In Conversation With: Gregory Dunn

Gregory Dunn is a photographer and documentary filmmaker who grew up in Deal. Gregory has lived all over the world, ending up in Dublin’s Stoneybatter. Current circumstances mean he’s currently living in Deal again and has been documenting the town’s response to the pandemic with his trusty compact camera. He's hoping to produce a book out of his photography of Deal. Gregory’s interest lies in scenes of the “unconsidered” and every day. We spoke to him about his work as a photographer and his stay in Deal.

How did you get started with photography?

My introduction to photography actually began here in Deal when I was sixteen. It was the long hot summer of 1976 and I’d just finished school. By default I got a job at a large photographic laboratory here in the town. In those days, not only was digital photography 15 or 20 years away, but one-hour photo labs didn’t exist either. If you shot a roll of film you brought it to your local chemist. From there the film would be sent away for processing and printing. The whole process would be turned around in a few days. It just happened that the lab that dealt with most of Kent’s developing and printing was located right here. United Photographic Laboratories was situated either side of St. George’s Passage and in the Feed My Lambs building in Middle Street. A fleet of vans went every day all over the county collecting unprocessed film and delivering prints. There was a large staff, most of whom didn’t have the slightest interest in photography. I didn’t either. However, there were one or two individuals at UPL who were keen amateurs. I guess you could say that my interest in photography started then. A few years later I found myself processing transparency film in a small professional lab in Chelsea in London and then another, larger one in Chelsea in New York. Digital rendered that industry obsolete many years ago.

How important is the editing process to you, do you see it as a quick polish or an integral part of the process?

My technical skill set with anything computer-based is, at best limited. I try to get my exposures and composition right beforehand. I only work with a small point-and-shoot, fixed lens camera so there’s a directness to my images that doesn’t require a lot of post-production. Having said that, I’d be lost without the basics; crop tool, contrast, etc.

What does a typical day look like for you at the moment?

Each day is quite similar to the previous one. I arrived on the 12th of March and the weather was bright and sunny. Give or take two or three days, It has remained that way for the last eleven weeks. This adds to the odd continuity of the current COVID-era. Usually trips home to Deal consist of trawling charity shops, the pier, a cappuccino at Miretti, visiting friends, and side trips to the likes of Margate or Dungeness. None of that’s possible now. I was convinced that yesterday was Sunday until I discovered it was, in actual fact Thursday (‘Clapping’ day). I do the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and laundry for my elderly mother. My one daily escape is a long, solitary walk or bicycle ride, either north, south, or west of the town.

Daphne venture's out...

What is one thing that surprised you when coming back to Deal?

There isn’t too much about Deal that to me is in any way surprising. However, one remarkable thing that I recently learned about the town was that Aleister Crowley, who once held the title of "the wickedest man in the world" and was described in some quarters as a Satanist, lived for a short while in Warwick Road during 1908. Perhaps the Deal Society would consider commemorating Deal’s most notorious resident with a blue plaque and a ritual sacrifice.

The pandemic has meant you are stuck in Deal for the moment, how do you feel about constraints and the effect on creativity?

Personally I don’t feel that the current situation has limited my creativity. If anything, the pandemic has provided an opportunity. This is a moment in history, which hopefully won’t be repeated, but should be documented.

You said you’ve never turned your lens to your hometown, favouring a grittier urban subject matter. What changed, have you found an edgier side to the town you didn't see before?

No, I don’t think the town’s ‘edgier’. In fact I think the opposite applies. When I grew up and went to school here in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, there was a sizable coal mining community and Deal still played host to the Royal Marines. There were a lot more pubs too. There was a toughness that could, at times be a little intimidating for a teenage boy. There was also a gay scene here that was a bit before its time and perhaps at odds with the aforementioned factions. Deal wasn’t the gentrified, DFL, Airbnb destination that it is now - far from it.

Keep the Home-Fires Burning

What have been some of your favourite or most fruitful areas of Deal to photograph?

I’ve enjoyed investigating Deal’s unconsidered edgelands, in particular the north end of the town and the marshlands. I’ve also explored Mill Hill, Middle Deal, Upper Walmer, Sandown, Sholden, Mongeham, and Church Path, all in minute detail. Before my parents moved to Deal, we lived in Ringwould and Kingsdown. My formative years were spent in those villages and the pandemic has given me the opportunity to reconnect with the surrounding farmland, woodlands, and network of footpaths that criss-cross the Downs. The cliffs, Rifle Range, and beach at Kingsdown are wonderful too. As to how ‘fruitful’ they are photographically? That’s difficult to answer. I’m just trying not to concentrate solely on what Deal’s best assets are; it’s beach, pier, and conservation area.

How has the pandemic affected your approach, do you feel a responsibility to capture this moment in time?

Yes, definitely. However, I don’t want my record of this time to consist of images of people in facemasks and deserted streets. That’ll be done to death. Whether my pictures successfully manage to convey a sense of this corner of East Kent during the coronavirus or not remains to be seen. A photographer friend of mine who lives in downtown Manhattan didn’t take his camera out during 9/11. If that had been me, I think I’d forever be haunted by the missed opportunity. 

Do you go out in search of images or do you happen to stumble upon them?

Both. That’s generally my working practice. I prefer to chance upon something though. Because I only use a small compact camera I pretty much take it with me every time I walk out the door, regardless of where I am in the world. The one time I don’t have a camera is probably when something extraordinary presents itself. 

Surf's up - Phibsboro

Do you use social media to share your work or enjoy the works of others?

I’ve never owned a smartphone, so that makes the 4x3 aspect ratio that I work in incompatible with Instagram which I know, as a photographer is ridiculous. I use Flickr as an archive (along with about six other people worldwide!) but my main vehicle, for now, is Facebook. What I really like are actual, hardcopy books. I love their permanence. If say, 500 copies are printed and 200 years later ten copies survive in archives or on people's bookshelves then that, in a small way is a victory in terms of a document. Who knows what’s going to happen to the whole digital world in the future?

Who has influenced your work? 

The usual suspects, Martin Parr of course, also Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier. Early on I had books by Chris Steele-Perkins, Fay Godwin, and the Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. 

What makes a successful photo for you?

A clean, concise document that will hopefully gain currency over time. Also, an image that puts my stamp on it and conveys a sense of humour.

It's time for the good times. Forget about the bad times. One day to come together. To release the pressure. We need a holiday. Holiday, celebrate, Holiday, celebrate.

Your photography focuses on images that might be missed by most. How did you come to notice these moments, have you always have an eye for them?

I’m not sure if my appetite for the unconsidered has always been with me but I suspect it has. The almost limitless freedom of digital photography coupled with the internet has certainly facilitated the way in which I see things.

Do you view your work as a filmmaker in a different sphere to your photography, are there any similarities in your approach for each discipline?

Film and photography are quite similar. Film differs in that it relies on others such as an editor, sound recordist, producer, colour grade, etc. Then there are all the other elements that are, quite frankly a pain in the arse; funding issues, release forms, music rights, etc. Some say that in order to become a filmmaker, wealthy parents are a very good starting point. Neither discipline is going to pay the rent, especially in Ireland. I’ve sort of mutated into an artist late in life after the mortgage is finally paid off and my daughter’s left home.

As a street photographer do you find you have to be bold in approaching people or put yourself out there to get the shot?

Yes. There’s a social skill involved when it comes to taking someone’s portrait. Back in Ireland, my secret weapon is my dog, Vera. She’s a great ice-breaker. Also, I find I’m helped by the fact that I’m not humping a DSLR around. People assume that you’re then going to make money out of their picture. At the other end of the scale, If I was to use a phone, then people think you’re a pervert or weirdo. A compact camera is in the middle somewhere - that’s my secret.

Oriel windows abound on Beach Street

Do you have any tips for anyone wanting to take up photography?

Keep taking pictures and be ruthless in discarding sub-standard or dull images. Try and develop your own, recognisable style.

What will you think you’ll miss most about Deal when you return to Dublin?

It doesn’t rain on the east coast of Ireland nearly as much as people think. However, the weather in Deal is much warmer. I’ll also miss the sea. Although Dublin’s a coastal city with some terrific beaches, there’s something quite special about this stretch of coastline. My extended stay here has meant that I’ve been able to experience the transition of seasons; the tail-end of winter into spring. Watching the Sea Kale burst into flower and the various shades of Valarian, Fennel and Red Hot Pokers make their way up through the shingle is wonderful.

Check out Gregory's archive on Flickr, personal website and Facebook page. On the latter, you can read his witty captions which have a large appeal. His two books Here: A Photographic Record (2017) and Portrayed (2019) can both be found in Deal Library. Watch his short film Toasted here

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