On becoming a dance photographer (part 1)

October 28, 2009

I had just moved to Portland, Maine, intending to leave my consulting career and open a commercial photography studio.  In those days we didn’t have personal computers with desktop publishing software, and so I hired a designer to produce my business card, letterhead, etc.

Her suggestion: “Your work is so graphic, and so visually strong . . . take pictures of something like dancers, and use these on each printed piece”.  And so I did — set up my strobe lights and a nine foot wide roll of white background paper, invited dancers from a local modern company, and my own dance began!

Making good art can be painstakingly slow, but my first attempt at dance photography was easy, exhilarating, and spiritually fulfilling.  She struck a pose, and I snapped.  I moved a bit, adjusted, and clicked again.  She moved.  Click.  And on  we went.  I found myself drawn into a visual dialog.  Later I would discover that it was actually a dance — although I’ll hasten to say that I’m not in any way a dancer.

Looking at the contact sheets from that “shoot” I was at first struck by the number of exciting images, that were visually interesting, technically solid, really engaging.  A contact sheet is typically used as an index to find the “good” shots, and that’s what I was seeking.  But then I had an important realization that would help guide my dance work ever since:  The contact sheet was a journal of a visual dialog through time and space, compressed into a single two dimension grid of flat images.  Photography is a medium of the moment (the French photographer Cartier-Bresson talked of the “intimate moment”), and yet with the contact sheet I could again experience not just the instant that the photograph was taken, but also the passages from one image to another.  I felt as if I were engaged in a dance, even though my “partner” may have had no sense that this was taking place.

“Crazy thinking”, I told myself.  How could I have a relationship with an unconscious partner?  And yet as the dancers put movement, motion, or even stillness into the world, and I experienced and transformed that visual motion form into something else, we were engaged.  In any case I was tremendously excited by the whole experience, and was quickly drawn into a journey that has spanned decades and is far from complete.

This early work was about the dancers, or so I thought.  With studio strobe lights that could stop motion, a neutral background that let me show only the subject, and a setting in which I was in control, I could focus on the movement, form, energy — all the things that I thought would tell the dancer’s story.  Indeed, that was my goal, and it seemed thoroughly appropriate.  Other dance companies sought me out, and I produced a number of promotional images that read quite easily.

Dance photography, was, of course, only part of my life.  I was also deeply involved in Waldorf Education, and was soon asked to photograph a Eurythmy troup.  Eurythmy, which is only superficially a dance form, had been developed by Rudolf Steiner, in his search for, “an art that would lift the veil between the spiritual and material dimensions of life; an art that would make the language of the spiritual world visible.” .  The Eurythmysts explained to me that Eurythmy was without dance heroics, without ego, and that my subject should not be the Erythmyts themselves but the impact they have on the space around them.  They typically wear veils, and photographing the veils might be a way to tell the story, much like trails in a physicist’s cloud chamber make visible the journeys of microscopic charged particles.

What a wonderful exercise — to look not just at the Eurythmyts (or, later, not just at the dancers), to see their effect on the space around them.  I carry this mantra, but then am often struck to see that my photos are still of dancers more than of the space in which beautiful or compelling action has taken place.

I share this history because I belive it illuminates my search for a simple point of clarity:  That my dance images might be an attempt to tell the story of the dancers (who are my subject), or an attempt to record my experience of them and the dance that they produced. I believe these are quite different endeavors — that, ultimately, must converge if one is to produce powerful person portraits of dance.

2 Responses to “On becoming a dance photographer (part 1)”

  1. This is a great post and really got me thinking. I have added this blog to my favourites so that I can read more of these great posts.

  2. Hi webmaster, commenters and everybody else – The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need – Keep ’em coming… you all do such a great job at such Concepts… can’t tell you how much I, for one appreciate all you do!

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