Let Them Eat Cake: Cheryl Dunn in Conversation with Shepard Fairey
From Subliminal Projects: Cheryl Dunn’s LET THEM EAT CAKE photography exhibit is an important survey of the current political climate and American landscape, and it deserves to be celebrated properly. Due to restrictions, we feel that the timing is not right for the opening reception this weekend and we are postponing the opening to a later date. As an artist-run and artist-forward gallery we take this decision very seriously and want to work to make sure the message of this show does not get lost.
A new date will be announced, but for now we are committed to supporting our community and keeping them safe. We teamed up with independent publishing group Deadbeat Club to release the Cheryl Dunn Let Them Eat Cake zine with images from the exhibition. The fallout from these worldwide changes is having a deep impact on the creative world and it is very important to support the arts, so we encourage you to pick up a copy and show your support!
Cheryl Dunn - Let Them Eat Cake zine available at deadbeatclubpress.com.
There is deep significance in Cheryl Dunn calling her solo show, LET THEM EAT CAKE, from both the era that she is now shooting and the area for which many of her best photos have come from. The original story is that during a famine around the time of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette may have uttered that famous phrase, "let them eat cake," in response to the protesting, starving peasants for which she was their royal. That disregard and lack of empathy has been perfectly articulated in Cheryl Dunn's work, where from her studio near Wall Street in Manhattan, or just even on the streets of NYC, has captured the essence of protest, punk and outsider movements in the face of extreme wealth. While the kings and queens of our time are consolidating more and more power, Dunn has embedded herself into the counter-movements, the scenes of authenticity that continue to have a cultural stronghold on the ways we think and practice creativity.
As Dunn prepares for her solo show at Subliminal Projects in Los Angeles, opening March 14 (editor's note: the show has now been postponed) and running through April 11, 2020, the bulk of the work is about this idea. The gallery notes, "As we face the 2020 election year, LET THEM EAT CAKE, provides an arching photo survey of the current American political climate and the Americana landscape as it withstands the story of a divided country, not from the perspective of politicians and their agenda, but from the people in the streets." Coinciding with the show, Subliminal owner Shepard Fairey sat down with his old friend to discuss making photography work in a digital world, the dedication to the craft and how NY is essential to her practice. —Evan Pricco
Shepard Fairey: It’s crazy to think it’s been 26 years since I met you.
Cheryl Dunn: I was thinking about how I have a sticker that I love so much of Clint Eastwood that’s on some defunct battery pack…
So, you’ve been doing lots of kinds of photography, but including documentary photography, for a really long time. What are your feelings about how social media has impacted that? Pros and cons—I’m just curious. And also, now with the quality of cell phone cameras, everyone—in a way—can be a documentary photographer. How do you feel about how things have evolved?
Well, that’s a big question to me because after I made my street photography film, Everybody Street, everyone asked, "How do you feel about cell phone pictures?" My response was, "Listen, anything that makes someone be a looker, like look at things, search for things, want to share those things..." People, before social media, were on their phone walking down the street, and now they are actually looking for images and sharing them. For whatever reason, it’s making people see differently or in search for imagery, and ultimately, that’s just learning about other people which can only be good. Whether you’re taking that person’s picture because they look weird or because they look cool, you’re thinking about it, contemplating it, sharing it, learning from it, that's a good thing.
What happens with people who think photography is easy, they don't quite understand the part that is archiving that stuff: you’re caring, nurturing those images, keeping those images safe, telling stories with those images in years to come. That’s the hard part. Editing is not sexy. Taking a picture is sexy. My friend who is a musician would say practicing is not sexy. you’re in your room in your sweatpants practicing alone. The same with archiving photos. It’s a drag. But if you are a photographer, you need to protect and nurture, and take care of those images. It takes a lot of time. There’s only good that comes from documenting things and sharing imagery. Because it’s many viewpoints. You don’t have to believe that viewpoint, but I have fifty, hundreds of choices, I can decide for myself.
I think that’s a good perspective. When street art started to become much more hyped and popular, people said to me, "How do you feel about it becoming so big?" And my feeling is… that’s just more people who are creating rather than purely consuming, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not all gonna be good, but the fact that they might never have been people interested in going and submitting work to a gallery, but they feel that they can go and put something on the street without the same fear of rejection or bureaucracy, I think that’s a good thing. But that’s a generous interpretation for you because I think, from a practical standpoint, do you feel like it makes it more challenging for you to make sure that what you’re doing stands out with all the white noise?
Well, the more people shooting just makes the good stuff rise to the top. When social media and influencers became… when it was more emerging, I had been doing lots of different photography and all of a sudden I was not getting jobs to a 20-year-old that spends a lot of time on their Instagram feed and has way more followers than me, and getting assignments that maybe I would have gotten otherwise. And then, those people hire these kids, they got a lot of followers and a good feed, but they do not know how to do this job. Clients are like, "Oh yeah, that’s not a good idea." So then, there was a wave and it came back to, "We want older, experienced people to know what the hell they’re doing." I was like, "Still here!" You can’t control things you can’t control. You can only keep your head down and do the things that you’re passionate about.
Best response you can give. I feel the same way.
I’ve been doing this a whole long time. I have assistants and I have interns and they want shit to happen in one second, and I’m just like, "If you really want it, you would do this forever," if you really want it for the right reasons. There’s a lot of people that jump into the game and then they’re like, "Ugh I don’t wanna do that anymore."
Do you think that living in New York and just the amount of stuff that’s always happening on the streets, the culture of New York, has impacted your work in general? And also the protest work?
Oh, very much so. It’s such a walking city and most of the best images come from just going here to there. I always talk about my dear friend Jill Freedman, who passed this year, and she was a woman I met making my street photography film. If you’re not familiar with her work, she made these ncredible books amongst others; one was called Street Cops and one was called Firehouse. And everything that was about cops was about bad cops, corrupt cops, and she was likr, "I wanna do a project about what it is to be a cop in New York City. What is the job?’ And she was this beautiful womanm super sassy, whiskey-drinkin’, smoking. She asked permission and she rode around in squad cars in the East Village. In Harlem. Like the gnarliest parts of New York City in the 1970s when New York was bankrupt and so dangerous. And [she] made this document of this job. And the empathy. And the compassion. People actually liked cops in the 1970s. It’s an incredible work. But she told me, "Sometimes I would be in situations where it was so gnarly, and I wanted to cry but I could not show emotion. And it was hard. I would say to myself, ‘Take the goddamn picture. You’re here to take the picture. Take the goddamn picture'.’’ I always remembered that. And when I’m riding my bicycle, zipping around New York, and I pass something and I’m like, "That was amazing," and I know I’ll probably miss it but I throw my bike down and I hear Jill saying in my head, Go back. Take the goddamn picture. At least try. And I try. And I miss. But sometimes I get something else. New York is like theatre on the street because it’s a walking city. Skating, riding. And it’s packed to the gills. And it’s small. People are bouncing off of each other. It has impacted me greatly.
In conjunction with the opening, Subliminal Projects has teamed up with Deadbeat Club Press, to release a zine highlighting images from the exhibition