She’s shot Iggy Pop and Geoff McFetridge, campaigns for Vans and YSL. She’s made two superb documentaries about street photography and New York’s 90’s underground art scene, and to top it all off Cheryl Dunn has contributed to Secret 7” 2016! We couldn’t resist the chance to have a chat.
Whether or not you know her name, you’ll recognise the films and photography of Cheryl Dunn. Since the 1980s Cheryl has become world-renowned for documenting life on the streets of New York in a style that confronts the city’s gritty edge head on.
While focussing on her influential artist friends or the every-men and women of the world, her work provides a document of time and place that pulls a sharp focus on otherwise transient events.
Cheryl’s keen eye and sense of narrative were honed from a young age, alone and abroad. “I moved to Europe when I was 23,” she says, “and lived by myself in Milan, Spain and other countries where I didn’t speak the language. What I did was take pictures on the street and draw and read. I was doing test shots for models to make money and survive, but I was living in isolation the rest of the time, and I think that kind of honed my observational skills.
“I would just walk for hours on the street shooting pictures, and then I’d write stories of what I thought was happening between people, because I wouldn’t talk to anyone for a month at least. I didn’t really speak to any other humans back then. People didn’t speak english all over the place like they do now.”
Having decided that photography would be the medium through which she earned a living, Cheryl returned to New York and embarked on a project that would define her working method permanently; shooting the world of amateur boxing. “I had access to that world and made a 360 degree documentary of it. It wasn’t for anything or anyone, so I could make mistakes and use the opportunity to learn. It was a chance to see beyond what I was seeing and look deeper into a subject. I learned to shoot fast and think about timing and anticipate action, and that very much informed my street work later on.”
In spite of it’s practical value, Cheryl only shot boxing for lack of any other regular work, a situation she’s thankful for in hindsight. “If I’ been shooting loads of assignments for ‘Vogue’ then I’d have lots of outdated fashion pictures, but instead I’ve got this documentary body of work that only has more value the older it gets. So it’s lucky I wasn’t really getting good jobs back then.”
Having risen to fame for her street work, Cheryl is keen to stress that ‘street photographer’ is no longer a label that fits. She’s shot fashion, film and music campaigns, and made bold strides into the world of documentary filmmaking. “To just say you’re a street photographer is really only one part of the story in my opinion. There are people who just do that, but it’s more of a marketable thing now – particularly because of Instagram.”
These days she shoots film and stills in a manner that’s as vital to her as drawing breath, obsessively documenting everyday occurrences and the minutiae of modern life. “I’m never walking without a camera. I’m always obsessively looking for shots. I never walk by something on the street that’s crazy without taking a picture of it, so it’s difficult to edit all the pictures I take.”
With a recent book about the world’s festivals launched to critical acclaim, Cheryl’s work is as relevant now as it’s ever been, both in photography and film. Her documentaries have provided a definitive picture of two grassroots creative movements. The first – America’s DIY art movement of the late 90s – gave form to the documentary ‘Beautiful Losers.’ The second – New York City’s street photographers – was the basis of her first feature-length documentary, ‘Everybody Street.’ In spite of a now global fanbase, Cheryl’s still fundamentally interested in “the study of the humour and the pathos of human nature.”