cheryl dunn will never tire of documenting new york
i-D talks to the legendary photographer about celebrating the LES for Dolce Vita shoes, the joys of living in an ever changing city, and why it's never boring on the street.
Photography Cheryl Dunn
Cheryl Dunn has been photography New York since the 80s, documenting the Lower East Side’s then nascent art scene, and the various characters who make up the neighborhood. From skaters, to kids at festivals, to protesters, there’s not many groups Dunn hasn’t turned her camera towards — they just have to be on the street, or anywhere outside, really, for her to find them. She also makes documentaries, the first of which was the great Everybody Street, about other photographers who’ve made New York’s streets their subject (with everyone from Mary Ellen Mark to Jamel Shabazz). From her studio in lower Manhattan, Dunn is seemingly in a mode of continuous production and discovery.
Dunn’s latest project was honoring the Lower East Side roots of Dolce Vita shoes (Ludlow street to be exact). Perhaps nobody has documented the modern heyday of the area so thoroughly, thus the photographer seemed like the perfect choice. Dunn was joined by photographers Emily Soto, Hannah Ryan, and Sabrina Santiago for the project, called A New York Gaze, for which they were given the freedom to shoot the LES however they saw fit. i-D caught up with the New York fixture to discuss the never ending appeal of shooting on the street, where to go to hear good music (in short, Bushwick), and who the fuck all those people are in the city.
How did you come to work with Dolce Vita?
They were looking for a number of women artists who have a connection to the lower east side, and its history, so to speak. So that’s how it came about.
Do you live there still?
I have a studio in the financial district. That I’ve had for over 25 years. People not from here think the Lower East Side is the East Village. But it’s not really. I just moved out of the East Village, and then I also lived there in the 80s on Avenue C. The Lower East Side was where I was involved in Alleged Gallery, and showed there, and had friends in the area. Before it turned into what it is now!
Do you still enjoy shooting in the city?
Do I still enjoy shooting in the city? Yeah! I always want to shoot on the street. It’s always changing, and people are… I think it’s very reflective of a place, how people move on the street, and what changes. New York City is a city built of concrete, steel, and glass, and it’s surrounded by water, so there’s something very special about the way the light is here. And every season is constantly different, and the amount of people, and how the city dictates how people moved around it. It always fascinates me. And you can go away and come back, and you’re like, “Where did this place go?” You can hate on gentrification but you can’t stop it. I just moved to Brooklyn after 30 years. Holy shit, why didn’t I do this a long time ago.
I have this loft in lower Manhattan, so I have this base. I’ve always said, “One day I want to have my city house in Manhattan and my country house in Brooklyn,” so, I kind of have that now. I enjoy both of them because I have the other option.
I love the streets and try to shoot on them as much as possible. I wish I could be doing street photography every day. But I have to make films and sometimes I just stare at computers and edit films.
In all your interviews you strike a very positive note about how New York has changed.
Down where my studio is, it’s probably the biggest tourist destination in the States — the World Trade Center. So you know, that’s fucking annoying. But it’s also hilarious to watch those people. New York is like a theme park. But that’s also interesting in a weird, different, other way. The Lower East Side, you go to Ludlow Street on the Friday or Saturday night, and you’re like, “Who the fuck are these people?.” They’re really wasted and they’re doing all sorts of ridiculous things. That’s funny.
It’s crazy around there.
I mean, the people who are haters aren’t in touch with what the hell’s going on for a 19 year old who’s come to New York to go to city and is super stoked. They go to huge parties in Queens and Bushwick and they’re psyched to be in New York. The person that had their time on the Lower East Side in the 80s is not doing that. There are people moving here every day.
Right, you live in an area that’s changing a lot.
I went to this music venue, Trans-Pecos, on Wyckoff Avenue. We went to the show, it was all ages, so you had kids under 21 there. Such gender fluidity, the style was off the charts, such great music, punk and electronic… I was like, “I’m so happy I live here.” All those music venues don’t exist in Manhattan. They’re in Queens, and Bushwick, you know, there’s Elsewhere in Bushwick. I’m psyched to live here, and ride my bike for 5 minutes, go to this club, and hear this music.
What are you excited about now to be working on?
I mean I have a number of long term film projects. I’m looking forward to shooting more political work — I shoot a lot of protest stuff, but I’m interested in doing more of that. I’m shooting documentary for The Cut. I’ve been shooting at this place in California called The Creative Growth Art Center. It’s an art center and gallery for adults with disabilities, it’s been around since the 70s. And I have done a number of projects there, I’ve made a film for the New York Times. And this is my next feature film… when I think about it, I’ve been working with these artists for 17 years, and doing artists profiles and shooting film, for the future, to make an all-encompassing film about art and disability. I just don’t think people know enough about it.