Interview with Cheryl Dunn: Part 1

Juxtapoz // Wednesday, 14 Jul 2010
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Though many of her images appear to be from other eras or places, many of them are very recent; most of the images featured here are from last year. This timeless albeit simultaneously contemporary look at New York City and beyond proves Dunn holds her finger directly on the pulse of the city that never sleeps.

 

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Don't Fuckin Like You. East Village, NYC 2009

 

Katie Zuppann: You're a highly respected NYC photographer and filmmaker. The journey has taken you through commercial photography, gritty city streets, and all the highs and lows of humanity. What initially drew you to photography and filmmaking and the raw subject matter you cover?

 

Cheryl Dunn: It is hard for any young person trying to figure out what you want to be in life. For me, it was about trying things and figuring out what I definitely was not going to do, which led me to what I wanted to do. I was not going to get stuck my New Jersey town. I was gonna go to college, I was not going to work in a cubicle, I was not going to work for mean people, I was going to travel the world.

 

I had no reference for what one could be in life really. I came from a long line of blue-collar workers. I broke out of the States and lived in Europe for a few years skipping around taking pictures. You could survive there so cheaply then. I think it is good to extricate yourself from things that are comfortable. Social groups, safety nets. Take chances and make mistakes when you are young.

 

When I lived in Europe I was by myself and I did not speak the languages of the countries I was in. I mostly just walked and walked, observed, took pictures and wrote stories instead of having conversations. Your instincts become very keen. You figure out stuff about people when you can observe them. The highs and lows of humanity are way more interesting to me then the mid-range. Extremes are very informative and I guess I am always searching for insight and knowledge, particularly about people. And about myself in relation.

 

Photography was the first thing that fully engaged me, totally. So I pursued this as a career, first working for others then breaking out on my own. Filmmaking was a natural progression that grew from the still image. I was always trying to say more than one frame could communicate, so filmmaking was very freeing incorporating lots of elements I love, music, movement, story telling. But I love them both and integrate them often.

 

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9th Ave. NYC


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Spencer Sweeney and His Limo, Brighton Beach 2009

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NJ Fans, 2007

 

Capturing imagery of the homeless, boxers, graffiti writers, skaters, post 9/11 NYC, and more must have forced you to develop a tough skin. Were you always attracted to these situations and types of people and have your emotions or feelings ever hindered - or even helped - your ability to capture the ideal image on film or video?

 

I guess I also sort of answer this above. I think I was always interested in this stuff. I was raised to be very independent and self-sufficient which makes you tough. I was a poor kid in a rich town. I had a lot of resentment, which is stupid in hindsight. But it drove me to work really hard at whatever because there wasn’t anyway I was getting anywhere unless I made it happen for myself.

 

I was also a gymnast till I was 21 so I know the mindset of an athlete and the need to practice something a million times to get good at it. So with the athletes that I have documented this was helpful. As a woman I learned that I could sort of slide into worlds without much notice because my ego was not threatening.

 

I just think no matter what your background or training in anything, when it comes to people if you are super genuinely interested in listening to someone and learning what they are about, they will let you in. Everyone, I mean everyone wants to be listened to. And if you fake shit you will not get anywhere with real people, they know.

 

I have certainly chickened out on taking tons of pictures and I never forget those images, they are ingrained in my brain as the ones I missed. If I could draw, I would draw you the exact image of the photos I chickened out taking or I ran out of film or missed it or whatever. If my emotions get in the way it is usually because I don’t want to disrespect people.

 

I am drawn to cultures that are different than mine. Inevitably, I am a white chick, so to go to Harlem and get in someone's face with my camera is a tricky thing. There is a nuance and so many times I fail cause I care about people. I try to talk and break the ice but mostly what strikes you lasts for a fleeting second and if you make contact, you ruin the moment.

 

In the old days you could take pictures and people wouldn’t even know what you were doing. But this world is so overrun with photos, everyone is savvy and they are less into it. It just keeps getting harder.

 

 

Part 2 of our conversation with Cheryl Dunn is right here.

 

In the meantime, for further info, visit  www.cheryldunn.net

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The Pizza Delivery Boy, 2009 NYC

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23rd St. NYC 2009

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Portland, OR 2009