"I always have a few cameras on me. I feel nuts if I don’t," says photographer/filmmaker Cheryl Dunn, whose outstanding documentary Everybody Street contains the kind of insight you suspect a filmmaker without her hands-on experience just wouldn't have got.
We spoke to Cheryl about NYC street photographers coming to blows with members of the public, the endless inspiration that the city provides, and what makes an interesting photograph.
GFW: You’re a photographer yourself – where did your story as a filmmaker begin?
Cheryl Dunn: I started making films in the mid-90s. I always seemed to be shooting film of artists and subcultures and I also documented a lot of graffiti. I always thought it was super-important to document artists and their processes because things change so fast. This film was initially a short commissioned from a New York museum – I was asked to come up with an idea to run in conjunction with an Alfred Stieglitz exhibition, so I pitched the idea to make a film about photographers who went to the streets of NY and created a substantial body of work ... and selfishly I wanted to meet my idols – and I did.
What do you think it is about New York that’s inspired so many street photographers?
Well, New York has a big tradition of street photography and it has to do with a number of variables: the emergence of the industrial revolution, the skyscrapers rising into the sky, the refraction of light off the steel and the glass, the water that surrounds the city. Max Kozloff calls the concentration of people on the streets "volatile proximity", people of every kind and every social strata walking in mass on the streets – and what happens is a cacophony of amazingness. A lot of street photographers were coming from Europe and looking at this new city with a different frame of reference and I think many of them went to the streets to study what was up.
How did you decide who you wanted to be in your film? And then what was the initial response from people like Bruce Davidson and Joel Meyerowitz?
Joel Meyerowitz was a family friend of one of my producers and he was my first interview. I knew Bruce Davidson's gallerist and went through those channels; they were both so lovely. But you have to remember if you are approaching someone and asking them to give you their time, why should they care? What can I ask them that they haven’t been asked numerous times before? So I really did my research, and that I am a shooter myself I focused on more insider questions or the psychology of street shooting. I also shot 16mm footage of all the photographers. Many of them have made films themselves and I think they appreciated that. I asked Bruce to go into the subway with me, and he watched me labor over loading a 100-foot load in my Beaulieu 16mm camera. He gave me more of his time maybe because he acknowledged my efforts and was cool with me.
Bruce Davidson. Subway, New York City, 1980. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.
Are there any photographers you wanted to include that you couldn’t get?
I wanted to get Saul Leiter. I tried but he declined. A British filmmaker just completed a documentary solely on him thankfully because he just passed away. I also tried to get Robert Frank, but he did license some pictures to me. It was really my dream to get him in the film somehow. My lab is down the street from his apartment, so I lurked around occasionally but even if he told me to go away, that he didn’t want to talk about photography... that would have been a good ending.
Jeff Mermelstein talks about feeling incomplete without his camera – do you share that kind of obsession?
Yes, totally. I always have a few cameras on me. I feel nuts if I don’t; I would just go home. My challenge usually is what camera I am going to carry. I want to have my Leica with me at all times but it gets heavy; I have a good purse now that fits my Leica – the weight is distributed evenly. Sometimes I'll bring too many things and the weight gets uncomfortable, or I'll bring a small snap camera and I'm bummed I don't have my Leica. But every day of my life I have a camera on me.
In one clip, Bruce Davidson talks about the magical moment when he first saw an image emerge in a darkroom. How did you first discover the creative potential of photography?
Photography is magic and mysterious and unpredictable. I've read in some critical journals, essays by contemporary art critics, curators and thinkers, who say that documentary photography is not art because an element of chance is part of the equation. That is my favorite part. That is the exciting part for me. When I was searching to find what I could be for a career, it was the only thing that fully engaged me in every way, so I knew I had to go in that direction. Light, chemistry, movement, stillness, emotion, never ending formulas to play with, continue to intrigue and challenge me. There's a transformation that happens when a camera or the act of photography happens in a scene or between the shooter and their subjects that is real, fascinating and unpredictable.
Jeff Mermelstein. Untitled, NYC (from Sidewalk).
What do you think makes an interesting photograph?
For me I think it is about being open ended: presenting something that doesn't lie flat, that makes you wonder, makes you feel some kind of emotion. I like things that seem improbable to catch, where you can say, 'Wow, how did they capture that?' Because when I shoot I think about the making of it in addition to my reaction to the photograph.
You present Bruce Gilden’s process of getting up really close to his subjects, whether they like it or not (and he’s even said he has no ethics as a photographer) – do you think that kind of street photography is invasive? Are there any boundaries?
That happens to be his style; it's not necessarily mine. Your style should be an extension of your personality, and that style of shooting is definitely an extension of his. If you're on the streets of NY you're in a public place and legally have no rights to privacy. There was a landmark case that went to the New York Supreme Court in 2007 (“Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia") that held that a photographer could display, publish, and sell street photography without the consent of the subjects of those photographs, under first amendment rights. If you glance up, on almost every street light in lower Manhattan there's a surveillance camera, so basically your picture is being taken at all times on these streets. So stressing about it is obsolete.
Martha Cooper. Untitled (Lower East Side 1977-1980) from Street Play.
As a photographer, have you ever pissed off someone in the street when taking their photograph in a similar way?
Absolutely, sure. I try not to have someone see me because I don’t want them to alter the natural scene – but that is hard to do, so every situation requires a different strategy. I try to be respectful to people – that is very important to me. I’m pretty street-smart. I lived in New York City when it was dangerous and have traveled all over the world, mostly by myself, and nothing too bad has happened. I did get punched really hard on the top of my head in a mosh pit last summer.
And there was one time in Harlem at the Million Youth March, a rally organized by Louis Farrakhan ... The mayor at the time, Giuliani, tried to ban it because there had been a lot of violence at the others, but constitutionally, he couldn’t. So tensions were very high. I went up there to shoot, and I think I was the only white person there, myself and one other German guy. So people were pretty suspicious of me and they were vibing me pretty hard. The city barricaded the streets and only let people on the sidewalks. There was a huge crowd and inside the barricades were tons of cops with riot gear. If you want to start a riot, fill an area with cops in riot gear. When Mr. Farrakhan was about to speak, there was a big rush of people moving towards the stage. And I stumbled off a curb and sort of shook my head to myself as I almost fell. Some chick says to me: “Who are you shaking your head at, white bitch? Why don’t you go back downtown where you belong?” Then a whole mob of people turned on me facing me saying, “Yeah, get outta here, bitch.” I just tried to act unafraid and sort of walked sideways so I wouldn’t turn my back on the mob. I sat down on a curb a block away and a little boy looked up at me and he burst into tears. I left the scene super-saddened that my city was still so racially divided. Five minutes later it was 4 o’clock and a riot ensued. People were getting their heads cracked in by cops and flying chairs.
How do you think your experience as a photographer has shaped the way you’ve made this film?
I think it's very helpful to have insight into something that you're interviewing someone about. Elliott Erwitt was giving me 30 minutes; I spent about five days preparing for that interview, I read every bit of text in every book accessible out there, watched every interview online ... It's tricky but I was most interested in the psychology of the practice of street photography. There's something special about talking to the maker of the work that you can't get the same way from books. I would think about what are the best insights that a one-on-one conversation and filmic portrayal allows and focus on drawing out those nuances. You learn the most from the small details. And film is the medium for small details.
What films and filmmakers are inspiring you at the moment?
I saw a great documentary called Sickfuckpeople by Juri rechinsky at the Raindance Film Festival. I can't ever believe how he shot this. Brutally amazing!
Watch 'Everybody Street' online now.
Main image: Bruce Gilden, New York City, 1984. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.