whitehot | October 2007, Cheryl Dunn in coversation with Joe Heaps Nelson for Whitehot Magazine, New York
Cheryl Dunn moves pretty fast.
She's a veteran photographer and filmmaker who knows how to get to know people.
By taking advantage of opportunities, following her instincts and
being fair, she's built up a gritty and smart body of work that has
enabled the marginalized to tell their side.
She's also just documented some pretty cool scenes.
We sat down in the Lit Gallery well after midnight, amid the
photographs that comprise her latest show, and rapped about how she
approaches her work, the importance of keeping it loose, fun projects
in weird places, shooting the aftermath of 9/11, what's great about
rock and roll, and the dodgy part about the confluence of
photojournalism and art.
Joe Heaps Nelson: Your work usually seems to sympathize with the
outsider ~ somebody who rejects normalcy. What do you think it is
about you that makes you that kind of person?
Cheryl Dunn: Like am I that kind of person?
JHN: Yeah, it seems like you are always attracted to rebellious people.
CD: Yeah, because they are taking a stand. Whether it's right or
wrong, it's not in the mainstream. Someone who does that obviously has
a passionate feeling about something they're thinking about or saying.
They have to try harder to have a voice and that's interesting to me.
People that just have things easier, or come from privilege, or are
connected to things, don't really have to try that hard and what
they're saying, to me, is a little less interesting. So I'm drawn to
the type of people who have to use all of their faculties to figure
out how to get somewhere, how to get someone to listen to them, how to
get a job, how to have a voice. That struggle... I'm a storyteller, so
I find those stories way more interesting.
JHN: You have this interesting life. Do you run around looking for
wild stuff, or do you just find this stuff?
CD: I think picture taking is kind of like... you have to put yourself
in a place and you have to look and really listen. Sometimes
interesting stuff happens. More than it does, it doesn't. Then
something crazy and wild will happen before your eyes right when you
walk out the door to get a cup of coffee, and it's right in front of
You don't ever know, and that's whats cool about life. I feel like
it's important to stay loose and stay spontaneous, and try not to have
so much of an agenda in your life because then really great things
happen to you. It's also important to be by yourself. If you can. The
older I get, the more responsibilities I have and the less time I'm
really by myself, and my day's filled with all this shit I gotta do.
It bums me out because I had so much more freedom when I was younger.
When I make those times and I'm by myself, like I just went up to
Lincoln Center and I wanted to go to this Todd Haynes movie, I'm Not
There, the Dylan movie, and I didn't have a ticket, but I love
scalping tickets. I love figuring it out. It's like taking pictures,
where you're hunting for an image. It's a whole game.
JHN: Do you like crashing parties?
CD: I like crashing parties. I love sneaking into things, to see if I
can do it. I almost snuck into the Academy Awards Vanity Fair
afterparty two years ago. I got my foot ten inches in the door, but,
you know? I mean I just love that shit, the challenge of it, and
pulling it off.
JHN: So you're talking about this spontaneous thing, but, what's the
difference between still photography and making films? Doesn't it take
a lot more planning and teamwork to make a movie?
CD: Yeah, absolutely, and that's a bummer. You know, I have made films
~ I have been a one man show, and there are assets. There's an
intimacy, like in picturetaking or portrait making or making a video
documentation. It's about trust, and it's about your subject trusting
you, and you not being intrusive, and you're there to listen and look
and be really sensitive to the energy in the room, so they trust you
and they have to trust you fast.
In my initial filmmaking I was approaching it in the same way as my
still photography, and I got intimate portrayals of people, but then I
fucked up technically. I'm always fucking up my sound, because I'm an
image maker, that's what I generally mess up if I'm by myself.
I did a feature documentary. Now I'm embarking on a project that I'm
hoping to get other people's money to make. I will have money to pay
other people hopefully, but it will be a small group.
JHN: You started as a fashion photographer in Milan. How did you get
off that path?
CD: At the time there was quite a bit of freedom. Shooting fashion was
the only way you could get six pages in a magazine, you know? What you
could do at that time, before advertising really dictated the content
of magazines the way they do today ~ I'd get my friends and thrift
shop clothes ~ I'd be inspired by our location and a story, and we'd
go there and create a play. The pictures and the clothes would tell a
story. It wasn't about Ralph Lauren and shit, it was just some fucked
up slip from Salvation Army and whatever whatever, y'know?
JHN: You ended up making films about skateboarding. How did that happen?
CD: In the mid-90s I wanted to do a story inspired by a Susan Meisel
book about Nicaragua. She's an awesome photojournalist. It was about
the Sandinistas. They had metal masks, maybe similar to a fencing
mask, and they painted faces on 'em. I wanted to do a special story
like that for Paper, because I used to shoot boxing a lot...
I asked this painter, Phil Frost, if he would do these masks. I wanted
to do a trade with him or something, then we wound up going out. We
were kind of associated with Alleged Gallery. I didn't know any
skateboarders when I was in school ~ so I just fell into this group of
artists, through the art. I was shooting Puma ads and stuff like that.
JHN: Sped was your first movie?
CD: Yeah, I was hired by a snowboard company, and instead of making a
movie about the snowboard team, they wanted a film about the artists
who did graphics for the boards. So, I had no agenda, I was given a
JHN: Is that how you met those guys?
CD: I met some of them through that film. Like Chris Johanson I didn't
know before. And Thomas Campbell ~ yeah, most of them. I knew Phil, he
recommended me for it, and then I met all those guys.
JHN: I want to know about the demolition derby in Tokyo. What the heck
was all that about? What was that like?
CD: In hindsight, I thought, like ~ how the hell did that ~ who is ~
in real demolition derbys they take the gas tank and put it in the
trunk of the car. Those cars could have totally blown up!!!
These rich Japanese dudes wanted these artists to make T-shirt
graphics and they invited them to come over and mount simultaneous
shows and create this work for a couple weeks.
JHN: That must have been awesome!
CD: It was like this sick ass art field trip in a really foreign
country that some dude was paying for. He gave everybody cell phones,
open tab at the bar ~ it was mayhem!
JHN: How lucky can you get?!
CD: My trip was not paid for. Aaron [Rose] was like, wouldn't it be
cool if you came over and filmed it. So I went over there, and when I
got there these guys were like, we'll fund this thing you want to do,
who are you, and we had a meeting, and they're like, OK, but then they
didn't in the end. So when they said that I knew all this shit was
happening all over the city. I flew four of my friends to Tokyo to
help me shoot. After the fact, they totally bailed on me.
JHN: But at least you got a great movie out of it.
CD: Yeah it was my footage. I had it, and it was my initial intent to
document this scene and these artists, because I felt what they were
doing was really important, and this was a very unique experience and
it was invaluable to have this footage. It proved to be correct,
because one of the artists, Margaret Kilgallen, passed away soon
I always reference, when they did the Jackson Pollock show at MoMA,
and they recreated his barn, and they showed this film that the guy
went out there and put the 16mm under glass and filmed him. I don't
think he had an agenda for that footage. He just knew that it was an
important document. It's invaluable!
That's how I always feel when I document artists and their process,
especially early in their career. We were all, y'know, younger, and it
was just an impulse and an instinct to do it.
JHN: You straddle this interesting line between journalist and artist,
because you're an artist yourself.
CD: Right. Well I'm documenting painters, and I'm a photographer and
filmmaker. Documentary as art is a strange concept and I battle with
it all the time because there are ethics involved, with portraying
your friends, and you are interpreting something.
JHN: Now you live near the twin towers, which no longer exist, because
they were blown up by planes. Were you in New York that day?
CD: Yeah, I was sleeping in my apartment. Everybody has their story,
and I want to say how that experience changed the way I thought about
many things, because the story of my day is lengthy, like anybody's.
Before that I was interested in social issues and I was trying to get
those kinds of images published, but our media world is about
entertainment so that's not sellable. I think when 9/11 happened it
really changed how people looked at photojournalism and it revived
photojournalism because suddenly people got more serious and they
started paying attention to the shit that was going on around them.
Before, they were just shopping and entertaining themselves. It really
was a jolt, and that was a positive thing that came out of that
experience, and it has stuck, slightly.
JHN: But didn't people just go back to shopping, and the same stupid bullshit?
CD: Yeah, but not all the way, y'know? Not all the way.
JHN: You had a series of photos of people visiting there ~ and that
was in your neighborhood ~ on your street.
CD: Basically, for me, I started documenting what was happening in my
neighborhood because I had the all access pass. I had a driver's
license that got me to the neighborhood. On my street, Maiden Lane,
you could see quite a bit. When you cross Broadway, it becomes
Cortlandt Street, where one of the pieces of the towers was. Right
outside my door, became this microcosm, a social experiment of, how
could people deal with grief, and how it transpired over the weeks
that followed the tragedy.
I started taking isolated portraits, I had a flash, on the street, of
people's faces. When some lady got all up in my face and was like, how
could you do this, I was like, this is my front yard, I've lived in
this neighborhood since 1989. This is where I live and that's why I'm
JHN: Of course it's this huge, historical moment that needs to be
documented by any means possible.
SD: The portraits to me were just about human behavior in the face of
tragedy. My reaction to tragedy was working through it, documenting.
That's how I dealt with it emotionally. What was happening with the
people in the street.
Initially it was prayer, group therapy, everyone talking to each
other. Then the religious groups were coming in from the South and
were trying to convert people. Then commerce happens. All the
Chinatown people had no way to make a living and they were selling
pins and buttons, then more exploitative commerce. Then it was take my
picture of this, then it was take my picture in front of this, and
that's when I stopped photographing. Now it's like the biggest tourist
site in the country. They shop, and they go look at 9/11.
The other things I documented were really about the environmental
issues down there that Giuliani was sweeping under the carpet. Glass
was flying out of windows and manhole covers would blow out of the
ground at 1 o'clock in the morning on a Saturday night. It would be
totally cleaned up. There'd be dudes in hazmat suits scrubbing shit in
the middle of the night but not in the day so anyone would see and I'd
go up to them and be like, what are you doing man? It was all about
keeping it under wraps.
I just videotaped constantly because I thought how they were dealing
with the people that live in that area... They were not dealing with
them. Where I live it's artists and senior citizens. They didn't even
know what buildings were inhabited and they didn't give a fuck about
our health. At all. obviously, because it all came out in the end.
JHN: Like my friend George Tabb. You know George Tabb? He's this punk
rock guy, who lived in the neighborhood. He became sick and it ruined
his life. He became an activist.
CD: It's fucked up man. I did a show in San Francisco in December
. Tony Ousler had a studio a block away and Steven Powers had a
studio down there. I did a show about artists' reactions... what they
made of this thing that happened in their neighborhood. By then, in
December, people in San Francisco were...
First of all, I hadn't really been out of New York, and I travel quite
a bit. When that happened I absolutely stayed home. So it was
difficult for me to be around people that didn't have a similar
experience. When other people were acting normal, I was like, it's not
normal! So by the time we got out to San Francisco there were people
like, I don't want to know about this. I'm like, well then, don't come
here. You don't have to be here.
This Art News writer chick got all up in my face, basically saying I
was exploiting shit and blablabla. I'm like, dude, this is where I
live. This is my neighborhood. This is my reality. You don't have to
look at it. You don't have to do anything to it! But why don't you go
check it out and then you come back and talk to me. And she did. And
she wrote me a letter and she apologized to me. She was like, yeah, I
had no idea.
JHN: Can I have a name?
CD: Hahaha! I'd tell you, but I don't remember.
But, isn't that what art is? These are my feelings about my reality.
That was my reality. It was an insanely media saturated world tragedy,
half a block from where I lived.
JHN: What do you want to say about this new show you have up at Fuse
Gallery on Second Avenue? Tell the world!
CD: Well, the title of the show is No One is Not Happy When They're
Dancing. It's a double negative ~ I tend to title things in improper
English for some reason I realize ~ because it's less direct or
something? I've photographed a lot of music festivals over the years
and I think what's happening not on the stage is quite interesting.
JHN: Are they from commercial gigs, or just because you want to?
CD: 'Cause I want to and sometimes, it's for a magazine maybe, or I
finagle credentials so I can do it for myself, and then I maybe give
it to them, or a lot of times they don't give a shit, 'cause, y'know,
JHN: Because you're not doing commercial photography, you're doing photography.
CD: I'm doing documentary photography I would say. There's 80,000
people shooting the guy on the stage. But I think just like those 9/11
portraits, it's the emotion. Someone's looking here, they're taking it
in, and they're shooting something else out, you know, and what
they're shooting out is very intense. I'm very interested in that. So
I'm usually always turning around.
JHN: You're capturing the emotion of the crowd, but another thing I
find appealing is that people sometimes seem surprised they are
getting their picture taken.
CD: Yeah but they're psyched because they're just happy. If you're in
a pit and you start walking out and shoot your camera at people they
start going crazy. They're in this moment and all caught up. But there
are other pictures in here that are not at rock shows. The premise of
this is about different types of movement. Like, the dance of life? Is
that corny? It's so Lion King.
JHN: It may be corny but it's OK because it's punk rock. The idea that
the audience is part of the show as much as the performer is a punk
rock idea, don't you agree?
CD: Yeah absolutely. That's why the famous people are on the mobile
and their pictures are this big and they spin around. With unfamous
people on there too, so it's a democratic mobile. The everyman guy is
celebrated in big prints. Because, it's about the everyman, man!
No One is Not Happy When They're Dancing
is on view at Lit gallery, 93 Second Avenue, NYC,
through October 28.
Thanks to Carlo McCormick for introducing us, and Erik Foss for being our host!
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief