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Interview: Cheryl Dunn

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

President’s in conversation with Cheryl Dunn, our artist-in-residence for AW17-18.
Photos by Alessandro Simonetti.

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So, let’s start with the backstory of the image featured in this season’s President’s campaign. 

Well, I had been documenting boxing for about 9 years in the 90’s. Through a boxing manager from New Jersey, I had access to a world that was very inaccessible at the time. I saw the door and ran through it and used this subject to hone my documentary skills. The nature of shooting boxing in hindsight really schooled me on many aspects I used later in street shooting. I had been shooting ringside at fights for many years. You would see the same guys shooting and I was definitely the only girl. It was a pretty aggressive scene—everyone pushing and shoving to get the shot. You were really competing to get the knock out or a good punch. There was a lot of luck involved, being on the right side of the ring at the right time and not being in the middle of loading your camera. It was not a friendly scene—until I shot a fashion story at a real boxing match and showed up to this arena with 5 or so really hot, very tall models and suddenly all these dudes that I knew in the scene suddenly became my best friends wanting to meet my models.

This particular image is in the locker room of Shannon Briggs, who fought for my friend’s gym and who he knew well. The girl to his side is his real girlfriend. In the ring, I loved the juxtaposition of the ring card girls, shooting through their legs to see the exhausted fighters in the corner. So this is a similar vibe of a post match fighter within a scene of sexy elegant women.

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Are there any photographers who inspired you in your formative years? Anybody holding your interest these days? 

I was very inspired by Bruce Davidson, Diane Arbus, Gordon Parks… I loved New York of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today, I am really into some of the men and women that have been around but I did not know of them when I was learning. Like the black and white images of Saul Leiter, Fred Herzog, Meryl Meisler, Arlene Gottfried and also younger shooters; I love Daniel Arnold.

You shoot Leica primarily, right?I t’s probably the greatest street camera of all time, but why specifically is it your system of choice? 

Yes. The size, the weight, the incredible lenses, sharpness and speed—it’s second nature to me, but it is not automatic so it takes skill to use it well. I guess I don’t like doing easy things.

Where do you stand on the film vs. digital divide these days? 

I don’t think things replace other things. They just become something new. I will always shoot film as long as they continue to make it. The quality, for me, is undeniable. Digital is great for many reasons for many purposes. So you just choose your tools based on the task at hand. I use them both but for my street work, it is film. I know I have my negative, it is tangible and physical and I know where it lives. Digital files are a bit abstract and you spend a lot of time on the computer. I try to get off the computer whenever I can.

Are you working on anything new and exciting this year? 

I am making a documentary feature film about the New York artist Dash Snow and the art scene post 911 in NYC .

So, I’ve read that you got your real start in photography in Milan – you started shooting fashion there, right? Did the city or anyone there leave a lasting impact on your sensibility?

Absolutely. I had studied art history at university with a focus in Italian renaissance painting, at the time never thinking that I would live in Italy. So when I did and saw how art was just everywhere, that people lived amongst such revered works in their everyday lives, how you could walk into a church and see a 12th century fresco right there on the wall, it fascinated me. Also, the style and fashion and of course the food… It was a great thing to do. I was by myself most of the time, did not speak the language and just walked and walked the streets, reading, writing, shooting, looking at art. The isolation at that age was difficult but also really trained my eye to observe.

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Have you been back lately? If you were a young photographer just starting out today, do you think Milan would be a place you might still gravitate towards? 

I had a show there about 3 years ago. I went to look at the pensione that I stayed at near the castello — still there.

At the time I was there, you could survive by doing test shots for models and it was very inexpensive compared to NY. I don’t know those variables now. But as an American being able to take trains all throughout Europe and cross into countries and cultures with so much history is amazing and very different than the USA. Italy is very beautiful and diverse and my ancestors came from there so it holds a very special place in my heart; it is very intriguing to me. It is my roots, so the short answer is yes: I would recommend Milan to anyone.

How would you describe your personal style? 

I would describe it as utilitarian, tomboy and feminine at the same time. I travel a lot so I also like dresses because they can fold up small. Love a great jacket or coat. I have been wearing this very chic utility belt from Wendy Nichol. I like to have my hands free so i can shoot my camera, so it is cool to carry things around your waist sometimes.

What is the essence of Italian style to you? 

Great quality and materials, impeccable design. A style that is naturally integrated with how you live and move. If you wear one special item, it can take an average look and make it chic and special.