[E]verybody Street, a documentary by photographer Cheryl Dunn, shines a light on some of New York’s most iconic street photographers, and the city that inspired their work for decades. Featuring the likes of Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Jill Freedman and Bruce Gilden among others Everybody Street explores the changing landscape of, not just New York, but also the street photography that breathes personality and identity into its inhabitants. We catch up with Dunn to find out how much the craft has changed, and why photography is one of our most powerful tools of communication.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO STREET PHOTOGRAPHY, WHAT DREW YOU TO IT?
I have been shooting pictures since I was a teenager, in my early 20s I went to Europe and lived there for two years. I did not speak the language of the countries I was living in so sometimes I wouldn’t speak for weeks. I walked the streets, took pictures and looked at art most of the time. My observational skills became quite keen because that is all I had. I would make up stories about people and what was happening in a scene and I guess this is when I really started to do street photography.
WHY DID YOU WANT TO MAKE EVERYBODY STREET, WHAT STORY NEEDED TO BE TOLD?
Selfishly I wanted to meet my idols whose work had inspired me my whole career, but in a broader sense, New York historically was and is the culture capital of the world. Every kind of person walks the streets here and to have a record of people and culture un-fettered by a big media agenda is very important, and that is what this work is.
YOU SPEAK TO SOME INCREDIBLE VISIONARIES IN THE FILM, WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM MAKING IT?
Making a film is like going to grad school (I’ve never been but I’m guessing!). I spent three years – with some breaks – making it, so I thoroughly researched and studied the medium. What I felt was most important was psychology. You can learn about cameras and f-stops from any book but you can’t learn the nuances of human behaviour that way. To gain insight from photographers who have studied that and captured it for decades and decades was really a gift. The bottom line is that street photography is about people and that is the focus of the film. You don’t have to know about photography to take something away from the film, and that was intentional. Also, it was great to witness the extreme passion and constant drive to capture the next great moment, that was a consistent thread in all of the photographers. There are a number of characters in the film that are in their late 80s even late 90s , their spirits are those equal to someone on their 20s and that was really inspiring.
DO YOU THINK THAT TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES, SMARTPHONES AND INSTAGRAM, HAS BEEN A HELP OR HINDERANCE? WHAT IS LOST AND WHAT IS GAINED?
With the advancement of technology everyone can participate, so the interest in street photography has definitely grown and that is a good thing. One of my concerns in making the film was whether younger people would be interested in someone with a 60 year career talking about their process. All of my screenings have been sold out and the room is generally packed with people in their 20s, so that makes me excited that younger people are interested in the history of photography and the history of the streets. There are apps that emulate printing a picture in the darkroom and many other film qualities, and if this is a gateway to someone actually going to the darkroom, I’m all for it. What I think may be lost with the ease of producing an interesting image is editing oneself. That seems to be a very contemporary art that not that many people are very good at. Someone told me (a non professional) that when they used to shoot film they would make photo albums and work with the images, share them, then when they jumped to digital they shot so many pictures, they just lived on their computer. Formats changed and they never really looked at them again. So with smart phones and Instagram, people are using pictures to communicate. The future may just be about photos and words will be used less and less for long distance communication, which is interesting to think about.
HOW HAS YOUR PERSONAL STREET PHOTOGRAPHY CHANGED SINCE THE 80S?
Just like anything, the more you practice something the better you get at. It becomes a reflex, an extension of who you are. You don’t have to think, you just act. I go to music festivals and shoot a lot and this really keeps my shooting skills in tune. A lot of down time makes you rusty. In doing this project one practice that I adopted was, if I missed the shot, go back, go back and get it. Jill Freedman told me in one of our interviews that she would remind herself if things or situations were difficult, that she was there to do a job – get the shot no matter what. So now, if I missed the moment or chickened out, or I pass something great on my bike, I loop around and go back and try to catch it. It wont be there tomorrow.
AND HOW DO YOU THINK PHOTOGRAPHY, PARTICULARLY STREET PHOTOGRAPHY, HAS CHANGED IN GENERAL?
Well a lot of the work depicted in my film is from decades back. Not many people did this consistently or made it their careers. People were not used to cameras like they are today. Now there is a self-consciousness about the interaction, which for me, is not something I am interested in. I think street photography is just way harder to do well if you want to capture a scene un-altered by someone’s behavioural changes that undoubtedly occur when a camera is pointed at them. People now also think about where the picture is going to end up. Two years ago I was shooting some street shots on fashion night out and passed by this huge line outside Alexander Wang’s store. I shot this kid’s picture and he blurted out “what blog are you shooting for.” I said the New York Times and he just shrugged in disappointment, which really made me laugh .
IS IMAGERY MORE THROWAWAY NOWADAYS, DO WE APPRECIATE IT AS MUCH?
I think it depends on who you are asking. Usually the more of something there is, the less revered it is, but good work always stands out. And what you are saying with that work needs to be more than just having a ton of pictures. I think photography is now a world wide universal tool of basic communication. We don’t need to get on the phone and make a long distance call to catch up. We only need to look at each other’s Instagrams and obviously that is an incredibly popular practice in the sharing of images that people really appreciate.
WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU WANT TO TAKE AWAY FROM EVERYBODY STREET?
That things and people that you think will be there forever will not be. And that the study of human behaviour through photography can be very profound, humorous, and most of all, insightful. In Everybody Street there is a group of photographers who have devoted their lives to this medium and whom without, our visual history would be lacking.