Boston photographer Steve Dunwell has traveled the world shooting for corporations and magazines and eventually settled in Beantown – er, sorry, “The Athens of America” – and, after having his New England photos serve as the basis for many publishers’ coffee-table books, up and started his own publishing company himself. Plus, he got to study under the legendary Walker Evans, which is a story in itself.
“I’m very interested in the environments that people create,” Dunwell says, “and the way they inhabit them. I concentrate on themes involving what people build, including architectural landscape, industrial history and aerial photography. I’m also interested in portraiture and interpreting people in the environment they inhabit.”
Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and raised further upstate in Poughkeepsie, Dunwell attended the Quaker academy Oakwood Friends School there. His father had worked for IBM, and in their retirement helped administer a community arts programs at the town’s Bardavon Opera House, a venerable Hudson Valley performance venue and cultural institution dating to 1869. He became interested in photography when he got to Yale – albeit as a science major. “I was extremely fortunate to get an on-campus job working in the darkroom that supplied photographic services to the science department,” Dunwell recalls “Thom Brown, the guy who ran it, was a protégé of [the Guggenheim Fellow landscape photographer] Paul Caponigro. I learned tremendous technical background in that situation.”
It was also that Yale that he studied with Walker Evans, whose photographs of the Great Depression have become iconic American images. Evans was appointed a professor of photography in the graphic-design department of the Yale School of Art and Architecture.
“He had these tutorials each semester with six or eight people,” Dunwell recalls. ” We’d meet one hour a week for the term, looking over the pictures. Walker Evans was a very intellectual sort of artist. Walker was concerned about making pictures that were very austere. His pictures did not try to be pretty. They were documents: ‘This is what this room looks like, what this person’s face looks like.’ My interest was documentary photography, so this was perfect for me.”
Dunwell graduated from Yale in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. He registered as a conscientious objector, partly based on his schooling. “I am not a Quaker but am sympathetic to them,” he says. “Conscientious objectors were required to provide an alternative service to the country, so I worked as a photojournalist for religious organizations involved in rural development.”
He spent 10 years in that capacity, shooting primarily for non-profit organizations’ journals. His work took him to Brazil, Ghana, India, Paraguay and the Philippines. He occasionally got work in such magazines as National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler and Forbes, but after a peripatetic decade decided, “I wanted to be in New England more of the time.” Hooking up with some regional publications, he moved to Boston in 1976 “and made a career focusing on New England as subject matter.”
To that end, after having provided photographs for about a dozen coffee-table books with names like Connecticut: A Scenic Discovery, Duke: A Portrait, Mystic Seaport and U.S.S. Constitution: Old Ironsides for various publishers, Dunwell about 10 years ago started Back Bay Press. “I create and publish picture books,” he says modestly of a major entrepreneurial undertaking.
“I was working for publishers, and had done quite a few books with them, so I knew a fair amount of how you do it; I’d always been interested in the procedures and techniques. The books reinforce my position in this field, and I’m always creating new pictures that I put into [updated editions] of the books.” As well, cleverly, he took over some of the rights to his out-of-print books from other publishers.
Dunwell, who taught for a couple of years at New England School of Photography, says of this Panasonic foray, “I’m always excited to see new equipment, and Leica lenses are known to be the very best; this is a great feature of the Linux camera. I will be learning my way around the camera, and then I’ll understand better what its special virtues are.” Dunwell’s, of course, are already apparent.
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