The year was 1893. The place: Fifth Avenue, New York City. Pioneer street photographer Alfred Stieglitz stood shivering in a snowstorm with his 4×5 camera, waiting for the shot that would make him famous. Cheryl Dunn is one of hundreds of photographers who have followed in his footsteps, surreptitiously capturing grizzled homeless men on subway platforms and blitzed kids at music festivals with her Leica. Her new film, Everybody Street, captures the spirit of street photography in the ’80s and ’90s by dint of interviews with icons—Martha Cooper, Jill Freedman, Ricky Powell, Elliot Erwitt, Mary Ellen Mark and more—spliced in with Stieglitz stills and Dunn’s own 16mm footage of the city that never sleeps.
Were all the photographers in the film eager to turn the camera on themselves?
Photographers like to hide behind cameras. It was rewarding for me when someone said, “I’ll give you 30 minutes,” and then I hung out with them all day. I’m self-taught, so it was helpful that I understood the psychology of shooting. And my film is about the psychology of photography.
Do the photographers in the film have different psychologies about shooting?
The photographers in the film are really diverse. Bruce Gilden is aggressive when he goes for his shot but Jamel Shabazz always asks permission. For me, every encounter is unique. I try not to be exploitative, but I try to take the shot that strikes me.
In the ’80s, street photographers found themselves in some dangerous situations, given the politics of the time. Have you ever found yourself in a tight spot?
The pictures I’m presenting in the film are about culture, about history. When New York City was attacked on 9/11, my studio was a block away from the World Trade Center. I think the act of shooting saved me emotionally because I used it as a mission to document the truths that were not on the news’ agenda.
Has street photography changed in the current culture of iPhones and Instagram?
Everybody’s a photographer now. I shoot with Leicas and people react to the tool I’m using. Maybe since it’s a cool looking camera and carries more weight, they don’t think I’m stealing something from them. There are [smartphone] apps that simulate a picture being processed in the dark room, which kind of freaks me out. Like, everything I know means nothing!
What do you personally love about street photography?
I love the satisfaction of hunting for the shot. I might find nothing, but I might find something great. In the film, Jeff Mermelstein says, “Helen Levitt once said: ‘There’s a luck, but it takes a lot of work to create luck.’” The craziest stuff happens on the street…especially in New York.
Everything Street will screen at the Raindance Film Festival 25 September – 6 October 2013.
For more info, go to everybodystreet.com
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