyone is there because they want to be there and that’s an energy that is present in the film and in the passion of loving the city and the streets, the people and what goes on out there. Why else would they devote their lives to doing that? It’s important to document it for the future.
What would you like people to take away from the film?
It’s just a touchstone of many more people who have done this. It’s a touchstone to the founding fathers and women who started the practice of street photography – it’s not just talking about what’s happening now. With ninety minutes of film I think I’ve had time to talk to this generation, and that makes me psyched, that people in their twenties are interested in the history of it.
Photography’s in a curious time right now. But the bottom line is that photography is a memory that you can share, and it brings people a lot of joy. It’s a gift to give and to share – and everyone can participate.
For global screenings, visit everybodystreet.com