In covering more than nine decades of New York City street photography, Cheryl Dunn's latest documentary Everybody Street pays homage to the superstars of the original urban art form. Bruce Davidson, Boogie, Elliott Erwitt, Jill Freedman, Bruce Gilden, Joel Meyerowitz, Rebecca Lepkoff, Mary Ellen Mark, Jeff Mermelstein, Clayton Patterson, Ricky Powell, Jamel Shabazz, and Martha Cooper all make appearances in a film that examines, among other things, the overarching social mores of the genre. But Dunn doesn't stop there–she also delves into the unique approaches of these individual artists who've been documenting New York City for years. Everybody Street is just as much a portrait of the photographers themselves as it is of the city–a symbiosis that Dunn highlights brilliantly.
In the first of two interviews, Director Cheryl Dunn sits with Elephant Gun co-founder, David Voggenthaler to discuss her latest film. Kathryn Flowers, contributor.
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I loved your film "Bicycle Gangs of New York" and the photos that went along with it. New York bicycle culture is unique (much like everything in NY) in that some of the most hardened cyclists elsewhere in the US wouldn't dream of riding on NY streets - too dangerous, too crazy. Are you brave enough to ride a bike in New York?
I ride a bike everyday. I have never been without a bike in NY. It’s the way I get around. You have to ride like you will be hit by a car at any moment; if you do that you’ll be ok. It’s an odds thing though, the population of NY has increased exponentially over the last few years, and you can feel it. Two years ago I was crashed into and doored twice in a week and I decided I should start wearing a helmet. My shoulder is still jacked.
Describe the experience of making “Bicycle Gangs of New York.” How were the experiences or challenges similar/different than the making of Everybody Street?
It was a much smaller project but there are always similarities when dealing with real people who are passionate about their creative expression. And maybe also you could say there was a similarity in subject as NYC is a major character in both films. When I pitched bike gangs, I was thinking what was left that was still like the gangs from The Warriors. It was bikes. It was in 2004, and critical mass was still allowed to happen here and the bike gangs immobilized the city sort of, once a month. They were really the only subversive subculture left in a way. But in both films I got to shoot on the streets and that is always what I strive to do.
When was Everybody Street first conceived? What sparked the idea of a film on street photography?
Everybody Street came about as a museum commission. They wanted a film component to an Alfred Stieglitz exhibition. Stieglitz was considered to be one of the first street photographers who took the 4×5 camera off the tripod, roaming the streets and documenting the bridges being built and immigrants coming in. I wanted it to be a historical piece, through the words and images of living photographers and those who had made a body of work that was about the New York City streets.
"The title of my film is about inclusion. The streets belong to everybody."
Does NYC street photography really need a documentary made about it–does it really want it? What sort of feedback have you gotten from the street photography community regarding Everybody Street?
So far, nothing but positivity. A little anxiousness because Everybody Street took a long time to complete. But all of my festival screenings were super well received. And all of my NY theatrical screenings are sold out already before we even had a chance to promote them. I take that as interest.
NYC seems more than uniquely positioned for this kind of documentary film–would any other cities have equally colorful photographable possibilities?
Sure, of course. Every place is photographable. London has a huge tradition of street photography. I really like to stress in interviews that I am not saying street photography is about just NY; everyone’s town is awesome and photogenic, it’s up to you as the photographer to find it. It's out there. I don't want to come across as saying NYC is the best. It’s such an American thing in our culture to think we are the best and that is unfortunate and arrogant. The title of my film is about inclusion. Everybody Street means the streets belong to everybody. I have just studied these streets more than any others because it’s where I live. But when I travel, all I do is walk and shoot the streets in the city I'm in. It's a reflection of a culture and teaches you a lot about people. The one thing about NY that makes it interesting for me is the way the light is here. Manhattan is a small island surrounded by water. Skyscrapers of glass and steel, and tons of people in concentration. Light is bouncing everywhere, people are on top of each other, it’s ripe with a lot of crazy scenes.
Who was the easiest to work with in the film? Who was most difficult?
I knew many of them before so it is always more comfortable to work with someone you are acquainted with. I wouldn’t say anyone was easy. I don’t really need things to be easy. I want them to be interesting, however hard that might be.
No one was too difficult once I pinned them down. The difficulty was arranging times. These are very busy people. Elliott Erwitt was hard to catch. We finally got to interview him as the last one, filming him at home one day before Christmas. He had a break from traveling and working. So scheduling things were hard.
How close dose Bruce Gilden get when he talks to you?
Ha…how do you know he gets close? Well, when we filmed that altercation on 47th street...he was pretty wound up after it and was very close to me exclaiming what he would have done to those people if this was back in the day when he was really wild. I can only imagine...
Ricky Powell is one of my favorites in the film. Is Ricky Powell constantly stoned? How often does he gesticulate with an “invisible jazz cigarette”?
Ha…you are funny. I would say yes, probably, he’s one of those characters that you might read about in Luc Sante’s book Low Life. Always on the street, hustling. The other day he called me and said, “Yo Cheryl, everybody is talking about your film, it’s a big deal. I know its sold out, but can I roll in with a couples heads in a head lock?” Translation – can I bring a few guests? We have Ricky Powellisms on stickies taped all over my computer, this one has been there for a while: I’m the man pussy forgot - Ricky Powell.
How did you narrow the list of photographers for Everybody Street?
I wanted artists to speak for themselves, so that narrowed it to living artists. I reached out to a number of others as well and this is just what it came to be. I could have added more, but there are already so many. You need time with a character and a feature film has a finite time limitation. So I always say this is a sample of something much larger and hopefully the film will be a catalyst for viewers to explore these artists and others further.
Who is the one person you really wanted in the film, but couldn’t get?
"I am not saying that street photography is about NYC; everyone’s town is awesome and photogenic, it’s up to you as the photographer to find it."
Which photographer's styles do you admire the most? The least?
I admire Boogie for his fearlessness and his obviously non-judgmental eye, as well as his obsessive dedication to street photography. I also admire Bruce Davidson for his in-depth study of his subjects and his incredible mastery of both the technical and psychological aspects of photographing people. What I don’t admire is arrogance and unnecessary fake façades that surrounds some people in the photo world. I like things that are real and straight up.
There is a documentary out about Vivian Maier and her recently unearthed cache of street photography. Are you a fan of Vivian Maier? How is Everybody Street in dialogue with this other story?
Yes, I like her work. Well, you can see a lot of the qualities that I described above that she seemed to possess. Plus the classic example of her need to shoot, but not the ability or perhaps desire (no one will know for sure) for her to get the work out there.
I think the dialog this work would have with what I am addressing in Everybody Street would be the importance of documentary images. And how they inform and enlighten people, how they enhance memory and all of the numerous emotions you experience from looking at these photographs
What subject matter would you like to document that you haven’t covered?
After making a film for the past three years, I would like to do a big photo project as in-depth as this last experience - an all-level exploration with objects and images and words, I know what it is but I don’t want to talk about it yet until it is near complete. I don’t like talking about what I am going to do, it’s not my style. I like to do it then maybe talk about it. Doing this big film project and having to talk about it so much to get funding was intrinsically against my nature. I want to do something now that is pure to who I am now using all the knowledge that I have accumulated, and present an analytic observation. Plus, Jill Freedman gave me her darkroom, and we are currently setting it up. So I am super amped to print again.
What is the one question about Everybody Street you’ve always wanted to answer, but were never asked?
Did it drive you crazy making a film about something you love to do, yet in order to make that film, you were not able to spend much time doing that thing that you love so much? Answer: yes!
What are you working on these days? What's your next project?
I am spending a lot of time promoting Everybody Street. I am working on a festival book and trying to get to Festival au Désert in Mali. I am writing the treatment for another feature about one Artist…ONE person, yeah.
What's your favorite kind of pie?
Cheryl Dunn is a documentary filmmaker and street photographer based in New York City. Her films have played at numerous film festivals including Tribeca, Edinburgh, Rotterdam, Los Angeles and Havana, and on PBS. Her work has been exhibited in various galleries and museums including Deitch Projects in New York, The Tate Modern in London, and the “Art in the Streets ” exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary MOCA. Cheryl was one of the subjects the documentary, book & traveling museum exhibition “Beautiful Losers”. She has had two books of her photographs published - Bicycle Gangs of New York, and Some Kinda Vocation. See more of her work at www.cheryldunn.net or on Tumblr http://cheryldunn.tumblr.com .
Cheryl Dunn's preferred street-shooting kit contains the Leica M6, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH lenses.
Everybody Street main site: www.everybodystreet.com
Everybody Street blog: http://everybodystreet.tumblr.com
WATCH NOW: Everybody Street (Official Trailer)
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Everybody Street Screenings
Miami, December 6, 11-12
Miami Beach Cinematheque
Miami Street Photography Festival
New York, December 15
Apple Store, Soho tickets
New York, November, 22-26
Nitehawk Cinemas tickets
Los Angeles, December 2
New York, November 11-12
Melbourne, November 4
Independent Photography Festival
Atlanta, October 2, 2013
Atlanta Celebrates Photography
Amsterdam, September 27, 2013
FOAM Unseen Festival
London, September 25 - October 4, 2013
Raindance International Film Festival
Wroclaw, Poland, July 24 - August 3, 2013
T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival
Toronto, April 2013
HotDocs International Documentary Film Festival