“If a vision I have calls for a full set build, I don’t see it as a roadblock—just more opportunity to get creative.” These are the words of Rielly Dunn, a multifaceted talent who dances among roles of photographer, writer, and art director.
Dunn’s photographs tell stories drenched in nostalgia, characterized by a feminine aesthetic imbued with a subtle undertone of longing. There is a particular introspectiveness to her work, a silent dialogue between the viewer and the subject that leaves one contemplating the stories hidden within each frame.
In this interview, we delve into Dunn’s creative process, exploring her journey in film photography, her views on the concept of art, and how she challenges traditional representations of women through her work.
As a photographer, writer, and art director, how do you balance these roles and how do they influence each other?
I started my career in the advertising industry. I was an art director-turned-copywriter before realizing a main reason I went into advertising was to be on set, working on photoshoot campaigns and TV commercials. As I’ve built my photography portfolio, my background in art direction has definitely played a role. If a vision I have calls for a full set build, I don’t see it as a roadblock—just more opportunity to get creative. I love the entire conceptual process, from finding the right model and location, to imagining the styling. The writer in me is able to put a story to it all and for me, the storytelling aspect is the most important part.
Can you share a memorable experience from your journey in film photography?
The earliest days of my journey into film photography are probably the most memorable for me. I was doing a lot of self portraits while learning how to work my camera and trying to build up my portfolio. While most of the rolls were awful, I remember it as one of the most creative periods in my life. Learning a new medium comes with so much trial and error, it’s so freeing to be able to do so with no guardrails, deadlines, or people to please. And no one has to see it.
You’re based in New York, a city with a rich cultural and artistic history. How does the city inspire your work?
While there is no shortage of museums and galleries around here, my favorite way to get inspired is going to bookstores and magazine shops, or people watching. You never know what you might stumble upon, or what might spark a thought. The ever changing nature of the city can be quite inspiring to watch, as well—I’ve lived in about six different neighborhoods in New York and I love to go back to my old stomping grounds and see what has changed and what’s stood up to the trends.
“At its core, I think film photography simply makes you a better photographer… You have to be present, in the moment, and creative on the spot.”
As someone who loves film photography, what do you think it offers that digital photography doesn’t?
At its core, I think film photography simply makes you a better photographer. I’ve assisted photographers before who don’t even take a shot until they’re happy with the composition and it’s so inspiring to watch. Each shot is so calculated and while that might sound counterintuitive to the creative process, I actually feel the opposite—being intentional while shooting is the name of the game. You have to be present, in the moment, and creative on the spot.
How has your understanding or definition of art evolved over the years?
A few years ago I came across the definition of the word “create”. It means “to cause to exist,” and I think I would apply that definition to art, too. Any time you are bringing an idea in your head into the physical world for others to experience, that’s art. I recently read a book that talks about this. It mentions how your art is your own interpretation of your experiences, and you’ll never be able to exactly recreate what’s in your mind. Everyone will experience your art differently, and that’s okay. In fact, I think that’s beautiful.,
Are there any particular themes about womanhood that you are drawn to in your work?
Recently, I’ve been really into noticing the differences between the male gaze & the female gaze. The “female gaze” isn’t something I ever intentionally set out to recreate when shooting women, but since the start I’ve gotten the same feedback from multiple people: “Your work is tasteful.” I’ve started to take a certain pride in this and now, I almost feel a duty to capture women in a tasteful, artistic way. Our womanhood is our own, and I’d never want to showcase it in a way that makes a viewer think “this is for me.”
“The most valuable addition to any concept is a great model… The energy she brings will shine through in every photo.”
In what ways do you aim to challenge or redefine traditional representations of women through your work?
I’d like to think that every model I work with brings their feminine energy—not their bodies—as a tool to create art. They maintain their ownership and it’s up to them to invite the viewer into their world, showing as much or as little as they decide. I think society poses a woman’s body as something we all have the right to gawk at, judge, and criticize and that’s just not the case. You should be so privileged.
How do you create a space of comfort and trust when photographing women, especially when capturing more intimate or vulnerable moments?
I think it’s important to get to know a model before jumping right into a shoot. The simplest things like talking to them as a friend, having fun on set, and making conversation, rather than making it feel like a transactional experience makes all the difference. I always, always, always ask for consent before doing so much as untwisting a bra strap, and always try to make sure they have a private space to change. It’s so important to make sure a model is comfortable with your vision before you ask her to recreate it.
What book, film or person has significantly influenced your artistic style or philosophy?
I recently read Rick Rubin’s book “The Creative Act” which had a huge impact on how I approach my work. Mostly, it allowed me to reconnect to my art on the most simple level—reminding me to tune out a lot of the noise we are so inundated with, and find inspiration from my own experiences. From a stylistic point, I love looking to visually compelling movies and music videos. The film “Stealing Beauty,” though controversial, tends to inspire me on certain shoots. Not only for the aesthetics of the Tuscan countryside, but for the way it touches on the cultural obsession with female beauty and innocence.
“It’s so important for me to get off the internet and back to the things that make me feel like myself…reminding me of who I am, and what I am capable of creating.”
As an art director, what elements do you think are essential to create a compelling visual story?
For me, the most valuable addition to any concept is a great model. I love when a model has ideas of her own and isn’t afraid to try new things on set. The energy she brings will shine through in every photo. I think amazing styling can make or break a shoot, and being able to interact with the environment really brings a story to life, as well.
What has been the most challenging project you’ve worked on and what did you learn from it?
I did a shoot for a brand recently that didn’t have much budget to pay for a model so I had to rely on using a friend as my model, instead. It ended up being a great masterclass in directing your model and communicating on set. One of the photos ended up being published on Photo Vogue, so I’d say it was a success!
If you could have a conversation with any artist from history, who would it be and what would you discuss?
Robert Mapplethorp—I’ve always been nostalgic for the art scene of New York during the 60’s & 70’s, and his work is obviously so iconic. I’m sure we would discuss art and photography, but I’d be more interested to hear the stories he never told, and what the city was like back then.
In today’s rapidly changing world, how do you keep your art authentic and true to yourself?
It’s so important for me to get off the internet and back to the things that make me feel like myself. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in other people’s art and inspirations, that we often forget to look at our own experiences as a source of inspiration. There are certain activities I can turn to, or even movies I can watch that I know will always bring me back down to my reality, reminding me of who I am, and what I am capable of creating.