Celtic Junction Arts Review

Tom Dunn, Street Photographer

An interview with Tom Dunn by Carillon RoseMeadows

Photographer Tom Dunn is known for his wonderful Irish of Minnesota series, a growing collection of black and white minimalist portraits. Its subjects reflect a diverse and rich Irish community – and someday, he hopes, the project will become a book.

Tom was raised in Grand Forks, ND, and attended college at Purdue University in Indiana. In 1993 he moved to Minnesota and fell in love with the Lowertown art community, where he’s shown his work in the past 20 Saint Paul Art Crawls. He became involved in the St. Paul Art Collective in 2010 and served as president of the Board from 2013-15.

Since 2016, Tom has taught classes at FilmNorth, a nonprofit whose mission includes empowering artists to tell their stories visually. He also volunteers his expertise at Second Harvest Heartland and the Youth Service Bureau; read on for his thoughts on the value of these two organizations.

Tom is a versatile freelance commercial photographer, available for subjects including portraiture, products and corporate events, but he has a special love for street photography and he took to the streets during the lockdown. In his own words:

Ireland and the Irish of Minnesota backstory

Street photography in Ireland by Tom Dunn.

I have traveled to Ireland twice and there are some photos well hidden on my website. I was planning to go back this year in May with my father and brother and take advantage of the direct Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. That trip was cancelled due to the pandemic and is literally “up in the air” at this time. My very first public exhibit was called “Visions of Ireland” in 2009 at a gallery in Stillwater. Since then, I have displayed my images of the emerald isle at numerous Saint Paul Art Crawls and various other locations.

One such spot was The Dubliner Pub in the fall of 2015. One of the owners, Geri Connelly, saw my images and invited me to show them at an Irish Network – MN event. It was at that gathering where I met Patrick O’Donnell who was there reciting Yeats dressed in a period piece with some other players. Patrick and I met over a pint and some craic at the end of the evening when he mentioned the idea of someone one day creating portraits of the local Irish living in Minnesota. And, the Irish of Minnesota project was born!

One of my favorite parts about the Irish of MN project is hearing the family stories of my subjects and how they ultimately ended up in Minnesota after their relatives emigrated from Ireland. The original sessions for the Irish of Minnesota project took place in early 2016 with the first public exhibitions in April during the Saint Paul Art Crawl and August at the Irish Fair of Minnesota. After the election in 2016, immigration became a hot topic of discussion. The stories of the Irish struggles to assimilate, as well as other nationalities coming to America en masse in the 1800’s, were ringing true with immigrants in the 2000’s. That story has not changed much since 2016 and the difficult hurdles and hardships have only gotten worse with the current political climate and pandemic.

The pandemic and the street photographer

Street photography by Tom Dunn.

I used to go on long walks during the early days of the lockdown and I would always have my camera with me. This was no different, really, as I always try to carry one with me. Regarding iconic images, I have a few that come to mind.

One is of a man in Mears Park walking behind a newspaper box and the headline of the paper in the window is “Global shutdown.” Another is an employee in the doorway of his recently shutdown restaurant with his head looking down sadly at the sign letting the public know they are closed at this time. The last one is a long line of people waiting outside of a local business that was handing out free perishable food items to the public.

My plan has been to post more of them when I felt the time was right which has not come to me yet since we are unfortunately still in the thick of things.

Street photography by Tom Dunn. Waiting in line for perishable food during the lockdown.
Street photography by Tom Dunn.
Street photography by Tom Dunn. St. Paul, MN.

Because of the pandemic, I chose to stay home during the protests due to the large crowds. I am of the street photography camp that believes we should let the accredited photojournalists do their job during this time. I approach street photography from the angle of a flaneur. More about wandering around with my camera and letting the collision of subjects and their surroundings come together in a time and place that I find interesting. So, it is more about aesthetics and less about creating something newsworthy. I believe art can help to heal individuals and communities. After the protests, people started creating incredible murals on the plywood canvases used to border up windows on buildings. Their spirit and actions motivated me to grab my camera and hit the streets.

Street photography by Tom Dunn. St. Paul, MN.

The photographer volunteer

We need to help our youth as they are our future. We all need the basics, including not having to worry about where our next meal is coming from. Second Harvest Heartland helps provide food to families and children in need. Youth Service Bureau helps children learn life skills they are not taught in schools so they can be successful in and out of school.  By donating my time and photography to them, I am doing a small part to help promote their essential services that help our communities grow and thrive.

Street photography. Anger Management Barcelona 2014 by Tom Dunn