07/03/17: balletnext – again

charles askegard with misty copeland. ballet next

Sometimes a great and fulfilling art project needs to come to an end, allowing something new and fresh to begin. My first shoot with Ballet Next was on November 16, 2011, a rehearsal at DANY studios in midtown. It felt like a ballet celebrity event including Misty Copeland, Jennie Somogyi, and Ballet Next directors Charles Askegard and Michele Wiles. I photographed their first performance five days later at the Joyce Theater. I hadn’t shot ballet in a long time. I love watching ballet but as a photographer it can bore me. I prefer the energy, spacing, and choreography in modern dance. I don’t want pretty. I want real emotion. Some of Ballet Next’s new choreography was edgy, giving me the precision of ballet and the energy of modern at the simultaneously.

michele wiles. ballet next rehearsal

I quickly became close to the company – maybe too close. Michele Wiles and I became good friends. My all-time best muse, Lily Balogh, joined the company in the spring of 2012. Another special friend and muse, Alison Cook Beatty, choreographed a dance for Ballet Next’s first season at the Joyce, to be performed that fall. We all hung out together, drinks at the Mexican place near DANY and picnics on my rooftop. My cats loved Lily and Michele. Michele would feed Sasha (the cat) fried chicken from the Chinese takeout around the corner. Sasha would groom Michele’s hands in return.

photographing alison cook beatty and michele wiles in a rehearsal for "tintinnabuli"

We were family. Then things changed. Charles left the company. Lily was in and out. Allison’s dance didn’t get a good review. I began to burn out on some of the choreography. After a year of amazing friendship and photography, like two lovers who don’t know how to take the next step forward, we split up and went our separate ways.

During the past few months, I began to see photographs of a “new” BalletNext on Facebook and Instagram. It was still Michele Wiles but this was a different company. The images piqued my interest. It wasn’t about how the photographs captured the dance, it was about how the dancers opened up for the camera. Everyone looked amazing. Some of the pictures seemed to be more fashion photographs than dance images. I wondered if Michele had deliberately chosen these dancers for their photogenic beauty? I thought back to the years I photographed American Ballet Theatre. Baryshnikov seemed to choose dancers who were as photogenic as they were talented as ballet dancers… think Julie Kent!

michele wiles giving class before a balletnext rehearsal

I had promised myself I would not shoot as much dance anymore for personal projects. My goal is to work solely as a fine art photographer and unfortunately, book publishers and photo galleries are rarely interested in dance as a photographic art form. I I don’t shoot what I believe the galleries might show, it’s that I have always been a portrait photographer first. If I can earn a living selling prints of my portraits and nudes, that would be my forty year dream come true.

Sometimes the confluence of the rivers of life force a person into new directions. My friend, Caitlin Trainor recently gave birth to a lovely daughter, causing her company to take a short hiatus. Nadine Bommer’s dancers spread out across the world. The New York Live Arts season had ended. I needed a new dance company to work with, one who would allow me complete artistic freedom. The first company ever to do that was Ballet Next, almost six years ago.

michele wiles with violetta komyshan and natalie stys

I kept seeing pictures of BalletNext on my social media newsfeeds. They were now rehearsing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. The light in these studios reminded me of Irving Penn’s portraits from the 1950s. He was a master of light. I believe his portraits and fashion shots from that time are among the best photographs ever taken. I was still nervous about beginning again with this company and decided to research the dancers, learning if they had the right emotional fit for my work. It’s amazing what you can tell about a person from their words and photographs on Facebook.

violetta komyshan and natalie stys in "irving penn" light

I’m not sure who I found first – probably Violetta Komyshan. Her name sounded Russian, and since I had visited the Soviet Union many times in the early 1990s along with my love for Brighton Beach, I’m sure I “stalked” her first. I’m guessing it also had to do with Violetta’s face. Her look is perfect for my Intimate Portrait project. There’s a natural warmth to Violetta that comes out in pictures and while wandering the net I get to her Instagram feed… 353K followers! Really! What dancer has over three hundred thousand followers!? Wendy Whalen “only” has 32.3K followers and she’s been a ballet superstar for decades. Okay. I agree Violetta is a photographer’s dream, but still!

natalie stys. "irving penn" light

Today my Instagram feed sits at a wimpy 1168 followers. I must be the only well-known photographer with such a pitiful following!. The young muses I photograph have more followers than I do. I’ve been photographing dance for over thirty-five years! My friend, Andrea Mohin (45.9K followers), on staff at The New York Times, and one of the great dance photographers of all time, told me during a break at a Paul Taylor dress rehearsal, “You don’t have many followers on Instagram!” Ha, ha! Yes, I know Andrea! It’s a good thing I don’t care too much about these things but when I hear from gallery owners and creative directors they often find their photographs on Instagram, it becomes important for my business. My pages must be seen. I hoped, maybe, if I took pictures of BalletNext, some of their followers might find me… and just in case you’re interested, it’s @paulbgoode.

natalie stys and violetta komyshan. balletnext rehearsal

Social media can mess with your mind. I had a vision of what the BalletNext dancers would be like – Diva Goddesses From Another Planet! On May 22nd, I walked into a studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center and what do I see, two young ballet dancers sitting on the floor, waiting for rehearsal to begin. I’ve walked into similar scenes a thousand times in my life. As with all the times before, what was in the room were just young girls. Violetta and Natalie, please don’t take this in the wrong way. What I saw in the studio were two young women with hearts and souls, real people, sitting in the beautiful light streaming through the wall of windows across the room. Real people – not Diva Goddesses! I knew I was about to capture something special. The images I had seen on Instagram only scratched the surface of what these women could offer my photography. They were indeed goddesses but not in the way I had expected. Not all dancers move with their souls intact. I knew these women could do that for my photographs. Now I imagined muses moving in front of my camera, bathed in Irving Penn’s light. I quickly forgot about Instagram followers.

violetta komyshan. focused. intimate. muse. balletnext

This essay for now, should end here. But after shooting five BalletNext rehearsals I have more to say. During the first three shoots it was Natalie and Violetta dancing and Michele choreographing while I wandered the studio taking pictures in that “Irving Penn” light. The dancers worked on a lot of improv movement, steps for a new dance. I learned the piece with them. Violetta often appeared to give my camera special focus, directing her attention towards me. Maybe it was my imagination – was she staring through my camera, watching her reflection in the mirror behind me. Either way it gave the photographs a personal touch, not often found in the dance studio. Sometimes it felt as if the dancers were there, moving just for me.

the rolleiflex i've used since the early 1970s

I brought my Rolleiflex to the second rehearsal. It’s identical to a camera Penn used. One of his cameras is on display at The Metropolitan Museum, the opening “work of art” at his centennial exhibition. It looks just like mine!

I shot one roll of film while Natalie and Violetta took Michele’s class at the barre. I saved the second roll for what I hoped would be a portrait at the end of rehearsal. When they finished, I asked the two dancers if they would pose for a quick portrait. Both respectfully agreed and I moved them to a place against the wall where I felt the light might be right.

natalie stys at the barre. balletnext

Violetta is a “creature” when the camera is pointed in her direction. Photography loves her. Everything about Violetta is made for this. I was concerned that Natalie would be overshadowed in the portrait. Natalie asked if she should remove the shorts she was wearing over her leotard. Without thinking I said yes. Instinct told me her lines would look cleaner. Natalie took off the shorts and leaned against the wall. I’m sorry but I have to say, “Whoa!” This was not the same woman I had photographed for hours in the studio over the past two days. Natalie was fierce! I didn’t have to worry about Violetta taking over the portrait. Their intensity was equal. There was so much more to Natalie than I had seen or imagined. Afterwards I would expect this energy from Natalie while she rehearsed in the studio.

natalie stys and violetta komyshan after a balletnext rehearsal

Standing in front of my camera were two goddesses. It’s not a term I use lightly. I save that for my muses. I didn’t have time that afternoon to fully capture the image I wanted. I’m looking forward to my next chance. I will be ready next time

Posted in art, dance, portrait | Comments Off

05/11/17: spontaneous creation

talli jackson and shane larson in bill t jones's "analogy/ambros: the emigrant"

In addition to being an incredible artist, Bill T. Jones is a good man. The words “please” and “thank you” are used often when he speaks to the people around him. In America you don’t find many people like him anymore. His demeanor is from another time. Bill T. Jones inspires my art and soul.

Yesterday, I photographed a Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane rehearsal. Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant, is Bill T. Jones’ newest work, the third part of a trilogy including Analogy/Dora: Tramontane and Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist. As always, while Bill creates a new work, changes are made constantly to both movement and script. These pieces are complicated. In some ways they are like filling out yearly tax forms. If a change is made on the business C Form, several other forms need a simultaneous correction. It’s the ripple effect. When Bill adds a new paragraph to the script, movement and spacing need to fill the dialog along with new lighting cues and additional music or sound effects. I imagine it’s difficult and frustrating for the dancers. Working with Bill, almost every time a piece is rehearsed or performed there is a change that needs to be addressed. It’s not like Paul Taylor or George Balanchine where the choreography is set in stone. Their dances today are no different than they were thirty years ago.

i-ling liu and company performing "analogy/dora: tramontane"

At one point during today’s rehearsal, the dancers were struggling. The story had changed and after a few attempts Bill stopped the rehearsal, got up from his seat in theater and headed towards the stage, knowing he had to help the dancers work out the additional choreography and spacing. I imagine a thousand thoughts were streaming through his head, envisioning the movement of the dancers individually and as a whole. Climbing the steps to the stage, Bill turned back to the crew (sitting in the audience) and gave lighting instructions to the designer. It struck me how many things a choreographer needs to think about while creating a new dance. It’s much more than just the steps – costumes, lighting, sets, music – it is endless. I think the President has an easier job.

bill t jones. "analogy/ambros" rehearsal

As Bill stepped on the stage, a sense of imminent dread and fear slowly filled my head. I’m beginning to choreograph my first dance. My initial tests, each with a different dancer, seemed so easy. I’m beginning to create my own choreographic language. The dance revolves around the physical movement developed during my Intimate Portrait shoots. In my mind I have a vision of the lighting and costumes. I can even see much of the spacing on the stage. There will be seven dancers, each doing a solo to sounds found in nature or the city. Heartbeats! Pairs of dancers will come together throughout the dance, sharing their sounds – heartbeat and subway, waves and laughter – ending with a group movement between the seven dancers. This final few minutes of choreography have not yet existed in my daydreams though the sound of the seven voices is beginning to develop in my head.

can wang using hands. intimate portrait project

I knew the process of my dance, Heartbeat, wouldn’t be easy, but now it seemed impossible. I need to find dancers – so far I have three. I need to find and record the sounds – heartbeat, bird song, waves, laughter, subway – who knows what else? I need to raise money. I want to pay the dancers something for their time. So far they all seem happy just to be part of the process but this is not like a shoot where I can give them photographs at the end of a session. After a rehearsal, I have little to give them in return for their great efforts. And speaking of time, the rehearsal process for Heartbeat will be endless. I’m not a choreographer. I can’t throw movement on to the stage. I have to work out the very basics of my choreography before I have the dancers move across the dance floor. It will help that a large portion of Heartbeat is solo movement. I can figure out a rehearsal schedule for that. Trying to organize rehearsal time for the duets and the ending with seven dancers will likely be difficult. I should schedule those rehearsals after midnight. I don’t sleep anyway and the dancers should be free at that time! It would be good if the dancers are tired at the rehearsal. Exhausted bodies and minds are often at their most fluid state and I do want the piece to feel like a dream.

As I put down these thoughts on paper it doesn’t sound as scary as it felt a few minutes ago. I’m sitting in the front row of the theater at Purchase College, waiting for the rehearsal with Bill T. Jones to begin. Compared to what Bill is creating, my piece is nothing. My work is like an unformed embryo compared to Bill’s well thought out, adult human movement process. And that’s okay with me. We all begin life as an embryo.

bill t jones directing the company during a stage rehearsal of "analogy/ambros."

I wonder if I see my art differently than Bill sees his. Maybe it’s that our working process is so different. I am mostly alone with one dancer, a few at most. My photo sessions are purely an art project. The dancers aren’t paid. Though I do hope to sell prints of my work, it is never on my mind while shooting. Bill has a real company with paid dancers and a crew. Tickets must be sold. Tours must be promoted. In the theater or rehearsal space he is god and it must be that way for the company to succeed. I don’t need to be god and I don’t have the right. Bill does.

We are both spontaneous. I believe that’s why Bill’s work is never really finished. When his work is performed it is complete. That’s something different. I believe we both see that there is always room for improvement, or at the very least, modified due to a change in personnel. For Bill, it’s a new dancer in the company. For me it’s a new muse. Sometimes it just has to do with my mind getting older, learning new things – more educated. I wonder if it’s the same for Bill? Either way, my life is easier.

still photo of sammy roth during a "heartbeat" rehearsal

When I photograph dance, I capture the creations of other artists, attempting to turn their art into something of my own. The interesting thing is I had this same thought process after shooting still photographs during my Heartbeat rehearsal with Sammy Roth. While filming the dance, I was creating movement and steps, thinking about how Sammy’s section of Heartbeat would evolve out on to a bigger stage. Afterwards, while taking the still photographs, I felt as if I was capturing a dance choreographed by some other person. The emotions of creating a dance and then capturing images of that dance were completely different.

Two days after my shoots with Bill T. Jones, I went to a talk at Steven Kasher Gallery. It was a discussion about Ted Russell’s photographs of Bob Dylan taken during a few photo sessions in the early 1960s, about the time Dylan recorded his first album with Columbia Records. The photographs were part of the current exhibition at Kasher. It was wonderful hearing about those times in The Village. The five people in the panel had all lived close to McDougal and Bleeker Streets, the heart of The Village during the years when folk music clubs took over the neighboring streets. One of the reasons I moved to New York City from Chicago were the stories I had heard about artists living in Greenwich Village. I moved in 1976, my first apartment at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue, a short walking distance from that scene. Of course it had all changed by 1976 but I will always remember my afternoons at Café Figaro, sipping steamed milk with Orzata and eating the most delicious cannolis on the planet.

The most interesting thing about this gallery talk was an “argument” between Ted Russell and John Cohen, a musician and photographer sitting on the panel as a guest speaker. Cohen had also photographed Dylan at that time. During the talk, Ted Russell said the photographs were spontaneous and undirected. Russell informed us, when Dylan asked what he and his girlfriend should do during the shoot, Russell asked them to ignore that he was there and go about their business. In Ted’s own words, while photographing “I was like a fly on the wall.”

bob dylan and suze rotolo. photograph copyright: ted russell. www.tedrussellphotography.com

John Cohen, who during the lecture was obviously jealous since he wasn’t the center of attention, directly told Ted, sitting right next to him, that the photographs in the exhibition looked “art directed.” That they were not natural. Worse, Mr. Cohen insinuated that because of this, the photographs had less artistic value. Cohen said he would never lower himself to shoot in that style!

There was a stunned silence in the audience. I believe we all needed time to think about the concept. Steven Kasher, owner of the gallery, said nothing. The thing is, John Cohen was right! In the exhibition, there were photographs of Dylan performing on stage and of course those were natural and undirected, but the portraits in Dylan’s apartment did have the appearance of a planned collaboration.

bob dylan and suze rotolo. photograph copyright: ted russell. www.tedrussellphotography.com

So what! The photographs of Dylan, those where he was aware of the camera, were the best images in the exhibition. In many ways, the rest were only fluff to fill up the walls in the room. There was one print in particular, featuring Dylan lounging on his bed, holding a guitar, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo stubbing out a cigarette in the nearby ashtray. The photograph is part of a short series Russell shot of the pair in bed. It’s obvious Dylan and Rotolo are engaged in conversation with other people in the room, their presence something Russell only acknowledged late in the discussion. It’s likely Dylan, Russell or possibly Rotolo suggested posing on the mattress with guitar in hand, near the nice light from the lamp on the shelf. It is entirely “art directed.” That becomes more obvious when viewing another image taken at nearly the same time, Dylan and Rotolo playing directly into the camera.

As Cohen continued to criticize Russell’s photographs, my thoughts drifted and I quickly wrote down a short note on a scrap of paper. It’s a thought I want to share with Steven Kasher. I’ll mail it to his gallery on a postcard. “Art direction can be a spontaneous collaboration between the model and photographer, with no design or emotion decided before the first click of the shutter.”

an inspirational thought

I always get some inspiration from each talk I attend. This idea was important, not only as the explanation for my own photography but also the process for my first dance. This struck me while filming Nika Antuanette for Heartbeat, two days after the Dylan lecture. I believe a true work of art can be planned as long as the emotion of the piece is spontaneous. Some of Russell’s photographs of Dylan are no more than photojournalism. That was his profession and the results are a success. The photographs that transcended purpose – those became works of art.

My afternoon shoot with Nika was planned in advance, just like Russell’s portrait session with Dylan in the 4th Street apartment. A particular time of day was set. The shoot was not arbitrary. After Nika arrived, we talked for a while, laughed mostly, while sharing a pot of my special green-mint-ginger tea. I’m sure Ted Russell didn’t walk into Dylan’s apartment and immediately begin shooting. There’s always some discussion to relax the model so they don’t appear “art directed.” Nika and I didn’t need that. This was our third shoot together and we are already close. But this time we weren’t beginning the shoot with pictures. Our first task was to record her heartbeat; the soundtrack for the dance.

wireless stethoscope recorder

Nika crawled into my bed, cuddling up next to Teel. They both seemed happy and content. Nika pulled down her dress so I could press my homemade stethoscope recording contraption against her chest, finding the spot to record the best sound. I felt half like a doctor and half like a voyeur. It’s not that I hadn’t seen Nika naked before but this was the first time I looked at her breasts without a camera in front of my face. It was exciting. Not the nudity. What struck me was the confidence and trust Nika had in the creation of my art. She was going to make this happen for me. I closed the windows and covered Nika’s chest with a thick blanket to muffle the noise coming in from the street. I put on the headphones and listened for her heartbeat. I heard the thump-thump, thump-thump, soft but clear. During one recording I held her leg with my hand. I could hear the change in her heartbeat at my touch, first faster but then calm and heavy, slow and steady. It was beautiful.

nika antuanette. intimate portrait project

I felt we needed to be close before working on Heartbeat. The light coming in my bedroom window was beautiful. We spent half an hour shooting on my bed for the Intimate Portrait series. I had never seen Nika this relaxed in front of the camera. It had taken three shoots but Nika finally let out the muse I knew was inside her.

I dressed Nika in small black bottoms and a tank top. She stepped on to the small set. We shot still photographs to warm up. I gave little direction. The images are vertical. I had to let Nika know the width of her poses were limited to the shape of the camera’s frame. Otherwise the movement was determined by Nika. She already knows what I want, though each shoot has it’s own feel based on the emotions of that day. We shot the stills. I needed to discover where Nika’s head was at that moment. After ten minutes she entered an emotional space I hadn’t seen during our previous shoots. Nika was finally letting go. Her face and body were spontaneous and free. I switched to video.

Before we began I gave Nika a set of directions – feet must stay on the ground. Do not bend your body below this point. The edge of the background is the edge of my frame. You should at times move out of the frame – out of the camera’s view. It is important how you move back into the image area – art direction.

I began the recording of Nika’s heartbeat on the computer, loud with heavy bass to make sure she would have no trouble feeling the beat. I ran the camera and Nika began to move. The first time – four minutes straight. I was mesmerized. I didn’t say a word. We did two more takes and with each of Nika’s performances I became more spellbound. We talked to each other without speaking. We hugged in-between takes. I could feel her while she danced.

still photo from "heartbeat" with nika antuanette. please click the link below to view video

“heartbeat” with nika antuanette

Yes, it was art directed. I had a plan. Nika already has an understanding of my choreographic language and uses that knowledge while rehearsing Heartbeat. But when the recording of her heartbeat began to play and the camera began to roll neither of us knew what would happen. I become that “fly on the wall,” capturing what I saw before me without interference. I think Bill T. Jones often works in that manner, allowing his dancers to improvise certain parts of the dance, knowing they understand his vision. I believe this is what Ted Russell meant when he said he didn’t give direction to Bob Dyan during his shoot. Planning and scripting are not the same thing.

It is a special thing, having an idea and watching it materialize before your eyes — not knowing what the final result will be – only knowing it will be wonderful. This is spontaneous creation.

Posted in art, dance, intimate, nudes, portrait | Comments Off

10/18/16: yify

The beginning of this story is as much about three people as it is about one. I never would have met Abby or Yify without knowing Veronica. Veronica found me a couple of years ago, sitting alone during an after-performance party at Caitlin Trainor’s apartment. As in most cases, my shyness had gotten the better of me. There I was, sitting alone in the deepest corner I could find in a small New York City apartment. As far as I was concerned, I was invisible. Veronica came right up to me, sat down, and began a conversation. Today, Veronica is one of my closest friends.

Last year on my birthday, I planned to spend the day alone, wandering the city and finishing with a meal at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, XO. Veronica was up at Storm King with a couple of friends. We must have been texting during the day. When Veronica found out I was going to XO and it was my birthday, she decided she had to take me out to dinner. I wanted to eat early but I knew I could distract myself for a while in Chinatown and meet Veronica at 8:00pm.

birthday dinner at xo... waiting for veronica, abby and yify

I don’t remember exactly when they arrived – Veronica, Abby, and Yify. They were late! I had already ordered appetizers — fried turnip cakes, shrimp dumplings, Chinese sausage in rice noodle, and taro root bubble tea — eating as slow as possible. Dining at XO with three Chinese women is different than eating there with a Caucasian friend. The service is faster. When I needed water or tea Veronica yelled out across the restaurant in Chinese to the closest waiter. The same thing happened when we didn’t have enough soup bowls. It’s a different culture. I’m too shy and quiet. Often I’ll just get up and grab the pitcher of water myself. The XO staff doesn’t like that! It makes them look bad. It’s why I get such good service when I eat there alone. They know me now – too shy to ask for anything more than once. Not to shy to grab something myself.

I can’t remember all the things we ordered. The wonton soup is a must with shrimp-pork dumplings that are to die for. Veronica ordered a sauteed-fried salmon head. I ate a salmon’s face for the first time! I refused to eat the eyes. No one did. I think Veronica told us her grandmother eats the eyes. That doesn’t surprise me. My grandmother ate kidneys, tongue, and all sorts of other organs.

I study people. I watched Abby and Yify throughout the evening. I learned the sound of their voices – how they move. I watched the way their eyes changed when they were happy or sad. How they held their bodies when they talked. I try to enter people’s minds, and if I’m lucky, I quickly begin to enter their souls.

Veronica is the leader – endless energy. It’s easy for her to make decisions, for herself, for everyone. Abby is a natural muse. Her sensual lips slowly forming each word. Her languid body flowing onto the chair, slow and thick like molasses. You can feel the years she lived in the southern United States. In some ways, Abby appears to float in a different world than the rest of us. Yify, she’s the “straight man” of the trio. One would be happy introducing her to family and friends. Yify seems more American. More normal. More Midwestern. In some ways less Chinese than the other two. Maybe it’s because she’s a few years older than Veronica and Abby?

After dinner we all took the same subway home. Abby was sharing an apartment with Veronica at the time and Yify was crashing in their place, trying to decide whether she should move up to the city from North Carolina. Here she would have a better chance of achieving her dream as a singer-songwriter.

first intimate portrait shoot with veronica

Veronica and I had already done our first shoot for the Intimate Portrait project. We had become close. Veronica amazed me by how much she let go during our shoot. It was as if she had taken on a different personality. As a friend, her hello-goodbye hugs are almost distant. During the physicality of our Intimate Portrait shoot, Veronica absorbed my body into hers. We were not separate people. It was breathtaking, both physically and emotionally.

I closely watched Abby and Yify on the train while heading home. It only strengthened my initial view of both women. Abby stood, melting into the vertical subway pole. I knew I wanted to photograph her and hoped I could convince her at some point to sit for an Intimate Portrait session. I didn’t think she’d say yes, though somehow I knew there was a slight chance she might agree. Yify sat smiling. We all were making jokes. It was obvious Yify has a good soul. I can’t imagine her ever being mean or saying something that would hurt a person’s feelings. I thought about the repercussions of photographing all three women for the Intimate Portrait project. There could be exploding emotions between three close friends. I didn’t see how Yify would ever allow an Intimate shoot to happen.

abby and veronica. intimate portrait project

I was smart about how I asked Abby to shoot. I realized she might not be able to do an Intimate shoot alone so I set up a shoot with her and Veronica together. It was a good move on my part. I got to understand Abby better while photographing her with Veronica. It was then easier when I worked with her alone – Veronica still nearby in my kitchen. These photographs of Abby were the beginning of our friendship. The photographs I took of the two of them together will always be among my favorites.

Since that time, Abby and I have done another Intimate Portrait shoot, this time alone. We hang out and talk often. Right now Abby is more of a friend than a muse. I hope the two relationships with her merge into one. There is much going on in this woman’s head – something I find very interesting and attractive. I need to capture it this woman’s soul on film.

abby after an intimate portrait shoot

For a few minutes, several times a day, I keep up with both my “real” friends and “Facebook” friends on the newsfeed. It gives me insights into the people I already love or hope to meet in the future. I can tell if a person is down by the tone of their posts. They are not asking for help – at least not deliberately. Often they don’t yet know they need it. It’s a good time to give them a call or at the very least, send a message or text letting them know I care.

Early last summer I could tell from Yify’s posts she was ready for an Intimate Portrait shoot. I asked Veronica what she thought. Veronica told me the two of them had just discussed it. I sent Yify a message on Facebook.

“Hi Yify. I heard a rumor that you’d be interested in doing one of my Intimate Portrait shoots. That would be great if it’s true! Let me know and let’s schedule an afternoon.”

“Hi Paul. Yes our bird travels swift with these messages. :) Thank you so much for thinking of me. Yes let’s schedule soon! I’ll text you. Talk soon.”

yify: intimate portrait project

Yify and I did two Intimate Portrait shoots in June – only four days apart. Four months later, except for Yify’s warmth, I don’t have strong memories of the shoots. The physicality of the Intimate Portraits teaches me a great deal about the person in front of my camera – a person who is also underneath my body. There is no hiding. I feel their warmth, the movement of their chest with each breath. This was only the second or third time we had met and Yify already felt like a long-time friend. I won’t say this is a rare occurrence during the Intimate Portrait shoots but it was different with Yify, just as it had been with Abby. I met both women in the real world; not at work and not on Facebook. Neither women dance. Photographing dancers for the Intimate Portrait project has a different feeling than photographing a “normal” people. Dancers are used to physical contact in their work and virtually all the dancers I photograph for the Intimate project have seen the photographs I’ve taken – dozens of dance companies and hundreds of dancers. What I do for a living matters to them. They know me through social media. My photography can help promote their business. For Yify, the Intimate Portrait shoot, the resulting photographs, the only purpose is self-discovery.

Yify and I texted back and forth after the shoot. I began sending her some of my favorite photos.

"I almost look masculine here."

Yify: “I almost look masculine here, it’s such a riveting photo.”

yify: self-portrait before the shoot

Yify: “This was a photo I took before the session. To see the emotional difference vs our shoot.”


PBG: “I think you might have changed just a little bit during the shoot!”

"strong goddess"

Yify: “I love all of these.”
“I look like a strong goddess.”

"you are a goddess."

PBG“You are a goddess.”

"arguably devious"

Yify: “Oo! I love!!”
“You are a photography God.”
“You know what’s interesting is that I look darker in These photos than the mood I felt.”
“If you look at the mirror one – the look in my eyes is dark and arguably devious even.”

PBG: “Definitely devious sometimes. I noticed that while shooting. But “devious” isn’t quite the right word.”


Yify: “Wow that’s a scAry one.”
“It’s interesting how we both felt so warm and yet these photos convey something entirely different.”

PBG: I think you’re probably much more sensual than you realize and that’s part of it.”

Yify: “Sensuality is part of it for sure.”

PBG: Whoever this person is, they are extremely sensual. That is part of the warmth. You probably let go more than you realized. It was great to watch!”

Yify: “The third to last one still scares me.”

"your openness today blew me away!"

PBG: “That’s funny!”
“I still have to get used to the fact that you and the pictures are the same person. Your openness today blew me away!”

Yify: “I feel like there’s an immense juxtaposition of light and darkness in my soul and the shoot brought that to the surface.”
“It’s almost like the photos brought out the darkness and our emotions the light.”
“I’ve gone through a transformation over the past 6 months. I don’t think I would’ve been as open 6 months ago.”
“But it’s also that it’s with you.”
“It’s hard to say but I felt as we were shooting that I know you, and that it’s familiar.”
“Almost like family.”

PBG: “I did feel close to you. It made the shoot more special.”

Yify: “Yeah”

first photo

PBG: “First photo. Quite a change.”

Yify: “Wow that’s a more “recognizable” me.”
“The rest I can’t even describe.”

PBG: “The first photo does seem like the Yify I know. The others are a new Yify I began to know today and can’t wait to know better.”

Yify: “I feel the same way.”
“I’d like to get to know her better as well.”
“I definitely felt her throughout my life and I’m not sure if I like her that much.”

PBG: “Ha, ha! You need that other side. I imagine whoever that other person is will be a catalyst necessary for your art.”
“Change like that can be scary but you can’t be afraid. One of my most important personal guidelines is “no fear!”“

Yify: “Okay!

"how intense you were today"

PBG: “I’ve already forgotten how intense you were today. When I’m shooting I don’t always have time to notice the emotions. The Intimate shoots are physically and technically challenging!”

Yify: “This one is very intense.”

PBG: “Why don’t you like this side of you?”

Yify: “It’s this dark energy that I have been trying to rid.”
“Everyone has darkness but I fell mine is extremely strong. Sometimes I just want to leave this body / vessel.”
“And that picture captured it.”

PBG: “No one is pure.
“I certainly didn’t feel any darkness inside of you.”
“If anything it was the complete opposite. The connection with you today was completely soothing.”
“I have very strong senses and can still smell your perfume on my shirt. That also is very soothing. I’m looking forward to continuing wherever we left off. I feel like you’re going to help my art and soul.”
“And I’m sure of it!”

"art and soul"

Yify: “Thank you, that means a lot to me that you feel I am going to help your art and soul.”
“I feel the same way that you will help my art and soul.”

After rereading our text chatter it surprised me how much those words matched my memories and feelings though I had forgotten how close I had felt to Yify over those few days last June. While typing the texts into my laptop I thought about how the Intimate Portrait shoots can be extremely deep and emotional. They stay with you for a long time. I often get texts from the Intimate muses months later, telling me how much our shoot together affected them – and only now are they understanding the change.

I won’t write much about the second shoot with Yify in this essay. Yify wasn’t in the mood to shoot and let me know before she stopped by. It was gong to be an evening for drinking my special green tea and eating snacks. There was emotional uncertainty from our first shoot. Yify felt it brought out her dark side – “evil spirits,” she said. I knew we needed to shoot again. I needed to feel that close to her again – to see how it would effect our friendship and my photography. I knew I would convince Yify, despite her reservations.

We conversed with a few texts the morning after the second shoot. It had ended very late at night.

PBG: “How are you feeling after last night’s shoot?”

Yify: “I feel so much better Paul.”

The first shoot with Yify was wonderful but incomplete. Many of the Intimate Portrait shoots are like that. The closeness. The physical contact. The intimate conversation. This is not a typical portrait shoot situation. The second shoot begins as a breath of fresh air. The muse now understands the process and willingly opens her soul to the camera. So it was with Yify. I took a step forward with my art. Yify took a step forward with her self-understanding. A bond was cemented.

The following is an essay written by Yify Zhang regarding our Intimate Portrait shoots.

The Intimate Portrait Project Experience – 10/16/2016 on 2 shoots in June, 2016

Fear is a monster that paralyzes.

I moved to New York in November 2015 to pursue my passion – to be an artist and songwriter. The Intimate Portrait Project intrigued me before I even met Paul. As I perused the Facebook photos, I felt that I knew the women – the photos showed me sides to them that conversations could not. My best friend, a close friend of Paul introduced us and suggested that we do a session. I remember feeling afraid. I didn’t understand this feeling back then, but looking back, I was not ready to examine myself at the level of intimacy that the portraits demanded. I didn’t know what I’d find, and didn’t want someone else to find it before I did.

A lot changed in the following months. Sometime in June, I received a message from Paul. One chat led to another, and I was on the 1 train to his apartment, peppered with excitement and a muffled sense of fear.

"try running your hands through your hair."

The shoot began on the couch. Paul started taking shots of me on my back. “Try running your hands through your hair; relax, look into the camera and allow yourself to feel whatever it wants to,” he said. I felt awkward in the beginning. My arms hung from tense shoulders and I wondered if I should have put on makeup. But a few minutes into the shoot, Paul’s movements became a rhythm that soothed my nervousness. This rhythm created a space of its own, inviting me to take longer breathes and enter a soundscape of quiet camera clicks, distant traffic, and the occasional movements of Teel (one of his four cats).

yify with teel

I let myself sink further into the cushion seats, relaxing into this foreign yet peaceful space we’ve created. Staring into my pupils in the lenses, I didn’t see my day-to-day self. Yet, I felt more like myself than ever. The lightness elevated me to take even longer breaths. And before I knew, Paul said, “You’re somewhere else now. I’m not even here now.”

I remember hearing a voice – a voice that said, “It will be okay. Everything that is not, will be”. The voice kept repeating these words, over and over again, until I began speaking them myself. On the outside, I was breathing heavily. On the inside, I was saying those words. I’m not sure how long we spent on the couch, but when Paul asked me to sit up, I felt transformed. In that moment, fear felt like a coat that I took off.

Paul texted me the photos that evening, and over the next few days, I studied the woman in the photos. I saw a darkness that fought and teethed, a force that frightened me.

The fear that had left me came back stronger. The first shoot happened on a Sunday, and I’d agreed to return for a second shoot on Wednesday. But by Tuesday, I asked Paul if we could just have dinner instead and not do the shoot, to which he graciously agreed.

It was such a cozy evening – soup, dumplings, and cats. From the stock market to life in the city, our conversation relaxed me and before I could change my mind, I asked Paul if we could do another shoot. This time, the shoot felt rooted in a different space than the first one. The rhythm that carried the first shoot was joined by laughter that sprung from jokes told effortlessly. Everything sounded funny and felt cathartic. Paul had become my friend, and perhaps this fact had become so obvious that Teel felt comfortable enough to also join us.

The shoot continued for hours, but to me, it seemed like a dream – did not feel long or short but defied any sense of time. When Paul finally turned to show me the photos, the images blew me away. The woman who I saw looked relaxed yet alert, gentle yet strong. She was a different version of the woman from the first shoot. The whole experience felt so easy, as if Paul had trained the camera so well that it ran the shoot on its own, while we had fun.

yify: intimate portrait project

That evening, I revisited the pictures from the first shoot, only to find that I saw something else. Apart from the darkness, there was a light that fought back, a passion bordering desperation to express and shed the dark that was clinging on. In that moment, Paul’s words came back to me – “everyone has darkness in them. The intention of the shoots is to bring all of those shades to light”. And so it did, and it did much more.

The Intimate Portraits changed my life. It was a mirror that reflected the places I was afraid to see. In the simplest of words, it helped me put fear in its place and come back to life.

Posted in art, intimate, nudes, portrait | Comments Off

09/22/16: my dance photography

A few days ago, a friend and client whom I’ve known for over thirty years mentioned over the telephone, “Jordan Matter really knows how to capture dance.” They had just worked together on a series of advertising shoots. I have to agree. Between Jordan and Lois Greenfield, probably no one else captures dancers flying through the air better.

me: singing and dancing in a high school review. 1971

This got me thinking about my own dance photography. I have been photographing dancers for thirty-five years. The instant I saw a group of dancers arrive for a Danskin catalog shoot, in the studio where I was a darkroom assistant, I knew dance was my calling. At the time I knew nothing about dance or dancers. Yes, I did sing and dance in some high school productions of Broadway shows. I played the Russian dancer in Fiddler on the Roof! And yes, as a teenage photographer I did notice there was something different about the girls who took dance classes. But the suburbs of Chicago are not New York City! Artists in New York are aliens living in a country we call America. After a few years of living in this place, we do not fit in anywhere else. You have to be crazy to move here. The city fundamentally changes an artist’s genetics.

As it turned out, a friend from high school, two years my junior, had also moved to New York City, hoping to create a career as a dancer. I don’t remember how I found out Nan Freedman was in the city? Probably from a mutual friend. I called Nan and my dance career began.

nan freedman in a matthew diamond dress rehearsal. jan. 20, 1981

During the first shoot, a dress rehearsal with Matthew Diamond’s company, I shot like a typical dance photographer. I covered the dance. I shot full body. I shot full stage. I was a journalist recording the event. Nothing more. What did I know? A woman who I dated a year earlier had worked for Martha Swope who at the time was the premiere dance and Broadway photographer. Martha had so much work her assistants photographed many performances for the studio.

I was lucky enough to join Elizabeth on a few of Martha’s shoots at the New York City Ballet. She had to use a quiet Leica camera and photograph from a parterre box seat, raised above and at the side of the stage. I felt like Degas at the ballet. It was an interesting angle for viewing. The angle was extreme. Part of the stage was out of view but the dancers were close. I then understood some of Degas’ paintings. I hoped someday I could shoot from this spot – and I did. Twice! But that story is for another essay. The main point is that Martha and her assistants always captured the choreography and nothing else. The photographs were not personal. Looking at the pictures, you couldn’t tell if it was Martha or one of her assistants who took any particular image. They were all the same. They worked as purely recording devices for the dance companies and newspapers.

merrill ashley performing with new york city ballet

A few months later, my second shoot with Nan was for a small pickup company put together by choreographer Dianne McPherson. I’m sure I came prepared to shoot exactly as I had with Matthew Diamond. No imagination on my part. I wanted to photograph dance. I didn’t yet care about the artistry. Looking back now I wonder how that was possible? Thinking back about it I now know it was because of the dancers. They are not human. They are all heavenly creatures brought down to earth to make our lives better. I’m sure I thought any photograph of a dancer had to be special. If I caught them at the right moment nothing else mattered. The pictures were about them – not about my photography. Thank goodness I quickly learned my photographs needed to be more than that.

francine landes during a dress rehearsal for dianne mcpherson. june 4, 1981

I arrived at the rehearsal and found myself in a very small black-box theater. Let’s just say it was a major surprise. I thought dance was only done in big spaces like Lincoln Center and the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. How could anyone perform in such a small space? I didn’t bring any wide-angle lenses. Most everything I had was a telephoto. I had no choice but to shoot close-ups. It was all so beautiful; a small group of amazing women floating against black. It felt like I was shooting moving portraits. The photographs from that rehearsal would go on to define my style.

susan jaffe and robert hill in sir kenneth macmillian's "requiem." american ballet theatre. 1986

I’ve always considered myself a portrait photographer. When I shot fashion I preferred taking “beauty-cosmetic” shots over full-length fashion. When photographing dance I’ve never been interested in shooting the dancers flying through the air. I find those pictures boring. Every other dance photographer does it. Why should I? When I began attending photo calls in the mid-80s, I began to realize how different I was than everyone else. I shot at completely different times. Here’s the grand jete. Click, click, click, click as the other photographers rush to capture the “great” moments of the choreography. Silence. Click, click. That’s me capturing the emotion of the dance. No one else is seeing it. No one else seems to care. It’s not a “dance” moment. To me the emotion is everything. The best compliment I ever received was when Twyla Tharp said I captured steps in her choreography she didn’t know existed. There is no better description of my dance photography.

twyla tharp on the stage during a dress rehearsal. september, 1981

My present feels like “the days of future passed.” My personal and work emotions feel like thirty years ago. This is good. I know this time is different but the passion is the same, only with thirty years of added experience. There is an artistic energy in my studio-apartment I haven’t felt for decades. It is also inside of me. I’m am changed. I am both the past and future versions of myself at the same time. I know. It sounds a little crazy. But it’s true and it is exciting!

susan marshall and dancers. dress rehearsal. dance theater workshop

I began shooting last week at New York Live Arts. I photographed a rehearsal with Sonya Tayeh and a dress rehearsal of Pandaemonium, performed by Nichole Canuso and Geoff Sobelle; directed by Lars Jan. New York Live Arts is not unlike the black box theater where I first found my vision. In the 1980s, Live Arts was known as Dance Theater Workshop. It is the space where my life as a dance photographer truly began, photographing Charlie Moulton, Laura Dean, Susan Marshall, Grethe Holby, and Michael Moschen over a few short months in 1982.

Sometimes, especially when I am being paid to capture a dance, I must put the needs of the company over my own. Still, photographing Pandaemonium was a wonderful experience on many fronts. I wasn’t able to take many close-ups but between the two dancers and their projections on the video screen, I was able to spend time concentrating on the light and composition of the piece, making the look of the pictures my own.

nichole canuso during a dress rehearsal of "pandaemonium." new york live arts

I was the only photographer in the theater. That was the best part. I didn’t have to worry about interfering with anyone else’s viewpoint as I moved across the front of the stage, finding the best angles. More important, no photographer got in my way. At one point in the dance, the two performers were center stage, not only moving with each other but dancing with and dodging away from a giant plumb bob. I sat on the floor only a few feet from the dancers, watching the pendulum movement of the plumb bob, trying to catch it flying among the two dancers as they danced and rolled across the stage. I realized at one point I was inching closer to the performance, actually moving on to the performance area. I had become entranced by what I was seeing in the viewfinder. I almost forgot where I was. This often happens to me during a studio rehearsal where it doesn’t matter if I step on the floor (as long as I don’t crash into a dancer). It’s never happened before during a dress rehearsal. That is never in real life. It has happened in my dreams. It’s the way of the black box theater. There are no walls, no ceiling or floor. A suspension of space.

nichole canuso and geoff sobelle during a dress rehearsal of "pandaemonium." new york live arts

I began this essay determined to write about the reasons I prefer to photograph dance close up and not full body – why I don’t care about jumps or dancers’ feet. I imagine the explanation would have been impossible without discussing my beginnings or my newfound passion. The truth is, I’m not really a dance photographer. I am a photographer of dancers. I’ve always been afraid to say that in public, fearful what a dance company might think. Why would they let a photographer in to shoot their rehearsals if he doesn’t love shooting dance? It’s a good question and I do know the answer.

I photographs dancers for the exact same reason a choreographer chooses a dancer to join their company or perform in a certain piece. Each dancer brings with them a certain quality – their heart and soul. It ‘s an essence you can see and feel the second each dancer walks into the room. When I dancer comes to my studio for the first time for an audition or portrait I know the moment I open the door if they are right for my photography. I don’t need to see them move. I don’t need to hear them say a word. It’s all in their face and how they hold their body. I’ve been told that Paul Taylor can tell everything about a person by watching the way they walk. I’m sure he can. It’s the same thing.

emily craver and allegra herman. trainor dance rehearsal

Photographing Sonya Tayeh’s dancers in the rehearsal studio last week was a new beginning. In some ways I owe this to choreographers Caitlin Trainor and Nadine Bommer. I’ve worked closely with Caitlin for a few years and just began working with Nadine and her dancers. During rehearsals, both choreographers allow me to photograph any way I choose during the rehearsals. They put no restrictions on where I stand. Nadine seems to prefer it if I’m photographing among her dancers. After the my first rehearsal with the company I joked that I was surprised I nicked a dancer only one time. Nadine quickly correctly me. “Twice she said. You were kicked by one dancer on the floor.” She was right. I didn’t count the dancer moving on the floor. I figured I was like the wall – something to be used for a push-off.

katie mattar. nadine bommer rehearsal

I couldn’t be quite as aggressive on the studio floor at Sonya’s rehearsal. The space was smaller and there were more dancers. I mostly stuck to the front of the studio but never backed down as the dancers flew by inches from the camera. As I learned the choreography I moved closer. I couldn’t tell what Sonya thought about my presence. Honestly, for most of the rehearsal I couldn’t tell what the dancers thought. It was only during a break, when I showed the dancers some of the photos, did I realize they somehow understood what I needed. By the end I became brave, hovering over the dancers when they moved in one place on the floor. There is a moment in the dance where each time it was rehearsed, Maddy Wright was slowly moving on the floor near my feet. The first few times I was afraid to get close enough for the proper angle. Finally I couldn’t live without getting the shot I needed and stood above her, close enough to feel her shirt brush against me as she moved. It seemed like I was over her for a long time. The light was beautiful. I was captivated by the subtle emotion in her hand and face. I stood there long enough to compose my shot and have time to think about the feelings I had. It was similar to the way I felt while shooting for my Intimate Portrait series. So simple but at the same tiime emotional and beautiful. I knew this was a process I had to continue.

maddy wright. sonya tayeh's "you still call me by name"

I wasn’t sure what Sonya would think when I began posting images from her rehearsal. The first was a close-up of two intertwined dancers. I love the pictures so much but would Sonya feel it didn’t show her choreography? Later on I noticed a message on my Facebook dance page. It was from Sonya. For whatever reason I expected something negative. I can’t help it. That’s the way I am.

“Paul. The photos are so exquisite! Thank you so much.” And later, “You are a genius. The pictures are wonderful.” Oh god! Blush blush. It does make me feel great when people I photograph love my work but it is sometimes difficult for me to hear. The dancers are amazing. How would it be possible for me to take pictures that were anything but special!

chelsea thedinga and lenin fernandez. sonya tayeh's "you still call me by name"

I’m working with Sonya again in a few days. I can’t wait. I know this time both Sonya and the dancers will be more comfortable with my presence. I will be ready to capture the images I missed the first time. I understand the choreography and will likely move farther on to the dance floor, closer to the dancers. It will be interesting to see what I get. Will it feel more intimate?

my 2nd shoot with Sonya Tayeh. jennifer florentino and mia deweese. "you still call me by name"

I feel the need to go back and forth between Sonya and Nadine’s studios for the rest of the year, concentrating on both of the companies, getting to know their dancers better. My goal is to do portraits for my Intimate series with every dancer from Nadine Bommer’s company. I have already photographed one dancer, Katie Mattar. There was an instant connection between the two of us. She is why I am photographing Nadine’s company. There is something special inside of Katie. I feel that way about all of Nadine’s dancers. I have done two group Intimate shoots with Caitlin Trainor’s dancers. It is probably something I should do with Nadine’s company. It could easily take my Intimate Portrait project to a new level.

trainor dancers intimate portrait shoot

No matter what is in my future, I am realizing a new vision. After 35 years, my dance and portrait photography are merging into one cohesive portfolio, the dance and portrait photographs quickly becoming one. The only difference between the two is their location – home and rehearsal studio. The intimate emotions of the dancers now match in both situations. This is my goal.

Posted in art, dance, intimate, portrait | Comments Off

06/16/16: smokers’ detritus #10 – the long walk (an artist’s life)

My career has been in a slow transition, moving from commercial to fine art photography. I’m not sure exactly when this began but it was about a decade ago. My first memory of the change is a portrait of New York City Ballet principal dancer, Ana Sophia Scheller. It was taken during a catalog shoot for Discount Dance Supply at a friend’s fashion studio in Chelsea.

ana-sophia scheller. principal dancer. new york city ballet

Ana Sophia sat down on the couch next to where I was working, photographing another dancer on the ten foot wide white seamless background. The cover over the skylight above me loosened, sending a shaft of soft daylight on to Ana Sophia’s face. It was beautiful. I finished up with the dancer on set and turned towards Ana Sophia, asking her not to move. I “needed” to take her portrait. I said that. She was perfect, sitting there exactly as she was. I asked my client, Nina Vance, if I could take a short break to photograph Ana Sophia. Nina is great. She immediately agreed. Nina understood what I saw in the streaming daylight. I think to this day Ana Sophia still uses that photo for her promotion.

Daylight! That was the change I needed. It’s not that I had never shot using daylight. I’ve taken thousands of pictures outdoors in natural light. But this was in a studio. I’m sure I had done indoor formal portraits in the past using daylight but that probably was in the 70s and early 80s – back when I thought I was an artist – back before I realized I needed to earn a living – before I became a commercial photographer. That was over 30 years ago. It seems like a very long time ago. It was time to retire the strobe lights and see what a more natural world had to offer.

alessandra ferri. daylight. 1985. abt studio #5. promo photo for on pointe magazine

I have a friend with a beautiful daylight studio. Over the years I’ve given him a great deal of my time, helping him with his photography and responding to his questions with business advice. I hoped he would let me use his space on occasion when he had a quiet afternoon. Inexplicably it didn’t work out. He said, “No!” I was quite upset. He doesn’t get much advice from me anymore.

violeta angelova. studio portrait in my apartment

As it turned out this was a blessing in disguise. My apartment has nice light coming through the windows but I had never considered using it as a daylight shooting space. I have too much stuff and the windows are filled with my jungle. I have shot in my apartment hundreds of times – not only personal portraits but also advertising and editorial shoots for PLAYBOY, Essence, Ladies Home Journal, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Magazine and dozens of other companies. Those shoots were always with studio strobes or tungsten “hot” lights. How would I convert to a daylight studio.

I believe it began five years ago with Zarina Stahnke. I’ve spoken about her in past essays. She wasn’t the first model I photographed using my apartment’s natural light. That was Naomi Rusalka. I’m not sure why my new daylight experiment didn’t begin with Naomi. I was mostly shooting outdoors at that time and I guess I wasn’t ready to move the shoots into my apartment. It was Zarina who made me love my home as a background and truly see those photographs as works of art. I haven’t looked back and interestingly enough, I did do a portrait shoot of Zarina and Naomi together – though not with daylight!

zarina stahnke on my couch by windowlight. the image that began the daylight series

You might wonder how all of this leads to photographing cigarette butts in the dirty streets of New York City? I mostly take baby steps as I move through my career. Going from shooting ballerinas wearing leotards in a studio to crawling on the ground searching for the perfect cigarette butt would have been too great an artistic leap. I needed to first go through the process of outdoor portraits, mirror portraits, daylight portraits in my apartment and recently the Intimate Portrait series. After photographing my muses, sitting on their laps, the camera only inches from their faces – the Smokers’ Detritus series actually felt like the natural progression.

tamrin goldberg. intimate portrait project.

My business and personal lives have meshed together as one being. Models come over for tea. We shoot for hours – thousands of images. Finally we sit and have lunch together – my hummus and homemade jam – discussing the world and details of our personal lives. The afternoon sessions feel more like a visit from a close friend than a photo shoot. The question now became how to integrate the cigarette portraits into my daily life.

discarded marlboro. brighton beach

Long walks. I take a lot of them. B&H camera to Strands Bookstore – down Second Avenue to Chinatown for lunch – up through Soho to The Village – hop on the C train back up to the Upper West Side. The places and routes vary but there are always endless cigarette butts to be photographed along these pathways. I’ve learned to combine the walks with my photography for the Smokers’ Detritus series. I give myself extra time, knowing on almost every block I will find an interesting butt to photograph.

A few weeks ago I had an endless list of errands to run. I decided to give myself an assignment. I had to photograph a cigarette butt at every location I visited.

#1: My apartment at 165 W. 83rd Street. I walked out the front door and realized I should begin with the sidewalk outside my apartment building. I knew I’d find some discarded cigarettes out there. My street is like one giant ashtray – the remains of smokers in a continuous trail from Amsterdam to Columbus. People go up on my rooftop to smoke, tossing their lit butts over the railing when finished. I imagine some of the butts on the street today made that ten story leap. There are two trees in front of my building. Smokers obviously find their soil an attractive ashtray. It’s disgusting but it works for me. I find the combination of human and nature’s detritus lends to a beautiful image.

#1: my apartment building with smokers' detritus

#2: Mike’s Lumber at 88th Street and Broadway. I headed over to Mike’s Lumber store on 88th Street. It has been an Upper West Side fixture for many years. The lumber for every bookshelf in my apartment came from that store. I have a lot of bookshelves. I now need a few 1″ x 12″ boards to build a small storage space in my hallway – above the front door. I have nine-and-a-half foot ceilings. That spot has always seemed like dead space. The location is a perfect place to store my suitcase and a bunch of studio backgrounds. Hiding the collapsing walls with a nice wood-stained shelf will transform a sterile place into something much better.

#2: outside of mike's lumber store

The wood at Mike’s was too expensive. I should have known. Everything in my neighborhood now is pricey. I stepped outside to see what kind of deceased cigarettes I could find. I photographed a few selections but my favorite was the butt caught in between a metal gate and the sidewalk. The light reflected off the dirty metal door was beautiful.

#2: cigarette outside of mike's lumber

#3: Terese Capucilli near 91st Street and Broadway. I walked uptown on Broadway to my next stop. Half a block in front of me I saw some woman doing dance poses in the street. It took a moment before I realized it was Terese, who upon seeing the camera around my neck began her posing to attract my attention. I am so dumb! I should have taken a few snapshots of her for this essay and then photographed the nearby cigarettes on the street. But I didn’t. We chatted for a few minutes and moved on. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

#3: terese capucilli at the "table of silence" and a used matchbox at 91st and broadway

#4: Time Warner Cable on 96th Street and Broadway. Time Warner had recently upgraded my cable box. I have a big new flat screen TV and was told I needed something more high tech. The old cable box had to go back to the store. It was supposed to be a quick drop off. Things don’t always work out as planned. I had to take a number and wait. At least there was my assignment to help pass the time.

#4: cigarette on manhole cover in front of time warner cable

I’ve shot cigarette butts many times at this intersection, 96th and Broadway while walking home after dance shoots up at Barnard. For some reason, on this day there wasn’t much to choose from. As with all photographic assignments an artist doesn’t always have perfect choices. I shot the best butt I could find. I’ve been doing a sub-series of manhole covers within the Smokers’ Detritus project and this image works.

#4: customers coming out of time warner cable store hiding from my camera

It wasn’t quite as easy getting the shot of the Time Warner store. The people walking out of the store noticed my camera and obviously weren’t happy I had pointed my camera in their direction. One woman covered her face. In New York City there has always been an issue with illegal immigrants when photographing in the streets. They don’t want a record of their presence to exist. I can understand that. That fear has grown with the prevalence of digital cameras and the all-encompassing internet.

#5: 96th Street IRT subway station. I finally returned my cable box and crossed to the middle of Broadway, heading to the subway, planning to take the #1 train downtown. I stopped outside of the station, expecting to find dozens of butts on the ground. Subway stops are a great place to find subjects for my series. There’s no smoking on the trains and people toss their cigarettes, often still lit, before walking into the station. There’s an endless selection outside of every stop. I searched the ground and was surprised to find few choices. As I knelt on the ground to capture two butts sitting together, a subway worker walked up to me with a broom and pan. No wonder the sidewalks were clean! He was sweeping up all the butts.

#5: cigarettes on the special tile at the 96th street irt station

He waited patiently as I photographed the two cigarettes. I showed him the images. He thought the pictures were interesting and we talked for a short time about modern art and photography. I explained how much I love the textures of New York City sidewalks and streets – something few people notice.

Later, while researching this essay, I tried to find out what kind of stone was used for the tiles at the 96th Street station. They seemed special. I couldn’t find an answer but I did learn they had been ruined by peoples’ used spit-out-gum even before the station was completed. The writer of this online article called the people of New York City “pigs.” Having spent so many hours crawling on the sidewalks of New York I have to agree.

#5: subway worker cleaning up the smokers' detritus

I said goodbye to the subway man as he swept up my cigarettes. I managed to capture him in front of the station, cleaning up the last bits of garbage before he walked into the station. I quickly followed and hopped on the train.

#6: Subway exit at 19th Street and 7th Avenue. I took the #1 train down to the 18th Street stop, sitting at the back of the train so I could depart at 19th Street. I knew there would be endless butts at the top of the subway stairs, not because of the subway smokers but due to the fact the subway exits at the famous Peter McManus pub. I spent many evenings there from 1982 – 1993 after photographing rehearsals at American Ballet Theatre’s studios a few blocks away. McManus has great french fries and it’s one of the few places you can get a Guiness on tap.

#6: abt studios: mikhail baryshikov and kathleen moore rehearsing mark morris's "drink to me"

I wasn’t disappointed when I got to the top of the stairs. There was cigarette debris all over the place. When working on the Smokers’ Detritus project one thing I look for in particular is used matches. Since the advent of cheap BIC lighters not many people use matches anymore. Many years ago I collected matchbooks from every restaurant I visited. People smoked more then and it was nice to have a light readily available for guests. I also had an oven with a finicky pilot light. Most times I needed to use a match to get the oven started. I still have that oven! Now I use a BIC barbeque lighter to get the oven going. It’s a good tool. I don’t singe my eyelashes anymore.

#6: subway steps. 19th street and 7th avenue

I found a well-worn Marlboro next to a single used match. The textures were beautiful. I took my shot and moved on down the street.

#6: used cigarette and match outside of peter macmanus's pub

#7: new york live arts

#7: New York Live Arts at 219 W. 19th Street. I walked halfway down the block to New York Live Arts. I needed to drop off a hard drive to Kyle Maude with the images I shot a few days before of Bill T Jones’ new piece, Analogy/Lance: Pretty. This new project is the story of Bill’s nephew, Lance T. Briggs. It is an intense show and I’ll likely write a separate essay about it in the near future.

Before 2011, New York Live Arts was known as Dance Theater Workshop. It’s where my career as a dance photographer began. In 1981 and 1982 I shot the the likes of Laura Dean, Charlie Moulton and Susan Marshall. The first exhibition of my dance photography was held in their gallery in 1982.

#7: casey. susan marshall dress rehearsal at dance theater workshop. january 29, 1982

The black box theater space felt like old New York – raw, intimate and probably somewhat grimy. I could get close to the dancers – understand the reasons behind their choreography. I’ve been searching for that feeling again recently, fighting against the new commercialism surrounding the dance world.

#7: discarded cigarettes outside of new york live arts

There’s not much grime outside of NYLA. They keep their sidewalks clean. It’s a far cry from the dirty streets of New York City in the early 80s.. A well-worn Parliament touched the filter of another discarded cigarette. This mix of detritus was perfect. I was lucky the brooms missed this pair.

#8: Duggal Photography Labs on 23rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Duggal is another place where I have a long history. During the late 1970s and early 80s it’s where I had my slide film developed and the 11″ x 14″ color prints made for my first fashion portfolios. By the 1990s I had moved on to other labs. A decade ago the use of digital photography ended my use of the labs altogether.

#8: pedestrians in front of duggal labs

As I’ve begun to sell more of my work as fine art, I’m looking to get the best quality scans of my film. The place for that appears to be Duggal. The scans they produce for me are amazing. Every detail in the negative appears in the scan. I see things in the images I never knew existed. I was a master printer but had no idea my darkroom prints were missing that much detail. Duggal’s scans are expensive and they’re worth every penny. I’m creating 17″ x 25″ prints. I want them to be perfect.

#8: cigarette in the sunlight in front of duggal labs

After dropping off two negatives for scanning I looked down on the wide sidewalk in front of Duggal and “scanned” the ground for my next subject. Duggal is a very professional place. I bet they sweep their sidewalks every morning.

I found my butt. The light wasn’t right but I had to get the shot. Looking at the photo now, as I write this essay, I wonder if I should consider varying the light I use for this series?

#9: lumber at home depot

#9: Home Depot on 23rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. I ran across the street to Home Depot, still on my search for lumber. On their website it said the store carried 4′ long, 1″ x 12″ boards. Just what I needed to build my new shelf. In general the 23rd Street Home Depot sucks! There is no correlation between what’s on the website and what’s in the store. Of course they didn’t have the lumber I wanted. The sales person told me I could purchase the 4′ boards online and have them delivered to the store at no charge. That will have to be my solution.

#9: home depot. cigarettes in sidewalk grate

Home Depot doesn’t care about their sidewalks as much as Duggal. There was a lovely selection of butts to choose from. Another one of my favorite places to find used cigarettes is within sidewalk grates. I love the patterns and the way steel reflects the light.

#9: home depot lumber

I photographed the no-smoking sign on the store’s exit door noticing dozens of cigarette remains on the nearby sidewalk. I wondered why this sign was on the exit door? Home Depot’s entrance mentions nothing about smoking.

#9: ladybug match at home depot

Hmmm! Spying a match with a head looking much like a ladybug I had to kneel down and capture a second butt.

#10: The Union Square Greenmarket. I headed down Broadway, passing the American Ballet Theatre’s studios on 19th Street. This always brings back memories. I photographed in those studio hundreds of times from 1982 – 1992. The Greenmarket wasn’t on my “errand” list but I stopped to photograph one cigarette on the tiled thoroughfare. This farmers market saved my life forty summers ago. The Union Square Greenmarket opened during the summer of 1976, a couple of months before I moved to New York City that August. My first apartment was at 139 E. 13th Street, just around the corner from Union Square. The neighborhood was very different at that time and I was a poor, starving artist. My decisions about money always came down to film or food?

#10: cigarette butt at the union square greenmarket

The Greenmarket was a godsend. Farmers markets were very different in 1976 than they are today. They used to be places where one could buy fresh produce at reasonable prices. It was great for both the consumer and the farmers. Skipping the retail store as middleman, farmers could sell their products for less and still make a larger profit, also with selling their discolored or bruised vegetables – items the stores would not take. That’s a far cry from the Greenmarket today where fruits and vegetables are sold for a premium. Fortunately I can still go to the Greenmarket at 175th and Broadway. When I need piles of tomatoes, eggplants, onions, and peppers to make my famous vegetable sauce that’s my go-to place. It’s not in a trendy neighborhood so the prices are fair and reasonable. The same vegetables as Union Square – only half the price.

#10: union square greenmarket

Coming from Chicago I wasn’t used to New York City food prices. The Union Square market allowed me to eat healthy. I’ll never forget the joy it brought me, living in New York, buying produce in the street directly from farmers’ trucks. Union Square is a different place now but I’ll never lose those special memories.

I didn’t buy anything today. In the fall I sometimes buy a few apples. This changed market reminds me of how The City has become so expensive – the difficulty young artists encounter trying to create here while surviving financially. I thought I had it bad during my first years living here. I didn’t know how lucky I was. At least I could survive well enough to live and create my art.

#11: Behind the Grace Church – Abby Wen Wu. I heard my iphone chiming. I was behind the famous Grace Church at 11th Street and 4th Avenue. I had meant to walk down Broadway but somehow turned instead down 4th Avenue. It’s easy to do that at Union Square. 4th Avenue is kind of an anomaly, running only from 8th Street up to 14th. Above it becomes Park Avenue – below Lafayette.

#11: text message from abby wen wu

I sat down on the back steps of the church and pulled the phone out of my backpack. I’ve been inside the Grace Church one time, decades ago to photograph the wedding of CBS news anchor, Michelle Marsh. The text was from Abby Wen Wu. Abby’s a new friend and a muse. Originally “Cigarette essay #10″ was supposed to be about our friendship. When she’s in front of my camera I’m always amazed by what comes out of her soul. I wrote one page about her before I stopped. I need to see her again before I write her essay.

#11: chinese cigarette butt behind the grace church

I looked down to the sidewalk and saw the remains of a Chinese cigarette on the ground. How perfect! Abby could now be part of essay #10 afterall.

#12: Leslie Simpson at 10th Street and 4th Avenue. I wasn’t positive I had the perfect cigarette shot to go with my image of Abby’s text message. Walking half a block to the corner of 10th Street, I saw a nice grouping of cigarettes in the dirt surrounding a nearby tree. I was crawling on the ground as I often do for this series, looking for a combination of butts and detritus, when I hear a sweet voice calling out my name.

#12: six cigarette brands at 10th street and 4th avenue

It was Leslie Simpson. Somehow she recognized me crawling on the ground, probably looking more like a crazed homeless person than a professional photographer. I got up, and even though I had been on the filthy New York City sidewalk Leslie still gave me a wonderful long hug. I felt the dirt of the shooting day wash away with her warmth.

#12: leslie simpson at 10th street and 4th avenue

We spoke for a few minutes. Leslie is on the top of my list of people I want to shoot for my Intimate Portrait series. The pictures I take of her will be beautiful. Leslie and I parted ways but before I got back to my cigarettes in the dirt I realized I needed to take her portrait on this spot. I wouldn’t make the same mistake I had made with Terese. I called Leslie’s name and she walked back to me. I quickly explained my day’s assignment and took a few quick portraits. We hugged again, saying we would get together soon, before heading in opposite directions.

#13: Petsmart at Bleecker and Broadway. I don’t know why this day felt like the 1970s? Maybe it was because this was the first time since that era I’ve spent the day photographing people in the street. New York has changed a great deal since I moved here in 1976. The place where Petsmart now stands, not far from Houston Street, used to be the main area where bums and “winos” hung out in the 70s. It’s not far from the Bowery Mission. Few people lived in the nearby buildings. I think Mapplethorpe’s apartment was nearby. Only crazy artists lived in this neighborhood. There were no retail businesses along Broadway. The streets were quiet night and day except for the delivery trucks transferring goods in and out of the wholesale fabric and garment warehouse lofts lining the avenue.

#13: bleecker and broadway

Today this stretch of Broadway from 8th Street down to Canal is one of the busiest retail shopping districts in Manhattan. Still, something about the pedestrians in the street felt like the 70s – down-beaten and melancholy. Is this the future of New York City? The streets in this area are generally dirty. That hasn’t changed in forty years. A lot of people equals a lot of garbage. I had no problem finding my discarded butts in front of Petsmart.

#13: cigarette butt on broadway in front of petsmart

I love finding butts in puddles. The water adds texture and depth to the images. The difficult part is the reflections, often my own, and how to incorporate them into the photographs. Cigarette remains are very durable. They hold up well in water.

#13: cigarette butts in a puddle in front of petsmart

I needed to buy Fancy Feast for my four cats. They love it. The food seems relatively healthy for canned stuff. The “Fish and Shrimp Feast,” with whole prawns, looks so good I could eat it myself. Andrea Mohin, the dance photographer for the New York Times, calls Fancy Feast “kitty crack.” With a few of the flavors I believe she’s right.

#13: not enough fancy feast choices at petsmart

I don’t know what it is about this particular Petsmart but their shelves of Fancy Feast are often bare. A salesperson always tells me a shipment is arriving the next day. How is that possible? I think they might need a new manager. Fortunately, I only needed to buy a dozen cans. Only a few of my cats’ favorite flavors were on hand. I bought what I could and continued my voyage downtown.

#14: morganstern's ice cream store

#14: Morganstern’s near Rivington and Bowery. Morganstern’s wasn’t on my errand list. It happened to be along the route I was taking to my main destination. I had never heard of this place. I only stopped to figure out what kind of product warranted a line of people 40 deep? Ice cream! Is any dessert worth a thirty minute wait? I don’t think so. Obviously I’m not a typical New Yorker. I won’t wait in a 30 minute line for anything.

#15: cigarette butts across the street from morganstern's

I stopped, so I photographed. Two cigarette butts lay on the ground beneath me. I didn’t kneed to wait in a line to take my pictures. I moved on.

#15: intersection of delancey and eldridge

#15: The corner of Delancey and Eldridge Streets. I once again headed downtown through the Lower East Side. At the corner of Delancey and Eldridge sat an empty Marlboro carton. It was the first time I had found a discarded carton since I began my Smokers’ Detritus series. I could not pass this opportunity by.

#15: marlboro box at delancey and eldridge

The packaging glowed against the dirty street. The leaves seemed to be a bit of an anomaly. There weren’t any trees nearby. It was 6:30 in the evening but for some reason there were few pedestrians in the street. I wondered how different this intersection must have looked at dinner time one hundred years earlier, endless pushcarts, shoppers, and horse-drawn carts filling the tenement lined street.

#16: vanessa's dumpling house

#16: 118A Eldridge. Vanessa’s Dumpling House. I walked down Eldridge and came to Vanessa’s Dumpling House. Abby Wen Wu told me I should eat there. Abby knows I am in love with inexpensive Chinese dumpling shops. I was hungry. I looked inside. The place was filled with Hipsters. It didn’t fell authentic. I already have a favorite dumpling place in Chinatown where my friend Veronica Zhai says the dumplings taste like “home.” I decided to wait.

There weren’t many cigarette butts in the street near Vanessa’s. I was surprised. The streets of the Lower East Side, full of trendy shops, bars and restaurants are usually full of discarded cigarettes. Maybe Vanessa’s clientele happen to be non-smokers? That’s hard to believe.

#16: cigarette butt, box cutting blades and gum scum in front of vanessa's

I found one butt on the nearby sidewalk. It was accompanied by what I think are three box cutting blades and two splotches of gum residue… the only human detritus more prevalent on the city streets than cigarette butts.

#17: Invisible-Exports Gallery at 89 Eldridge. I finally arrived at my destination – the reason for this long walk. Invisible-Exports Gallery was presenting Frida Smoked, “a group exhibition featuring the work of women artists and their cigarettes.” How perfect for me! Women and cigarettes – my two favorite subjects.

Unfortunately the gallery was closed. I knew it would be. I had spent so much time all afternoon long crawling on the ground, photographing cigarette butts, it was now past 6:30pm. Galleries rarely stay open past 6:00pm. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It was Monday, June 6th. Invisible-Exports is closed on Mondays!

#17: mother and daughter passing invisible-exports gallery

This area of the Lower East Side has become a real-estate battleground for retail business. Chinese businesses and restaurants have been moving into this area for years as their population increased and the rents in the tourist areas rose with the gentrification of New York City. Most of the Chinese shops and restaurants I now frequent are above Canal, something that never happened 10 years ago. I often shop for vegetables and steamed buns east of Bowery. There’s an entire new Chinatown on that side of the avenue.

#17: marlboro in the street in front of invisible-exports gallery

At the same time, this area has become the new art gallery district. Due to the ridiculous rents in Chelsea and the fear of another Hurricane Sandy, galleries are looking for another place to call home. With the building of the New Museum a few years ago and the recent opening of the International Center of Photography, this neighborhood is the obvious place. I most often visit galleries in Chelsea but since I’m frequently in Chinatown my visits to the Lower East Side galleries are increasing.

#17: mother and daughter a few minutes earlier, down the street from invisible-exports

I’m stood in front of Invisible-Exports. I needed to get my shots. As a Chinese mother and daughter passed on the sidewalk I tried to capture a decent shot of them walking by the gallery. I failed, but here it is. Only later, while writing this essay, did I realize I had photographed the two women only a few minutes earlier, walking out of a nearby building. I like that shot of the women much better, and as it happens, I did photograph one butt at that earlier location. It was near the circular metal cover over one of the street’s water mains. It didn’t look like this access point had been opened in decades – the sidewalk not repaired for almost as long. I can’t imagine what the pipes underneath must look like? Another shot for my manhole sub-series though no man could fit here.

#17: cigarette butt and water main cover. down the street from invisible-exports gallery

Standing in front of the gallery, I looked down on the sidewalk for my cigarette subjects. Now this was the dirty Lower East Side I’ve always loved. Butts were everywhere! I shot a bunch, my favorite a discarded Marlboro with a small tip of ash. The cigarette glows against the dark pavement of the street.

#18: Deluxe Food near Elizabeth and Mott Streets. I was getting hungry. I had a final stop before eating dinner. Deluxe Foods is one of my favorite grocery stores in Chinatown. It’s an unusual place. The store is a thin band, stretching from Elizabeth to Mott Street with entrances at both sides. They have the freshest meat and fish in the city.

#18: steamed buns at deluxe foods

I mostly go there for the steamed buns. I forget what they’re called but I know they are special. Besides the typical pork/preserved cabbage filling, enclosed in the bun are the special treats of shiitake mushroom, Chinese sausage and egg. The bun is perfectly cooked and delicious. They are big – at least 5″ in diameter and cost only $1.30. I always buy at least two and eat them as my breakfast over the next few days. Something about these buns makes me feel good. If you go, make sure to buy the bun with the small red dot on top!

#18: woman leaving deluxe food, upset i'm taking her picture

As in Brighton Beach (Russians) and the Upper West Side (Latinos), people in Chinatown often don’t like seeing a camera pointed in their direction. I’ve always guessed it’s an illegal immigration thing. I get it. If there are no records you do not exist. Shooting in front of Deluxe Foods was no different. People coming out of the store either turned away or gave me a dirty look. I’m subtle. I’m not shoving my camera in their faces. Somehow the people always see me. They are aware. The woman coming out of Deluxe Food obviously did not appreciate my camera pointed in her direction. Now she’s on my blog!

#18: cigarette on the sidewalk in front of deluxe food

In Chinatown it’s never a problem finding cigarette butts in the street. There were many on the sidewalk near Deluxe Food. I could spend hours here finding interesting brands and street textures. I decided to continue with the Marlboro theme, photographing a solitary butt nestled in the sidewalk seam.

#19: Tasty Dumpling at 42 Mulberry Street. I’m starving now. I’m dying to eat dumplings. Tasty Dumpling is only a few blocks away. I head down there ignoring the distractions of street vendors and interesting butts on the sidewalks. I get to Tasty Dumpling and manage a few shots of the storefront before heading into the small, old-fashioned cafe-like restaurant.

#19: tasty dumpling

I almost always order #1 and #2 – five dumplings each of pork-and-cabbage and pork-and-chives. They’re kind of boiled, fried and sautéed all at the same time. They are Nirvana. Total cost = $2.50! Tasty Dumpling also has the best cabbage-ginger pickled kimchi I’ve ever eaten along with the best won-ton soup. The best anywhere!

#19: #1 & #2 dumpings from tasty dumpling... $2.50

I poured Sriracha sauce over my dumplings and chowed down. I was so happy. This made up for the closed gallery. Satiated, I bought some kimchi to-go and headed back into the street to search for cigarette remains.

#19: marlboro box top in front of tasty dumpling

In front of the restaurant I found a torn off cigarette box top. This was something new for the series. I also captured a few more interesting butts on the sidewalk. It’s good to get extra images. The photographs not used in this essay can always become part of my Smokers’ Detritus portfolio.

Publisher’s note: Part IV begins here. I’ve finally finished this essay. It’s the longest piece I’ve written since college!

#20: The A/C/E subway station at Canal and Sixth Avenue. It was approaching 8:00pm. The light was fading and after gorging on dumplings I was finally getting tired. There is always the question of whether I should take the #1 or the C train home. The #1 runs more frequently but there’s something I like about the C. Maybe it’s the wider train cars? Tonight I would go with feel over speed.

#20: cigarette remains outside the a/c/e subway station at canal and sixth avenue

Entrances to the subway are cigarette butt graveyards. All those smokers need to toss their butts before entering the station. There were some nice butts among the grass and dirt surrounding a few nearby trees but I decided to stick with the sidewalk seam theme.

#20: a/c/e subway station at canal and sixth avenue

This time in the early evening is my favorite portrait light. As much as I wanted to capture the faces of the people milling around at the entrance to the station, the ad at the top of the stairs grabbed my attention. I don’t know who shot the ad but it matched the evening light.

#21: Central Park West and 81st Street subway station. It was 8:45pm when I got off the train at 81st Street. It was already dark on the street. The sky had that last glow of daylight. I haven’t shot many cigarette butts by streetlight but now I was “on assignment.” I had no choice.

#21: c subway station stairway at 81st street and central park west

Heading out of the station a couple was just ahead of me on the stairs. I saw the picture before it happened. I slowed to open up some space between us. I was ready. I got the shot. The photo reminds me of pictures I took when I first moved to New York City in 1976.

#21: two cigarette portraits. subway stairs at 81st street and central park west

Walking up the stairs, I saw two butts on the steps near the top. I often see people smoking on this staircase leading down into the station, not caring how difficult they make it to pass. Now I have a record of their crimes!

#21: entrance to the c subway station at 81st street and central park west

Outside the station it was beautiful. The street lights, auto headlights, dimming sky and subway station glow all matched. I had to capture the shot. Unlike the 70s look of the earlier photo this one felt modern.

#22: 165 West 83rd Street – Home. A few blocks later I’m finally home. I’m ready to take the last photographs for my assignment. All I want to do was sit down on my couch and drink a cup of tea. I need to wash my knees. They are filthy from kneeling on the sidewalks and streets all day long.

#22: home

A woman turns back to check on her dawdling friend and quickly I take the shot. I look down. I know my sidewalk is always full of butts. The question is finding one in enough light for a photograph.

#22: cigarette in front of my apartment, lit by lamplight

It wasn’t happening. I find one where I can see well enough to focus. The images are dark. I’ll somehow manage to pull out the detail.

#23: Exhibition at the Invisible-Export Gallery. You might think this essay is finished but there is one more story. Three days later, on June 9th, Abby Wen Wu asked me if I wanted to join her at the New Museum that evening. On Thursdays, after 6:00pm the museum is pay-what-you-wish. I figured I could go early and see the Frida Smoked show at Invisible-Exports and meet Abby afterwards.

#23: invisible-exports gallery - cigarette butts on the ground

I got to Invisible-Exports and this time it is open. I had expected the work to be a little more “feminist”… paintings, drawings and sculptures showing a woman’s point of view. There was none of that. I wondered, “why evoke the spirit of Frida Kahlo if you weren’t going to show art embodying the strength of women?” Maybe the gallery, finding that need unnecessary, is what evokes the strength of women artists.

#23: ilse getz. "cigarette collage vii"

I spent some time wandering through the small gallery. The art work was mostly not in a style I appreciate. I’m not a big fan of most modern or conceptual art though over time I’ve learned to understand the process of some of the newer artists. My favorite piece was a grouping of cigarette butts by Ilse Getz called Cigarette Collage VII. It was dated 1965, much older than the other works. Maybe that’s why I liked it? Getz’s two pieces seemed more authentic than the work of the other artists. I loved how her work had obviously deteriorated over time.

#23: amanda nedham's cigarette sculptures

I found Amanda Nedham’s cigarette sculptures entertaining but they looked more like items from the gift shop at MOMA or the Whitney than gallery pieces. The small pieces were cute. Like I said, I don’t like modern conceptual art. I have to admit, a couple of weeks later, and after spending some time looking at my photograph of her sculptures, they’re beginning to grow on me.

#23: irini miga. "a moment embedded in, 2016"

One piece in the exhibition struck me with it’s simplicity – a pale cigarette fixed on to the white gallery wall. A Scratch on the Wall. A Moment Embedded in, 2016 by Irini Miga. The description mentions the piece is made up of “Cigarette butt, marble dust, left overs of carbon dioxide, water vapor, oxygen and nitrogen.” Even the description of her materials is conceptual! If I photographed my own cigarettes in the studio instead of on the streets, I’d prefer my images looked like the Irini Miga’s sculpture, not like Irving Penn’s photographs of the same subject matter – and I do love Irving Penn.

#23: anne doran. "ad16 1"

The 1988 collage of color photographs by Anne Doran was what I had expected to see in the exhibition. Part of the collage featured a woman’s naked breast with a cigarette. Her piece was so 1980s! The work was called AD16 1. I don’t know the meaning of the collage or if the artist took her imagery from real advertisements? I do know it reminded me of the 80s. It’s the time when I believe the commercial prospects of art became more important than it’s creativity.

#23: asian cigarette butt outside of invisible-exports gallery

I photographed a few of the pieces and headed back into the street for my cigarette photographs. The selection was better now than three days ago. You can see several butts on the ground in my picture of the gallery. There were several Asian brands on the sidewalk and street. I don’t know why these butts still fascinate me? Maybe it’s the colors? Strange, because I typically photograph in black and white. I found several discarded cigarettes I liked, especially the smashed and worn butt on the heavily textured pavement.

#23: smashed cigarette butt outside of invisible-exports gallery

I was early to meet Abby. Now was my chance to try the dumplings at Vanessa’s. My cigarette assignment was finally finished and I deserved a treat. I ordered the chive-and-pork dumplings so I could compare them to the ones I love at Tasty Dumpling. I also asked for an order of basil-and-chicken. It was crowded. The dumplings took a while to arrive. Tasty Dumpling is also crowded right after work hours. Their service is faster. The pork-and-chive dumplings were cold. That did not make me happy. The basil-and-chicken dumplings were good but they tasted like they were made for an American palate. I could cook something similar, better, in my own kitchen. Vanessa’s dumplings were a more expensive but not nearly as good as those at Tasty Dumpling. The price didn’t matter. Taste does. I will go back to Vanessa’s at some point for one more try. The sesame pancake sandwiches looked interesting.

vanessa's dumpling house

In a way, the essay finally ends where it was supposed to begin. Abby and I met up at the New Museum, took a look at the exhibitions and headed down to Chinatown for a late dessert. After 9:00pm that’s not an easy task. Most Chinese cafes are closed by 9:00pm and few restaurants have any desserts besides almond or fortune cookies. I knew the newer XO restaurant had a dessert menu and that’s where we ended up. Besides dessert, I “made” Abby share an order of shrimp dumplings. I love XO’s shrimp dumplings!

abby wen wu at the new musuem

A few weeks earlier, during a group dinner at this same restaurant, I realized Abby needed to be a muse. I studied her face during that entire dinner, deciding how I would capture her image. So far we done two shoots together, one for my Mirror series and a beautiful portrait for the Intimate Portrait project. I began to write about Abby after the Intimate shoot. As I mentioned many pages ago, her story was supposed to be this photo-essay… Cigarettes #10: Abby Wen Wu. I began to write but I felt I needed more of her before I could complete an essay. This Long Walk essay took her place.

abby wen wu. intimate portrait project

Abby’s presence in my life has influenced this story. There is no doubt in my mind she will be the subject of future essays – memories not yet happened – interesting stories indeed.

Posted in art, cigarettes, dance, portrait | Comments Off

04/30/16: smokers’ detritus #9 – kaitlyn/caitlin

my new 24-105mm f4 is lens

I’ve been having problems with my old 24-105mm lens. It has been completely rebuilt and works well with most of my cameras. All was good until Canon gave me, really, gave me a 1Dx camera body for free. My older lenses don’t seem to communicate well with this new camera when it comes to the auto-focus mechanism. The camera appears to be confused, focusing all over the place – not often enough on the subject that needs to be sharp. It’s not good!

Caitlin Trainor was planning a studio showing of two duets she performs with Kaitlyn Gilliland. They would do a rehearsal of the dances early in the afternoon and then perform the same two pieces for a small audience. This would give me a chance to photograph the rehearsal using an old camera body with the questionable 24-105mm lens and afterwards, the performance with the new body with this hapless lens. If more pictures were in focus with the old camera I’d know for sure I had a problem. The good new is If the lens was indeed bad, my contact at Canon had promised to replace it, for free! Sometimes being a decades long good customer has it’s benefits.

barnard gate

I wanted to walk up to Barnard from my apartment but was running late. I had hoped to photograph cigarette butts along Amsterdam on my way up. I took the subway and figured I’d shoot some cigarette remains around the subway stop near Barnard’s front gate. I got out of the subway station at 116th Street and looked around. The streets had been swept clean. There was no dirt, no garbage, no cigarette butts! I’m not sure I had seen anything like it in the entire city. It looked like Chicago!

I finally found a few butts near the Barnard Gate – mostly in the dirt surrounding the small trees planted along Broadway. I walked uptown along Broadway finding a few interesting remains but it was the cleanest stretch of sidewalk I’ve seen since I began the project. I realized I had enough new photographs for this essay and headed into the dance building at Barnard only to get lost in the basement before I finally found the studio with Caitlin and Kaitlyn.

cigarette butt near the barnard gate

I was on time. The dancers were resting, preparing for their run of the two pieces – Kaitlyn/Caitlin, and a new dance — yet unnamed. I had photographed in this studio before. It’s a difficult place to shoot with all of the distracting garbage in the room. The wall of windows forming the background are both wonderful and a problem at the same time. They add great light to the room and when used properly can frame the dancers but at the same time I have to be careful not to have the window frames spike through the heads of the dancers. One thing I especially dislike about location dance photography these days is that the photographers don’t pay attention to the backgrounds. If a pole in the street or a tree branch is coming out of a dancers head it usually isn’t pretty.

For some reason when I’m shooting Caitlin and Kaitlyn together in the studio I always feel self-conscious. It’s the only studio situation where I’ve ever felt this way. I’m not quite sure why. I’m very close friends with Caitlin and she’s very close to Kaitlyn. That’s part of the dynamic and it does matter even though I met both women separately. During a rehearsal Caitlin always wants to know that I’m doing. It’s very sweet that she cares but it’s her rehearsal and should be all about her needs and not remotely about me. During most studio rehearsals I rarely never speak to the choreographer, no matter how close I am to them. This is their time to work and I also need to concentrate. We can talk at some other time. Whatever. It takes me longer to get my focus at Caitlin’s rehearsals but in the end it all works out.

kaitlyn rehearsing "kaitlyn/caitlin" when it was only "kaitlyn"

I’ve shot Kaitlyn/Caitlin almost since it’s inception. It was a solo for Kaitlyn Gilliland until I came upon the scene, thinking it was a duet – a better dance with the two of them together. It seemed different this time in the studio. The last time I photographed the piece was when it was danced in a black box stage. I don’t think the difference was the environment. I believe Caitlin and Kaitlyn have become closer and now relate to each other in a different way. It shows in the dance.

kaitlyn gillaland with caitlin trainor rehearsing the "new" dance

The second dance is a joint-choreographic project, both women working together on the choreography, the mood and steps coming equally from each woman. There is no music. The dance is set to their voices – sometimes conversations between the two women – sometimes their own personal thoughts. Years ago I was not a fan of “talking” during a dance. I felt dance should always be done to music. I’ve worked with Bill T. Jones for over a decade and he has changed how I feel about voice and dance. His work, and especially his most recent pieces are largely based on words as the background for his choreography. Music is most often the background for the conversation.

This piece is new. As a team, Caitlin and Kaitlyn are still working out their choreographic voices. I met Kaitlyn as a classical ballerina and this is her real transition tomodern dance. She wore pointe shoes during this piece but after the showing realized the dance would have been better in bare feet. I don’t know? She’s probably right. Will she be comfortable when her feet touch the ground?

"kaitlyn/caitlin" - windows photoshoped out

It will take me a while to understand the new dance. I wonder if both women understand it themselves. While photographing the showing I felt the words were strong though at times the emotions seemed forced. Still, the words themselves were stronger than the dance. I think that’s because the steps are still new. There was a talk with the audience after the performance was finished and though not fully discussed, I think the conversation led to the possibility the two women hadn’t yet completely let go in this new format of dual choreographers. When I later discussed the dance with Caitlin I told her it is the reason I never do collaborations. I don’t think I can ever be comfortable sharing the content-decisions of my work with another person.

caitlin trainor during a showing of the "new" dance

I had dinner with Caitlin and her husband after the show. We spoke more about the dance at that time and all the things that make life as an artist in New York City difficult. There are so many things both of us want to accomplish – always battling time and the cost of living. We try to figure out how we can survive working solely on our art?

burned matches. 96th and broadway

I walked home, first down Broadway and the final stretch along Amsterdam. I always know I’ll find enough cigarette butts along these streets to make me happy. I passed the church where only a few days before I had photographed Shen Wei and stopped across the street at my local grocery store for milk and kitty litter. I realized my life was approaching a nexus, a link between my friendships, work, and home-life. All were becoming one with no borders. Cats – portrait – cigarettes – dance – dinners – cigarettes – shopping – cats – retouching – cooking – writing… back and forth, all as one. It’s very different than my past life where things were more set. It is enlightening and terrifying at the same time but I have no choice. This is my new path and my reason for being.

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06/18/16: smokers’ detritus #9A – blythe and the mermaid parade

This essay is numbered 9A. In terms of chronological time it is out-of-order. Several interesting events came before this one but I had to write this story soon after it happened. I was afraid if I waited the energy of the day would be lost. This day might have changed my art and my life. It might not seem apparent after your reading. I can understand that. If I am right it will become obvious in future essays written after this time.

coney island

I’m a big fan of Brighton Beach. I go all the time. I’ll use any excuse to breathe ocean air and eat Russian food. This past Saturday was the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.

When it comes to taking photographs I’ve always preferred cloudy days. I shoot in black & white and don’t like the harsh light of the afternoon sun. The weather forecast for the parade was “bright and sunny” – not great for my mermaid pictures. I hoped I would find a few shaded spots, maybe under the pier or up against interesting walls. If I was lucky, late afternoon clouds would roll in giving me that beautiful soft-bright beach light.

I left my apartment late wanting to get to the boardwalk near the end of the parade, a little before 3:00pm. I hoped some clouds would roll in by that time. I promised myself if I wrote about the parade the essay wouldn’t include any cigarette photographs. I couldn’t help myself and I stopped to shoot the Smokers’ Detritus outside of 202 West 81st Street. After that I headed straight to the subway and kept my word for the rest of the afternoon. Brighton Beach. Russians smoke a lot. It wasn’t an easy promise to keep!

cigarettes at 202 west 81st street

I planned to take the Q train to the Aquarium. It’s the closest station to the parade without exiting directly into the crowds. At the last minute I decided to depart earlier, at the Brighton Beach station. I couldn’t stop thinking about the poppy-seed Danish I bought a week earlier at a nearby Russian bakery. My friends Marci and Paul took me to this place, La Brioche, and to say it is amazing would be an understatement. I’ve passed the store many times but never stopped. From the outside it looks like a typical boring modern café.

No way! Once you walk inside it’s like stepping back in time. It reminded me of the Jewish bakeries I visited with my dad on Sunday mornings when I was very young. Only better! Cheese Danish like I haven’t seen in fifty years. I didn’t know what to buy? I wanted everything. I especially love poppy-seed Danish so they were my first choice. Eventually I will try everything.

marci and paul coming out of la brioche

Today I bought two of the poppy-seed Danish (just in case I had to share with mermaid friends) and some kind of spinach-cheese thing wrapped in a flaky pastry crust. Oh my god! It was in my mouth the second I left the bakery and finished before I could make it to the end of the block. Now very happy, I headed over to the Brighton Beach boardwalk.

What a day! The ocean breeze soothed my soul the moment I stepped on the boardwalk. The heat of the sun felt good on my face. The low humidity created perfect weather for an afternoon walk on the beach. I saw clouds forming in the distant west. If they never arrived it wouldn’t matter. I could enjoy today as a beach day, forgetting my cameras and the mermaid photographs.

As I got closer to Coney Island, I could hear music from the marching bands in the parade. I began to pass groups of mermaids, noticing two nearby taking selfies. There was a tall blue construction wall surrounding the new Aquarium. I could use it as a background, to block the sun for my first mermaid pictures of the day. I asked the mermaids if I could take their portrait. They were so nice! I moved the two women against the wall, explaining the light would be better there. They understood instantly and I was able to get a great portrait to begin the day. I had them write their email address to send them copies of the photos. The address ended in “columbia.edu.” Columbia University. That’s my neighborhood! Both women would be perfect for my Intimate Portrait project. I hope they will be interested. Intimate models are a constant quest.

coney island mermaids

I photographed a few more mermaids but the light wasn’t working and the clouds weren’t getting any closer. The parade was getting closer and I knew it was time to get off the boardwalk before it became too crowded to move. A woman was standing alone on the beach, waiting for a friend to join her. The quality of the light was abysmal. At that moment I decided it was time to do a portrait series on the Coney Island beach. This woman would be my first photograph. I would have to discover the light and learn how to make my expensive digital camera “see” the detail and tonality I needed in these new images. I am already involved in too many projects but as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as taking too many pictures!

woman on the coney island beach

I moved across the beach, slowly heading in the direction of the parade’s end-point, wandering in and out of the beach-goers, staring at the light on their faces – every now and then clicking off a few frames. I came upon a group of mermaids laying on a parachute – taking selfies with their camera with one of those sticks. I circled the women, hoping to find a situation worth photographing. The women taking selfies on the ground reminded me of my Intimate Portrait shoots. I asked if I could take their portrait – stand among them, above their bodies. I was surprised they agreed. I often feel I hypnotize my models to agree to anything I ask. I know that’s impossible. They must sense I’m someone to trust.

relaxing mermaids

The sun was strong. The light direct. It was difficult for the mermaids to keep their eyes open. In the bright light I could hardly see through the camera. I directed their heads to come together in a circle. It felt comfortable and natural standing, hanging above these mermaids – mingling with their bodies just as I do when standing above my models for the Intimate Portrait series. Here we were, surrounded by thousands of people on the beach yet the photographs felt intimate.

I finally got myself to the Coney Island Pier. It felt good escaping the sun. The light under the pier wasn’t as nice as I had expected but anything was better than the harsh sunlight. I stayed for a while, enjoying the cool breeze and taking portraits of the few mermaids who walked by. A beautiful young Latino girl stood a few feet away, taking selfies for at least ten minutes. I wanted to do her portrait but didn’t feel I should interfere with her personal time. A crowd gathered just north of the pier – mermaids, photographers and cheering fans. I decided to join them, hoping to find a few good pictures.

mermaid and neptune taking a selfie under the coney island pier

As I approached the gathering, I passed a lone woman, topless, sitting cross-legged on a large patterned sheet – the parachute jump looming directly behind her. It was the perfect scene. The light. The composition. It reminded me of black & white photographs I have seen of Coney Island taken in the early 1970s. I always see through my cameras in black & white but now I was seeing through my eyes without color. It was magical.

The beach was crowded but for some reason no one sat near this woman. She appeared at peace though at the same time, powerful. I was surprised she wasn’t completely surrounded by photographers. It was the day of the Mermaid Parade and every beautiful woman, especially those who are topless, are always encircled by the photographic masses. Maybe she was invisible to everyone but me? There was a ring of protective energy around her body – electricity – magnetism. I wanted to photograph her but didn’t want to break the protective bubble. What would happen? I feel people, even in crowds, have the right to their privacy.

blythe: the mermaid of coney island

I absorbed her calm as I passed and arrived to the raucous crowd, now spread out into small groups of photographers and mermaids. Mermaids in the surf. Mermaids on the rocks. Angry and nervous lifeguards trying to maintain order and safety. There was nothing for me here. My pictures are about calm. All I saw was insanity.

I turned back towards the pier and passed her again. The High Priestess. The Mermaid of Coney Island. She was still alone. The scene still appeared perfect. I felt drawn to this woman. I needed to take this portrait. It’s what I had been looking for – the reason for my entire day. As had I texted to my muse Abby earlier this week, “I’m happy but uncertain how to proceed with almost every relationship. At some point it will make sense. I might need a new friend… possibly someone who I haven’t yet met. I’m not sure.”

I walked up to this woman, through her energy bubble, moved my face close to hers and asked, “Is it okay if I take your portrait?”

blythe for the mirror project. coney island

I felt a wave of warmth flow out of her body with her positive response. I was surprised. I don’t know why. Her essence felt exactly as she looked sitting at peace on the beach. This sense of extreme warmth from any person is so rare it always comes as a surprise.

I fought the sun and the elements, trying to get the shot I wanted. Now and then I’d show her one of the images. It was difficult to see in the glare of the sunlight but we knew we were capturing something good. We’d talk in between shots until Blythe invited me to join her – to hang out for a while and talk.

I think we both felt close immediately. I wonder if Blythe is like that with everyone she meets? We spoke like old friends – about my photography and her career as a singer. I watched her face carefully as I do with everyone I photograph, watching how the light and emotions changed the appearance of her face over time. Occasionally I’d interrupt our conversation to take more pictures. We worked on some images for my “mirror” series. We’d shoot for a few minutes, stop and continue talking where we left off.

flask of sand from white sands national monument

We touched each other as we talked – to make a point like close friends do. Her skin was soft and smooth. Cool to the touch. It didn’t feel real. Blythe’s skin reminded me of the sand at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The grains of sand so fine the surface of the dunes feel like the skin of a goddess. Maybe embedded in the grains are the spirits of Indian women who once lived there. Laying on the dunes the sand envelops your entire being, cool to the touch but warming to the body. The memory of my afternoon at White Sands has stayed close to me for years.

blythe near the coney island pier

Time passed. I’m not sure how long we talked. One hour, two? Both of us had friends to meet. It was time to leave. We agreed to see each other soon – phone numbers shared. We hugged, and we hugged again before parting ways.

We text back and forth. Now friends on Facebook. One mutual friend… sort of. Emily Pope, who I photographed for my magazine VISION. I wonder if they are “real” friends or just a Facebook connection. Blythe and Emily both love Coney Island. Maybe they met on the beach? Someday I’ll ask.

Blythe and I will shoot soon for my Intimate Portrait project. I’m looking forward to furthering our special connection. I need to listen to her music. I have ideas for a video. I know we’re going to be friends.


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04/26/16: smokers’ detritus #8 – shen wei dance arts

shen wei dance arts. "rite of spring"

I’ve always been registered as in independent. Ive always thought it was stupid I couldn’t vote in a New York Democratic primary but it never seemed important until this year. I believe Hillary Clinton could be one of the best presidents in history and I needed to vote for her, partially as a vote against Senator Bernie Sanders. It’s not that I don’t agree with his viewpoint – my politics are to his left. I’ve always considered myself to be a Socialist-Communist. I’ve never understood why people hated Communism so much? The politics of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba are not Communism. They are Socialist dictatorships. It’s not remotely the same thing. Either way, Bernie Sanders might have some great ideas but I think he’d be the most ineffective president since Jimmy Carter. Great ideas and great leadership are not the same thing.

A month before the primary, I went online and changed my registration to the Democratic Party, only to hear on the news if one wanted to vote they had to change their registration six months in advance. I was pissed! My registration card came in the mail a week before the primary and I figured “what did I have to lose?” I went to the polling station and there was my name on the rolls. I voted for Hillary. End of story.

west-park presbyterian church

I heard a month or two ago that Shen Wei Dance Arts had moved their studio into the old church on 86th and Amsterdam. It’s only three blocks from my apartment. I’ve passed that church thousands of times during the past four decades and it never seems to change, appearing abandoned with homeless people sleeping on the steps. Not long ago, Noché Flamenco moved into the space and I wondered if it was becoming a new dance center. The building was built over 130 years ago and has always been a Presbyterian Church. I was surprised to learn the congregation still held Sunday services.

My voting location is around the corner from the church. After voting I decided to head over to Shen Wei’s studio to see what was going on. I got to the church and attempted to open the side door on 86th street before seeing a set of doorbells. Before I could press the button listing Shen Wei the door opened. It was like a scene from a movie. The middle-aged Hispanic woman who opened the door was likely the care-taker. She didn’t say a word. I finally said, “I’m going to Shen Wei.” The woman opened the door and I began heading up the wooden steps only to realize I had never seen the inside of the church before. I headed back down the stairs and entered the sanctuary. I asked the woman if it was okay. She looked at me but there was no response. I took that to mean yes.

west-park presbyterian church. sanctuary

I could see there had been a lot of cheap renovation over the years and the stage was not original to the church. Still, it was a beautiful place and there was something wonderful about the simple quality of the room. As much as I love the great European churches and stained-glass windows I’ve always felt places of worship should be plain and simple. Instead of spending great fortunes on churches and synagogues that money should be used to feed and house the poor. It only makes sense.

I headed up the four flights of stairs and when reaching the top I could see into a dance studio lit by large north-facing windows. I didn’t see any people but I heard soft voices and the sounds of bodies moving across the floor. I could feel it was Shen Wei working with his dancers. Since the first time I photographed the company I’ve always felt a spiritual connection with Shen Wei and his dancers.

I spied Stephen Xue in the office and went over to introduce myself. I let him know I only lived three blocks away and it made sense that we worked together. Stephen seemed excited that I wanted to come in and shoot. I don’t know why that always surprises me. I feel it’s an honor when I company lets me into their rehearsals. I was the one who was excited. A few days later I was in their studio shooting.

kate jewett. shen wei dance arts

The first time I photograph a company in the rehearsal studio I try to arrive an hour after the rehearsal period begins. It’s not that I don’t respect the process. I want to get there when the dancers are warmed up and ready for photographs. As with my Intimate Portraits, shooting dancers in the studio requires a great deal of trust from the dancer-models. It’s not a performance. There are no costumes or makeup. They need to believe the moment I walk in the door I’m going to capture them at their best. It’s easier once they’re warm and shaken out the morning’s cobwebs. Once they get used to my presence I can arrive to a rehearsal at any time. I become one with the company.

Shen Wei wasn’t there when I arrived. Every company works differently. Jacqulyn Buglisi always leads her rehearsals. Pascal Rioult is there most of the time and so is Bill T Jones.. When I shot for ABT many years ago, Baryshnikov almost never attended a studio rehearsal unless he was dancing in the piece. Those were the days.

mikhail baryshnikov with kathleen moore. american ballet theatre

I walked into the studio. Through Facebook I already knew many of the dancers and had posted photographs of them after our past work together. Those shoots were dress rehearsals in big theaters so there had never been a proper introduction. Kate Jewett saw me walk in and introduced me to everyone. Alex Speedie, Chelsea Retzloff – they already felt like friends. It’s funny how Facebook changes reality. Social media can be surreal. I try to only see the good in it.

It took me a little while to find my place in the studio. The dancers were amazing. They seemed to trust me immediately. I could get close and not feel as if I was interfering in the rehearsal. The light in the studio was a problem. It was a dreary day and I didn’t get the quality or amount of light I had expected from the large windows. The lights in the ceiling were dim. To get the best light I needed to shoot from the side — a poster covered wall as my background. That didn’t make me happy.

chelsea retzloff. shen wei dance arts

I’ve learned when I’m having trouble I should always shoot close. I focused on the dancers I knew best. Chelsea was flying around right in front of me. It was dark. I was having a hard time just getting the camera to focus let alone finding the right moments and deciding on composition. Chelsea Retzloff really is a force on the stage. I couldn’t help but be inspired by her movement and emotion.

With time I began to figure it out. The light through the window became brighter. More important, as the dancers got deeper into the rehearsal their bodies opened up. There was something special in their movements. I moved around the studio as I photographed the rehearsal, winding in and out of the dancers as they performed across the floor. It usually takes me four of five rehearsals with a new company before I move on to the dance floor but today they all made me feel like I was allowed to enter their space. I was often in their face. I felt their bodies move behind me. Kate and Zak Schlegel were on the floor. I don’t know what piece they were rehearsing. The old wood made a beautiful background. I stood above them — my toes just inches from their heads. I couldn’t get enough space around them. I held the camera high over my head, putting the viewfinder on “live view” so I could quickly check after each picture as it was taken. Did they know I was there? I often wonder. I’m on my tiptoes hanging over their bodies, my white socks almost in Kate’s hair. Yet they go on as if I’m not there. Or do they go on, emotionally deeper into the dance knowing every move is being watched and photographed. It’s a question I rarely ask.

kate jewett and zak schlegel. shen wei dance arts

At the afternoon break the dancers all left the studio to get lunch. It wasn’t the nicest day. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit outside for thirty minutes. I wondered how I’d feel sitting outside, in my own neighborhood, less than five minutes from my front door. I get into an intense mental state while shooting. Would sitting on my street, across from my local CVS and grocery store, take me out of that place.

I decided to go out. I know the corner the church sits on very well. There are bus stops both on 86th Street and on Amsterdam. Bus stops are some of the best locations for my Smokers’ Detritus series and I’ve shot on this corner before. Shoe’s on. Down the stairs. Out the door.

smokers' detritus. m7/m11 bus stop. 86th and amsterdam

There are almost always homeless people on the steps of the church and this day was no exception. The steps are greasy and dirty. I felt miles away from the beautiful moments I had just captured in the dance studio. I felt too close to home. Of course there was a great selection of cigarette butts around the M7/M11 bus stop on Amsterdam. For some reason the sidewalk around that stop is unusually disgusting! It had been drizzling so the nearby street garbage was basically mush.

I shot the best butts and moved around the corner to the bus stop on 86th. I get very focused when working on this series. Shooting extreme close-ups with a camera or phone is technically difficult. If the focus is off by one quarter of an inch the picture is ruined. Any camera movement is magnified. If I’m not concentrating I lose too many photos.

smokers' detritus. m116 bus stop. 86th and amsterdam

The sidewalk had some very nice textures. I think it’s the backgrounds behind the cigarettes that I love most about the Smokers’ Detritus series. After a time, the cigarette remains will all begin to look the same but the textures of the sidewalks and streets are endless. Near the cigarettes there are often bits of nature on the ground along with all the stains caused by human garbage… oil, gum, coffee, etc. Years ago I did begin to notice the textures in the street when the city repaved Columbus Avenue. The workers were using a new concrete combination that supposedly would last longer. There were so many bits and pieces of different colors and reflectivity in the mix. For a while I noticed how old sidewalks had larger pieces than the newer ones. Over time I began to look up again and forgot what was under my feet. Now my eyes are almost always on the ground.

I heard a voice. It was Chelsea Retzloff. She wondered if she could get a copy of a photo I took of her when she performed in Shen Wei’s Rite of Spring at Lincoln Center. Shen Wei Dance Arts was invited to perform during Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance’s inaugural season in 2015. I had been stalking Chelsea for a long time on Facebook. I thought she would be a perfect subject for my Intimate Portrait project. I asked her to do a shoot and warned her about the physical contact. She didn’t say no! We’re going to shoot in May or June when the company is back in town. Chelsea’s portraits are going to be amazing!

chelsea retzloff. shen wei dance arts "rite of spring." paul taylor's american modern dance

The dancers slowly returned from their lunch break, standing outside of the church, not quite ready to resume rehearsal. Some of us talked for a minute and headed back up to the studio. The dancers prepared to rehearse Folding. I believe I had seen a dress rehearsal of this dance years ago but wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I think when the dance is performed in New York City the women are topless for part of the piece and the company didn’t want me to have any pictures “like that.” To say the least I was extremely frustrated by that situation. The dance is beautiful. Having all of the dancers topless, men and women, gives them an androgynous look. I imagine that’s the point. Not to allow a dance to be photographed as it is meant to be seen seems a bit silly to me. Thank goodness when I photographed Boston Ballet performing Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura I was allowed to photograph the entire dance, including when the women were topless. Like Shen Wei’s Folding. Kylian’s dance is an amazing work of art and was the featured photo-essay in the fifth issue of my magazine, the VISION Art Journal.

rie ichikawa and kathleen breen combes. jiri kylian's "bella figura." boston ballet. pages from vision art journal #5

During the lunch break the light had brightened in the studio and the choreography during Folding allowed me to shoot at angles that worked with the windowlight. Shen Wei arrived to the studio. Were the dancers working harder now because of his presence or is it something about Folding that brings out the best in a dancer? It probably was a little of both. The picture possibilities were endless and I shot away, so focused on what I saw through the camera I had to be careful not to run into the dancers as I moved about the studio. They were all good enough to work around me and Shen Wei didn’t seem to consider me a distraction.

At one point in Folding, a group of dancers move slowly upstage while Alex Speedie has a long solo, standing mostly in place at the front of the stage. I moved in front of Alex in a way that made it seem like he was dancing for my camera. Maybe he was? When working with (Martha) Graham I often find incredible energy directed towards the camera while I’m close to the dancers. Alex was intense! I’m sure it was only a couple of minutes but I felt like we had an hour long photo session together.

alex speedie during a rehearsal of "folding." shen wei dance arts

I was aware of nothing in the room but the two of us. The dancers in the background became the shapes I used to balance the composition. For me it was a perfect photographic moment. Shen Wei said something to Alex I couldn’t hear. I think Alex wasn’t exactly at the right spot onstage. Alex said it was because the studio didn’t have enough depth. It is possible but that happened to be the place I was standing. Alex probably could have taken the proper position if I wasn’t in his way. I didn’t feel bad. It did make me feel like Alex had indeed performed for me. It felt right. I later thanked Alex for his concentration.

maria volpe rehearsing "folding." shen wei dance arts

Shen Wei and I spoke for a minute during a short break. He had been watching me as I photographed Alex. He said, “Your concentration is very strong.” I believe he then added, “You work like a poet.” It was an interesting comment. The way I handle shoots has changed very much since I began the Intimate Portrait project. It doesn’t matter if it’s a portrait shoot in the studio or outdoors, a dance shoot in the studio or onstage – I now approach my photography in a more intimate manner. I can’t explain it because I don’t understand the change myself. All I know is it’s working and making my photographs better. More important it has changed the way the people I photograph respond to me while shooting. They embrace the physical and emotional closeness. There is no question this has made me not only a better photographer but also a better person. It would be interesting to consider my new work as photographic poetry.

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