09/05/18: iconic photographs… the muse. part 1

My “Iconic” photographs are the best photographs I feel I have ever taken but it is not always about image quality. Sometimes an iconic photograph can be one that changed my life, forever changing how I proceed with my art and my life.

sara jean childers. summer, 1976. one of my first iconic portraits

I have been the Fine Art Chair of APA\NY (American Photographic Artists) for almost a year. So far it’s been an amazing experience. I have already learned so much, made new friends, and helped expand the photographic community. For ten years, from 1982-1992, I ran a small organization named The Photo Group. We were a loosely formed, every changing group of photographers who met on occasion to share ideas and exhibit our work together whenever possible. Many of us developed a close friendship that continues to this day. I hope to bring that support and camaraderie to APA|NY.

Last month I held an event I call APA|NY’s Knowledge Bank. It is a gathering where a group of photographers and other creative talents come together for an open forum, discussing anything photographic. Thirty people came to hear APA member Travis Keyes talk about Instagram, eat pizza, drink wine and beer, and make new friends. My favorite part of the evening was after the formal talk was completed, watching small groups of photographers sit together, learn from each other, and begin new friendships.

polaroid of jack deutsch in the studio. date unknown

The Knowledge Bank meetings are held in the studio of my friend Jack Deutsch. Jack and I first met in 1970 while we were both in high school. By coincidence, Jack moved to New York City in 1977, a year after I had moved to the city, and by extreme luck, got an apartment in my building one year later. We’ve been close friends ever since. When the event was over, four of us, Jack, Philip, Charlie, and I, all former Photo Group members, hung out in the studio. It’s rare the four of us find time to get together anymore.

philip and linda in the studio. december 17, 1982

I met Philip Stark in 1979. He and his best friend, Linda, were discovered in Central Park by John Drew, my roommate at the time and a friend I had known since college. Actually, it was Philip who discovered John. A minute ago I called Philip to find out how they actually met. John was in the park taking pictures, using his monopod to steady the camera. Philip was curious about the device and asked John how much it helped with the balance. I have no idea what else they talked about after that. I do know we all became best friends.

charlie seton photographed with a 4x5 speed graphic camera. probably 1978

Charlie and I met in college the day I walked into Northwestern University’s yearbook office, hoping to photograph for the publication. I was turned down. Charlie and the other editors seemed so intimidating, artistic… and old. I was only a freshman. It was 1972. I walked across the hallway into the newspaper’s office and was hired immediately – $5 for every photograph published. I got my first assignment that day. As a sophomore I did join the yearbook staff, later becoming the photo editor during my senior year. Charlie and I have been friends ever since. Charlie followed me to New York in 1978. I consider him the longest continuous friend I have.

So there we sat, the four of us with decades of friendship behind us, talking about life, religion, spirituality, and photography. I’m not sure why, but at one point Philip looked up to the ceiling and asked Jack if the skylight was always covered. Jack said it was and it had always been that way. I had to step in and disagree. In the past I often rented Jack’s studio for my dancewear clients and I remembered at that time, a shaft of light did come through the skylight. The only reason I did remember was because in the very spot Charlie was sitting, that shaft of light changed my life.

It was September, 28, 2009. I was shooting a catalog for Discount Dance Supply. Sometime during the afternoon, New York City Ballet dancer Ana Sophia Scheller was resting on the edge of the couch, the exact place where Charlie was now sitting. A shaft of light came through the skylight, illuminating her face. It was beautiful. I stopped the catalog shoot. I needed to capture Ana Sophia’s portrait before the light changed. I unplugged my camera from the strobe lights. I didn’t take many pictures of Ana. I had models waiting for me on the set. Immediately I knew I had taken a special portrait.

ana sophia scheller for discount dance supply

That photograph changed me. My life then was about shooting in the studio with professional lights or working outdoors in daylight. I hadn’t considered using daylight indoors. There never seemed to be enough light and renting a daylight studio with big windows was cost prohibitive. Only then did I realize the light coming through the windows of my apartment was beautiful. An apartment I had lived in for thirty years. I needed to find a way to make that light work.

ana sophia scheller. first portrait using daylight indoors

It took me a year to figure it out. My photography since that time has never been the same or as good. The daylight gave me freedom. Charlie said I should write an essay for my blog about the Ana Sophia portrait. I thought that was a great idea but I decided the essay needed to be about more than that. So here it is… a story about the shoots and photographs that have changed the way I think, taken since that day I noticed the shaft of daylight in Jack’s studio.

Naomi Rusalka was the model who changed the future of my photography. I’ve written about her before. Not only do my daylight photographs begin with her but the basis of two of my major portrait projects begin with Naomi. Naomi and I met earlier when she modeled for a Baltogs Dancewear catalog but our first two personal shoots were on December 1st and 3rd, 2010. Natalie was a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t yet begun to work on a portfolio of nudes. I don’t know why I asked Naomi. She was free and natural. Everything she was in front of the camera I was unexpected. I followed her lead. Naomi taught me to be spontaneous. She began to release me from my own fears.

naomi rusalka. the portrait that inspired the "reflection" series

My REFLECTION project began during our first shoot. We had been working for hours using a studio setup. Naomi needed a makeup touch-up. I followed her into my bedroom to the full length mirror. Something struck me about how the light in the room wrapped around her face and body, especially in the reflection. The way Natalie appeared in the reflection seemed like a different person. A twin but with different emotions. What I thought might be a few fun snapshots turned into something real. Later I went out and bought mirrors I could carry to different locations. Almost eight years later the project is still evolving. This past July, six of my REFLECTION portraits were exhibited at Foley Gallery.

naomi rusalka. the first "intimate" portrait

Two days later Naomi and I shot again. Years ago I learned that when I find a special muse I must photograph her a second time as quickly as possible. No matter how good the first shoot turns out it still feels purely professional. The second shoot is always more than that. It solidifies the relationship. The muse and I pick up where the first shoot left off. The second shoot feels more like friends creating art together and less a model-photographer event. That comfort shows in the photographs. It feels easier keeping in touch and working with a friend.

naomi rusalka. the first daylight portrait using my couch as the background

I didn’t set up a background during the second day. I used one small studio light to balance the daylight. Everything became more natural. Naomi wore little makeup. It was the first shoot where my couch became the background. There was an intimacy my portraits never had before. The contact between the two of us felt incredibly strong. The Intimate Portrait Project was still over two years away but the first real portrait in the series was taken on that day. I just didn’t know it yet. As an artist Naomi was emotionally far ahead of me. Looking at the portraits now, they look as if I had taken them yesterday.

Erin Arbuckle straddled my two lives, the time when I made the transition from a commercial to fine art photographer. From the time where I had to control everything in my photographs to the time when my process became spontaneous, often not deciding on what images I hoped to create until the model walked in my front door.

erin arbuckle with alison cook beatty. "reflection" series

One of my first shoots of Erin included my main muse at the time, Alison Cook Beatty. I had accomplished over thirty portrait shoots with Alison and also photographed her dance company. The work with Alison was artistic-editorial and the goal was to make work for a commercial portfolio. One of my last shoots of Erin was with Lily Balogh, who was now the main muse. In a short time, I set up over thirty portrait sessions with Lily, also photographing her as a dancer with Ballet Next. My shoots with Lily were always about my art. They were about capturing raw emotion. During that year and a half I worked with Erin my life completely changed.

I first met Erin at Columbia University during a dress rehearsal for Columbia’s Dance Collective. I believe Erin was the artistic director of the event. I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to photograph this rehearsal but if memory serves me right, the main reason was because I wanted to meet Erin. We were already friends on Facebook and I thought she might be perfect as a future muse. It seems I was right.

Erin happened to be a friend of Zarina Stahnke, a dancer who I was photographing as much as possible. I met Zarina while auditioning dancers for a Discount Dance Supply catalog. We did a personal shoot during the audition, Zarina got the job, and was the client’s favorite model. I decided to include Zarina in my first shoot with Erin. Erin seemed so much older than a college student. It was more than her intelligence. Erin had stature and a positive air of self-assurance. Although I had already photographed Zarina many times, herself a strong personality, Erin dominated the shoot. Erin became the director, encouraging Zarina to be more open. She could have been Zarina’s older sister. I wonder if Erin, like Naomi, also helped me become more open with my art.

zarina stahnke painting erin arbuckle in my living room

My second shoot with Erin was a week later. I was three times her age but she felt like an equal. It was nice to photograph a new muse where I never had to hold back my own intelligence. As we worked together over the next eighteen months I felt we became real friends. Erin helped me through some difficult personal situations.

erin arbuckle in my living room studio. the first time using daylight.

During shoot #2 I set up a background with Erin but for the first time, not using my studio lights. The background was a piece of semi-sheer wide black fabric I had picked up at my favorite fabric warehouse in Venice Beach while working in Los Angeles. I set up the background in my living room, as close to the windows as possible, still giving me enough room to capture full length shots when necessary. The light for the portrait was a combination of daylight coming in the window, my plants’s gro-light mounted to the ceiling, and a couple of cheap fluorescent bulbs in an old movie light fixture used by my uncle in the 1960s. Erin can come off as a tough woman but she shared her sensuality and softer side with me during this shoot. Erin showed me how a simple natural pose – a model relaxed, can complete a dynamic photograph.

erin arbuckle and lily balogh. portraits while hanging out in the afternoon

My shoots with Erin over the next year were all over the place. As I said, she straddled my artistic transition. I hadn’t yet figured out what I was looking for in my images. We photographed indoors and out, partial nudes, and with mirrors. Through her patience with my process I finally found my direction.

At some point Erin no longer was interested in shooting with me. I don’t really know why. My work isn’t for everyone. At the end of our time together I was photographing dancers but not dance. My photography was definitely heading in the direction of fine art portraits. Erin had began dancing again. I think our needs no longer matched. It made me sad but I understood.

alida delaney in central park. still one of my favorite pictures ever

Alida Delaney contacted me on Facebook. The message is still out there somewhere in the Facebook archives. She read in my online journal that I sometimes photograph models who reached out to me. I took a look at her Facebook page and there was nothing about the pictures that made me want to photograph her. It’s not that she wasn’t beautiful – she didn’t embody the emotional state I look for in a muse. Still, there was something about her message that intrigued me. There was a strength and sincerity in her words. I think it was late at night. I messaged Alida and asked her to take a quick selfie – no preparation – just how she was at that moment. I quickly received a messy hair, no makeup, ready for bed portrait. There was a serenity to the portrait that was special. I knew I needed to learn what was inside her head.

alida delaney. the start of the "intimate portrait project"

I met Alida and her roommate for a night shoot in Central Park. The second I saw Alida I knew her Facebook page did not represent who she really was. I had asked Alida to bring her roommate to the shoot. On Facebook, Alida always looked best when Rebecca was with her in a photograph. As it turned out I made a mistake. Rebecca was amazing but the personalities of the two women did not mix well together in my images. Alida dominated the shoot. It was unexpected.

alida delaney. after years of digital, experimenting with film

It didn’t matter. Two days later Alida and I got together again. Same time at night. Same location in Central Park. This time both of us were better prepared. In some ways it was a surreal experience. Central Park can be very quiet at night. We were alone in the tunnel beneath 72nd Street. There wasn’t much light. Alida’s skin glowed in the darkness. It’s one of the things I love most about working with Alida. Her skin! When I want to set up a shoot I send Alida a text, “I need your skin!” Obviously we’ve become friends. It’s not a text I could sent to any muse. Alida gets it.

alida delaney. recent portrait for the "modigliani" series. new art. new friendship

Alida and I have worked together for almost six years. She was instrumental in helping me develop the Intimate Portrait Project. I call her Intimate Muse #1. I have photographed Alida more than anyone else during this time. It’s rare a photographer-model relationship lasts this long. It’s because the two of us are about more than photographs. We are truly friends.

On July 28, 2014, Elise Ritzel became Intimate Muse #14. I do need to keep better notes in the future because I can’t remember exactly how we met. I’m guessing I first photographed Elise at a Current Sessions dress rehearsal. She later came over to look at the photographs. I realized when I saw her in my apartment she could be an amazing muse. Two weeks later she was.

elise ritzel for the "intimate portrait project." this is a photograph i will love forever

We photographed three times together over the next several months. I was searching for a purpose with the Intimate Portrait Project. It was still all about the eyes – closeups of a face. Elise brought something different to the project. She used her hands and arms to shape her face, adding an additional element – giving more emotion to the photographs. I began to pull the camera away from the face, capturing more of the body. It opened up new possibilities. I had more shapes to work with. I learned to incorporate the dancer’s physical knowledge and experience into the photographs.

I don’t know why Elise and I stopped shooting together. Sometimes the muse gets busy and doesn’t have time to take photographs for the sake of art. Mostly the process has run it’s course. Rarely do I want to stop working with a muse but I can see how after a few shoots the model no longer has anything to gain by having more of my pictures on their hard drive. I’m sure on occasion the intimacy of the portrait sessions is a place they no longer wish to explore. I get that. There are certain muses I miss very much.

peiju chien-pott. in a trance. "intimate portrait project"

A year later, on August 12, 2015, Natalie Deryn Johnson became Intimate Muse #43. I was still struggling with my vision. My commercial work was deemed to artistic. My fine art photography often seen as too commercial. Despite feeling like my photography didn’t fit anywhere, the direction and process for the Intimate Portrait Project was finally coalescing around a single viewpoint. Many of the Intimate muses were saying the shoots felt like emotional therapy. While shooting there had become a closer connection between me and the muses. I still photograph many of the models from that period of time. There were two in particular who elevated the project to a new place. Peiju Chien-Pott was so relaxed during our shoot I thought she had gone into a trance. I actually stopped shooting to make sure she was okay! Austin Sora taught me not to fear the physicality of the sessions. That it was okay to let the weight of my body rest on the muse while shooting. Austin said it is what helped her to relax. And then nine days later came Natalie.

austin sora. the beginnings of "intimate-passion-touch-trust." "intimate portrait project"

Natalie and I met on Facebook, got together for a discussion about dance at my apartment, instantly becoming friends and photographer-muse at the same time. I’ve had friends who became muses and muses who became friends, but in my entire photographic life it had never before happened simultaneously.

With the exception of Alida Intimate Muse #1, I have done more Intimate Portrait shoots with Natalie than anyone else. Natalie was probably the first muse to use the Intimate shoots as a way to expel her demons. The Intimate shoots can have an intense warmth between the model and photographer. Hugs are a necessity. There is the freedom for the muse to completely be herself. No makeup necessary. I have no expectations. All I need is to capture a person’s raw honest beauty. That comes from the inside. The trust is extreme. I’m often told personal stories no one else in the world knows. I consider that an honor. I’ve become a better person due to the muses. They have all elevated my spirit.

natalie deryn johnson. one of my favorite pictures from the "intimate portrait project"

Natalie can feel like a wild animal during the shoots. Until recently, no muse consistently let go emotionally as much as her. I often lose control over our shoots. Natalie is in her own world. Whatever images I had hoped to capture never happen. I allow her the freedom to let go – pictures be damned. Isn’t that what friendship is all about.

natalie deryn johnson. variations for the "modigliani" series

When a photographer works enough with a person as photogenic and artistic as Natalie, great pictures are bound to happen despite the artistic chaos. We’ve shot together for the Intimate Portrait Project a dozen times. Often it is more about therapy and our relationship as special friends. Natalie, like many of the other muses, finds my apartment a zone of safety – the plants, the cats, the jasmine tea, and of course my homemade tomato-veggie sauce. Despite the fact we’ve taken tens of thousands of images for the Intimate Portrait Project, my two favorite photographs of Natalie are not from that portfolio. The first is from my “Modigliani” series. The second, and probably the one I consider one of my all-time favorite photographs, is not from any project at all.

Whenever possible, I like to feed the muses. The Intimate Portrait sessions are exhausting. They can go on non-stop for hours. When the shoot is finished we’re both starving. I make sure to have a full refrigerator of homemade specialities including hummus, tomato-veggie sauce, pesto, strawberry jam, along with a selection of cheese and crackers. One afternoon, Natalie happened to be in my neighborhood, stopping by for tea and a taste of those snacks. We sat and talked at my dining room table. I couldn’t take my eyes off Natalie’s face. There was something about the way the dining room ceiling light flowed over her. I asked Natalie to take off her top. This is my life. She kind of laughed, knowing I must be seeing something special to interrupt our meal.

natalie deryn johnson. "reflection" series

It was something special. Maybe it was Natalie’s mood. Maybe we were more relaxed – this shoot was only for fun – whether we got any good pictures really didn’t matter. After a few minutes I was well past the “just for fun” phase. Scrolling through the pictures on my monitor, I can see the point where I began getting serious, focusing on my composition, pushing Natalie to concentrate on her poses and emotion. Her thought process in these images feels deeper than any of our other shoots. I wonder what I said to draw that out.

natalie deryn johnson. i will always love this photograph.

This is when that all-time favorite photograph happened. It is one of my iconic portraits. I have a 5″x7″ print in an antique frame sitting on a bookshelf in my bedroom. The mood is pensive, not chaotic – the mood typical during most of our shoots. It is one of the few photographs I’ve taken where Natalie appears calm. The pose reminds me of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother, taken in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration. Although the pose of the women in the vintage photograph appears natural, I read she deliberately posed in that manner to appear lost and in need. I had thought Natalie’s pose was natural, dream-like and searching, in need, looking for something she desires but can not have. Maybe it was a deliberate pose? Ultimately, I don’t care. The photograph looks natural, possibly taken outdoors in strong but diffused sunlight. This is what I love about photography. Each photographer has his own perception of the world. What I see will through the viewfinder will always represent my vision. Nothing is ever what it seems.


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

07/15/18: caterina rago

It took me some time to remember when I first noticed Caterina Rago. Whenever I thought about it I would see the face of my friend Fanny Gombert. What was the connection? Likely Graham. But when and where?

fanny gombert in riverside park

There is nothing like the internet when researching connections. Fanny and Caterina danced together in 2012 during a Martha Graham collaboration with Antonio Calenda, performing in his The Bacchae at the Teatro Greco in Siragusa, Italy. The dancers in the photographs from the piece look stunning. No wonder I remembered Caterina’s name. I wish I had been in Italy to photograph the performance.

A few months ago, I made the decision to stop photographing dance – dress rehearsals and performances – anything in a theater. I won’t get into here but for many reasons shooting dancers on the stage was no longer working for me. I remember decades ago, Lois Greenfield storming out of the Joyce Theater after some dress rehearsal saying she would never photograph like that again. I can’t remember what brought on her displeasure but I do know I agreed. At that time photographing dance was still fresh enough in my career where I was able to put up with the unfriendly idiosyncrasies often involved with photographing dance in a theater. I also photographed other subjects along with dance, portraits, bodybuilders, and wasn’t constantly battered by the theater rules that made working as a professional difficult.

Fast forward to the present. Photographing performance dance no longer is artistically fulfilling. It’s not that there aren’t great choreographers and amazing dancers. The problem is the companies no longer allow me (or anyone) to photograph their dances in a manner where I can create photographs with any artistic value. Many of the dance companies have taken away the small amount of freedom I once had that allowed me to create personal images. In the 1980s I did several exhibitions in New York City featuring my dance photography. Today, New York gallery owners immediately dismiss your work if you mention showing dance photography in a gallery.

a photograph from my solo exhibition at dance theatre workshop. francine landes dancing for diane mcpherson

Sadly I have to agree with the galleries. It’s not that the photographs aren’t beautiful. But they are rarely art. Shooting dance now I’m reduced to the role of a journalist, basically copying what I see on the stage, none of my own soul becoming part of the images. My vision is integral to my photography. Dance companies rarely allow me to photograph with that vision. It is all about controlling their image on social media, even when that control invites boredom. Dance companies wonder why audiences are shrinking? Why coverage in magazines and newspapers, print and online, is all but gone? Dance is exciting, motivating, inspirational – but most often the imagery used to promote the art of dance is not. What was great in the 1980s no longer works today.

Dance is the most beautiful subject on earth to capture with a camera. That’s what I believe. When I began photographing dance in the early 1980s there weren’t so many rules. The photographers were treated with great respect by the dance companies – as equal artists. Now, partially due to digital photography, people who photograph performance dance are often treated at best as a necessary nuisance. I can live with working for free but then at least let me take great photographs. It seems the dance companies believe anyone with a camera can take a photograph that’s “good enough.” Do you want to know if I’m upset? Yes I am! I once had something beautiful and it has been taken from me. Whatever happened to artistic freedom?

dress rehearsal of twyla tharp's "nine sinatra songs" at the rainbow room

Maybe I’m being delusional? Maybe in the 1980s and 1990s I had been lucky? Possibly I’m spoiled? I do know during my shoots at The Dance Theater Workshop no one ever told me where to stand or what pictures to take. When working with Twyla Tharp on the BBC’s production of her great work, The Catherine Wheel, I was treated as an artist equal to the dancers and film crew. I photographed the American Ballet Theatre during the entire ten years Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director of the company. I was given a stage pass to the Metropolitan Opera House. I could walk into the theater whenever I wished, photographing from backstage any performance that inspired me. That is respect. That is artistic freedom. I knew what I had was special and I gave back everything in return.

jessica sgambelluri for the intimate portrait project

Last month I noticed Caterina Rago was performing in the Graham Theater at Westbeth. Despite my decision not to take any more stage photographs I do have a thing for dance companies led by Graham-trained dancers. More important, Jessica Sgambelluri, my muse and good friend was dancing with the company. It makes me happy just being in Jessica’s presence. I emailed Caterina about photographing the company. Her positive response was immediate – excited I wanted to shoot. The tone of her email made me feel good about working together. Just talking to her reminded me of the love I had for photographing dancers in the theater. I promised to photograph both the tech and dress rehearsals.

raphaelle kessedjian dancing with martha graham at summerstage

I was looking forward to the shoots. I hadn’t seen Jessica in a while and it’s always something special when I can photograph one of my Intimate Portrait Project muses as a dancer. I had previously photographed three of the other dancers when they performed with other companies – Lissa Smith with Yin Yue Dance, Raphaelle Kessedjian with Martha Graham and Jackie Rea with Graham II. I couldn’t wait to have these dancers in front of my camera again.

I’ve shot at Westbeth a lot. I’m comfortable in that space. I can be close to the dancers while shooting. I got to the theater learning I would be the only photographer at the rehearsal. I was surprised but happy. I love shooting dance alone – no other photographers to distract me. I’m always early to a rehearsal. I need time to meditate before a dance shoot, calming myself, slowing time so when the dancers are flying around the stage I can see them moving in slow motion. I don’t know how I would otherwise be able to capture their emotions. Photographing the steps is difficult enough. I need intensity in my images. I need to make the dancers look like the gods they are.

breton tyner-bryan with abdiel cedric jacobsen

I arrived at Westbeth an hour early. I dropped off my camera bags in the theater and wandered off to see if anything interesting was happening in the small studio. I opened the door expecting to find Caterina and her dancers, but instead walked into Breton Tyner-Bryan’s rehearsal. I was a bit embarrassed. I got a great hug from Breton, apologized, and headed back into the theater. Realizing I should have stayed, I grabbed one of my cameras and headed back to Breton’s rehearsal. Breton was happy I wanted to shoot. Me too. I love my life.

jessica sgambelluri. caterina rago dance

After Breton’s rehearsal I returned to the theater and waited for the dancers to appear. I warm up with the dancers, they with their bodies and me with my eyes. Jessica was deep in thought, working out the movement for what I later realize is an amazing solo in one of the dances. Other dancers arrive and move on to the stage. These women have passion. I mentally prepare myself. Something great is going to happen right in front of me and I need to be ready.

raphaelle kessedjian. caterina rago dance

I’m mesmerized by Raphaelle Kessedjian. She looked familiar when she came on to the stage. It was only a few weeks later I realized I had photographed her dancing with Martha Graham during a performance at Summerstage. Everything about Raphaelle is beautiful. Now that I’ve also photographed her for my Intimate Portrait Project I realize the complexity of her artistic process. Raphaelle is complicated, emotional, and intense. The perfect muse.

caterina rago rehearsing "labir into"

I usually photograph tech rehearsals in black and white and working with Caterina Rago was no different. If I’m shooting both a company’s tech and dress rehearsals I consider the images I take during the tech “just for me.” Only my art is important. I do more close-ups. Fortunately the dance companies I work with like those photographs, if not for press use at least for social media. I prefer images with no costumes or background detail. I don’t want any distractions. My favorite dance is Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Pointe shoes and black leotards. Blank background. It’s all about the choreography and the dancers. I get a lot of that in tech rehearsals. It’s what I like.

tech rehearsal of caterina rago's "labir into"

I did a lot of running around the stage during Caterina’s rehearsal. I crept up on to the stage floor several times. No one seemed to mind. I was in my element. Just me and the dancers. I loved them all. While shooting I had visions of the dancers, all posing for my Intimate Portrait Project. But something was different in this vision. The images in my head didn’t match what had come before. At that moment I was too busy to see the future. I knew I needed the dancers posing close together but how? I did feel their emotions but I couldn’t envision the space.

caitlin trainor and dancers for the intimate portrait project

It is something I’ve done before – group intimate portraits – two times with Caitlin Trainor and her dancers. It was an amazing process, having so many people to work with at one time. I would begin with one dancer, adding other models to the photograph when the timing felt right. The shoots had a wonderful flow. The dancers not being photographed waited in the next room. They could see the shoot happening but were far enough away not to emotionally interfere. The difference between what I had done with the Trainor dancers and what I was imagining with the Rago dancers was important. With Caterina Rago, no one would ever leave the room.

rosalia panepinto in caterina rago's "labir into"

I can’t remember much about the second night, photographing the dress rehearsal, except that it was exhausting. Westbeth’s theater is a great space to shoot for the photographer who wants to move with the dancers during the rehearsal. I did move around. I ran across the front of the stage, keeping up with the movement of the dancers. I crawled along the ground to get better angles. I know I got too close. At some point I was deep enough on to the stage to change the choreography. I didn’t see the dancer fly by. I only felt her breeze and the touch of a costume as it billowed against my legs. It reminded me of why I first decided to photograph dance – passion, intimacy, touch, and muses on the stage. I needed to get closer to Caterina and her dancers. I needed the Intimate Portrait shoot.

some pictures on my wall

I asked Caterina to stop by my apartment to pick up the disks with the rehearsal photographs. I wanted to spend time with her before explaining the process of my Intimate Portrait Project. The walls of my apartment are covered with photographs from my various projects. Often these prints better explain what my work is about than my words ever can.

We looked at pictures, drank tea, and talked for over an hour. It felt like we could chat forever. Instant friends. That usually happens after a shoot, when the muse and I relax, winding down from the emotional intensity of an Intimate Portrait session.

jackie rea, caterina rago, and raphaelle kessedjian for the intimate portrait project

We talked about the process of shooting for my Intimate portraits. Caterina’s openness surprised me. We had already passed the barrier of trust. Caterina is special in a way I can’t yet explain. I think she might deliberately, maybe subconsciously, hide some of her best qualities. There is real goodness in her soul. We agreed to set up a group portrait session. The only question now was who would be available?

Not long afterwards, I received a text from Caterina. The shoot was on. It would be her, Jackie Rea, and Raphaelle Kessedjian. I was excited to photograph these three women together. They were all filled with so much passion. I hoped I would be able to capture that in the portraits.

caterina rago. intimate portrait project

I was nervous the morning before the shoot. Raphaelle seemed concerned about the nudity. We emailed back and forth the morning before the shoot. I was afraid she would decide not to participate. After a few emails it all seemed okay but it wasn’t what I had expected. Normally when I do a group Intimate Portrait shoot I always make sure I have already worked with at least one or two of the muses in the group. They already know what to expect and subconsciously guide the other models through the early part of the session, the time when a new model is working to understand and feel comfortable with how my process works. For those who don’t know about the Intimate Portrait Project, there is a physical connection between me and the model during much of the shoot. According to our modern American society that is not normal. Touch between friends is forbidden. Society has it wrong. We have mostly forgotten the ability to share warmth and trust with our friends. My Intimate shoots try to break through that barrier and can at first feel like an emotional assault on one’s mind.

jackie rea. intimate portrait project

I hadn’t worked with either of these three women except as dancers on a stage. For whatever reason I had hoped Raphaelle would be the pillar the other two would use for emotional strength and confidence. It wasn’t going to be that way. I began the shoot with Caterina. She is fearless. I was not. It’s up to me to bring out the soul of the person in front of my camera and take it to a place of peace. If I wasn’t feeling centered how could they be? Caterina tried too hard at first. That’s a natural reaction to any shoot. I was trying too hard too! That isn’t normal. I had to find a way to settle myself and the models. Often all it’s takes is patience and time.

raphaelle kessedjian. the 100th muse for the intimate portrait project

I added Jackie to the shoot and then photographed her alone. My connection with her was the strongest and I began to settle down. I brought Raphaelle into the frame with Jackie and finally began to see the photographs form before me. I worked with Raphaelle alone. I struggled to break through to her while at the same time sensing everything about Raphaelle that makes her extraordinary and special. Patience. There can always be another shoot.

caterina rago and jackie rea. intimate portrait project

As I took a short break, I looked at the three women spread out across the room. There was a strength in them together. There was something about how they filled the room. I began to photograph the three women in more of an environmental portrait manner. They appeared comfortable in my space. In some ways it felt like we were all encased together in one of natures wombs. Some timeless place. That might seem strange when imagining a New York City space. To understand you will have to visit my apartment.

jackie rea, caterina rago, and raphaelle kessedjian in my apartment. intimate portrait project

I continued to photograph the women individually but it always came back to working with all three together. This made me see the Intimate portraits in a new light. They had always been about the physical proximity between model, photographer, and camera. Possibly after photographing my 100th muse for the project (Raphaelle), the images could now retain the emotional intimacy without the physical touch. Maybe now I could take the Intimate Portrait Project somewhere new.

But not yet. Caterina stopped by my apartment two weeks later to pick up the photographs from the Intimate shoot. Whenever possible, I turn these visits into a semi-spontaneous short photo adventure, hoping the lack of planning on both sides will lead to something unexpected.

caterina rago. intimate portrait project

We began shooting. Caterina was in a different emotional space this time. More relaxed. Unafraid instead of fierce. Her entire body looked and felt different. There was a softness to her that wasn’t apparent two weeks ago. I wanted to spend part of the shoot working with mirrors and grabbed a broken piece from my bag of shards. We sat together on my couch, the sides of our faces pressed together, arms partially wrapped around each others’ bodies. The body positions necessary to get the proper reflection and keep the camera out of the picture. As I watched Caterina’s reflection, her face appeared to melt into mine. At times I couldn’t tell if she was awake or lost in deep meditation. We spoke but I can’t remember making any sound. The physical closeness felt good. On occasion I would lose my bearing, struggling to maintain the camera’s composition and focus. Caterina pulled me into her meditation. It felt like I had entered her dream.

caterina sharing her dream. intimate portrait project

I’ve done more than 250 Intimate Portrait shoots but this was the first time something like that had happened. The muses have gone into different states of consciousness during a shoot but it had never been shared with me. I was always jealous and wondered what that place felt like. I think back now and wonder if the experience really happened. I look at Caterina’s face in the photographs and know it is true.

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

06/27/18: reflection

Most of my photographic projects come to me in daydreams. It can be while wandering the streets of New York, sitting at a dance concert, eating dinner, or retouching my images on Photoshop. Something I see or hear stimulates my brain – visions of photographs and conversations appear in my head.

naomi at my bedroom mirror

My series of photographs with mirrors did not begin that way. Seven years ago while working my one of my favorite muses, Naomi Rusalka, I wandered into my bedroom where she was touching up her makeup using the full-length mirror on my closet door. I had recently discovered the beautiful daylight in my apartment and the light bouncing off the mirror into Naomi’s face was beautiful. I ran back into the living room and grabbed my camera, intending only to take a few snapshots. Instead, it turned into an hour long portrait session. There was something about the light on Naomi’s reflection. It didn’t appear to match the light on Naomi. Neither did the expression. The angles appeared impossible. It felt as if I was photographing twins. I realized I needed to find mirrors I could take wherever I photographed.

I bought mirrors at Home Depot – squares made to panel hallways or bathrooms and long vertical mirrors similar to the one on my closet door. I found an small rectangular mirror I had used in the 1980s… for what I won’t say. I broke mirrors to get different shapes. I probably have 100 years of bad luck waiting in my future. I shot with the mirrors in my apartment, on the rooftop, in Central Park – wherever I went I always carried a mirror.

allyson in central park

Early on the mirrors were almost always an integral part of the photograph. The portraits were a combination of the model, in what I called “real life,” along with her doppelganger in the reflection. Often the “twin” in the reflection appeared to take on their own personality. A mirror changes the emotion of a photograph. The model is no longer looking directly into the camera. She sees only it’s reflection. The perception of the session changes. The model feels more alone. The photographer’s presence diminishes. The model connects more with the reflection than the person behind the camera.

In January, I began participation in Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab. It is a series of small group seminars with the purpose of helping the member photographers develop a personal project, the result being a group exhibition at Foley Gallery five months later. I applied with my BLUE FILM series but after the first seminar my instinct was to move forward with something else. After a hiatus of several years I had begun shooting with mirrors again, during my Intimate Portrait sessions and felt this series might work better for the ExLab. Something about the intimacy of my recent shoots was changing the appearance of the mirror portraits and I thought the ExLab seminars might be an opportunity to develop my new ideas.

alyssa forte for the blue film series

Physical touch during my shoots began with the early mirror portraits. I often need to be pressed up against the model to get the proper angle with the reflection and to keep myself out of the mirror. Feeling the model breathe while we photographed helped me understand their emotion. The warm of touch appeared to relax the model. The Intimate Portrait Project came out of this shared experience.


100 muses later it’s difficult to explain the intimacy of my portraits. I’m not exactly ready to share the experience. I hoped what I was capturing for the Intimate series could be extended to my work with mirrors. The touch was no longer incidental but deliberate. My relationship with the muses has changed. During the shoots it feels as if we are one person with one mind.

The recent mirror portraits, for the series I now call Reflection, is a reflection of our shared intimacy. Often are bodies are intertwined while shooting. I can’t figure out what is going on in the mirror. Where are bodies are. Where I am in relation to the model and mirror. We do move and breathe as one. We share our warmth. The shoots are technically and emotional exhausting. I see the model’s face – they seem to inhabit another dimension outside the of reality. The photographs do not seem possible.

caterina rago. shared dreams

Could I have gone to this place without my participation in the Exhibition Lab? I honestly have no idea though I doubt I would have considered an attempt to find this place. My perception of photographs, my own and those of others, has changed. The most recent mirror shoot, a portrait session with Caterina Rago, was taken after my photographs were printed and framed for the exhibition. It’s too bad. This was the shoot where I finally got it. Caterina and I shared a lucid dream and I captured that emotion in her photographs. At the final seminar Michael Foley asked me if planned on continuing the mirror series. I wasn’t sure at the time and didn’t know how to answer. After Caterina’s shoot there’s no question there is more to discover. Her shoot was like a drug. I’m addicted to that emotion and I need more.

Following are the six photographs that will appear in the Exhibition Lab group show at Foley Gallery. As I finish this essay the opening is less than six hours away.

alida in soho

1. Alida Delaney in Soho. January 19, 2013

Alida and I were wandering around Soho one night after dinner. This was early in our friendship and collaboration. We had met 10 days earlier but it was already our third shoot together. While walking, we would stop for a portrait in some dark doorway, laughing at the people walking by who gave us a glance, I assume wondering what we were hiding. Alida and I had become close quickly. She had the exact personality and look I needed in a muse. More important, she inherently understood, possibly more than me, what was necessary to make the photographs special.

This photograph was early in my Reflection series. At that time it was an undeveloped portfolio. I was trying different styles while shooting. Variations in light and composition – mirrors of various shapes and sizes. I always carried a mirror in my backpack… just in case. As we crossed a particularly dark Soho street I turned towards Alida and saw the lights. We stopped in the middle of the street and I pulled out my mirror. It was almost to dark to see, only made worse by the car headlights passing by. We shot in the middle of the cobblestone street until the cars were almost upon us. I’d yell to Alida to get out of the way. We’d run back to the sidewalk, giggling like two young children who have been told by their parents hundreds of times not to play in the street but who couldn’t help themselves from testing the danger.

I have always loved this photograph but didn’t know what it meant to me until Michael Foley pointed out the print during one of the Exhibition Lab seminars. It was an image that struck him. His comments started me on a new path with the series — only now my life is very different than it was at the time the photograph was taken. The intimacy Alida and I had that night in Soho later became the basis of a new series named the Intimate Portrait Project. For the Exhibition Lab portfolio I decided I had to find a way to capture that level of intimacy in a reflection.

zhongjing at le pain quotidien

2. Zhongjing Fang at Le Pan Quotidien. July 24, 2014

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember exactly how I found Zhongjing Fang. Maybe she found me? Possibly I saw something about her on Facebook that intrigued me? No matter. All I remember is wherever I found her it was immediately apparent I needed to take her portrait. I do know for sure this portrait is the first time we met. Sometimes I feel it’s best if the first time I meet a future muse it happens outside my apartment, in an environment I do not control. Possibly I feel it is safer? Possibly it gives me an easy way out if I don’t think a future shoot will work out? One thing I do know is I was amazed by Zhongjing the second we met. By this time the Reflection series had become not only about capturing the soul of the model within the reflection, but also about the surrounding environment.

I chose my local Le Pain Quotidien for our first meeting. I had shot there many times and knew the beauty of the afternoon light. Of course I didn’t tell Zhongjing our meeting would also include a shoot. I’ve learned these photographs work best if the model does not have time to emotionally prepare – or get nervous.

Along with dancing for the American Ballet Theatre, Zhongjing is a multi-talented artist. I featured her photographs in the fifth issue of VISION magazine, an art journal I produce when I have free time. Zhongjing’s artistic sensibility understood immediately what I was looking for in the portraits. She is a true talent.

veronica in central park

3. Veronica Zhai in Central Park. November 24, 2017

I do remember with absolute certainty the moment I met Veronica. It was during an after-party at Caitlin Trainor’s apartment. During a shoot I can appear to be one of the most social people on the planet. That is only one side of my personality. At parties I where I don’t know most of the guests I am uncomfortable. I hide by myself in some corner of the room. Veronica, who helped Caitlin with that evening’s dance performance, found me in one of those corners. We spoke for a long time and became instant friends.

Originally I didn’t see Veronica as a future muse but as we spent more time together it became obvious she wanted to become part of my Intimate Portrait Project. We both needed to enter that emotional space if our friendship was to grow. Photographing friends is much more difficult than photographing a stranger, especially for shoots like mine that are both physically and emotionally intimate. My shoots involve touch. It feels easier to touch a stranger than a friend. Friendship has boundaries and my shoots break through those barriers. Through out shoots together Veronica and I both learned that those barriers are a false construct of society. Friends need to hug and touch. It is good for the soul.

My shoots with Veronica are an integral part of our friendship. She’ll come over for dinner and we’ll talk for hours. Sitting together I’ll see something in her that needs to be captured. Veronica understands and makes the necessary shift from friend to muse. This photograph was taken during a late night walk in Central Park. We knew the night was about work for my Reflection series but the emotion in her face is all about the bond of our friendship.

shirley in my living room

4. Shirley Dai in my living room. February 24, 2018

I fell in love with Shirley the instant we met. It was a party at Veronica Zhai’s apartment. I noticed Shirley immediately. She appeared incredibly strong. When we finally came together and talked it was as if the rest of the world disappeared. We were in a crowded apartment but all I can remember is Shirley’s voice and face. Everything else has been removed from my memory. I was standing before a beautiful earth goddess. Yes, Shirley is a physical beauty but that’s not what I mean. Shirley is an emotional beauty. I felt so much love and goodness emanating from her body. A friend of mine believes we are all surrounded by our own personal electric aura. I’m not sure what I believe but I felt Shirley’s electricity and it was all good. She calmed me.

The first time we photographed together was for my Intimate Portrait Project. I had stopped doing portraits with mirrors at that time. The Intimate series had taken over my life though it had not yet developed the emotional or physical intensity found in the shoots I do today. It would be safe to say they were more “professional” and less about developing a special bond between the model and photographer. Shirley had no barriers. She allowed me to work solely as an artist. I didn’t have to worry if she felt safe. Shirley was open and natural, giving up everything for my art.

This photograph is from our second shoot together. It was over a year later and part of a group Intimate shoot for the Trainor Dance Company. Despite the fact there were other people in the next room, chatting, eating my homemade hummus and pesto, on occasion watching us work together — I still felt the intimacy I had with Shirley the night we first met. Again it was her electricity. She enveloped me in her protective bubble. I couldn’t see or hear anything but her. Shirley bared her soul in the mirror and gave me everything.

alida in my dining room

5. Alida Delaney in my dining room. April 5, 2018

After a year or two where we rarely worked together, Alida and I began to collaborate again. It began when she asked me to photograph her headshot. That day a simple portrait shoot became a series of emotional portraits for both my Intimate and Reflection projects. I call Alida Intimate Muse #1. She was the first person I photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project. The original design and emotion of the photographs revolve around her. The Intimate Portrait shoots are difficult in so many ways. An entire book is necessary to tell the story of how Alida’s patience with my art helped me find the way.

I had been through several seminars with Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab and knew I would be soon hanging my work in his gallery. This is very special. I planned on showing six photographs from the Reflection series but still didn’t feel I had the right group to hang on the gallery wall. I believe Alida sensed my need and as with the Intimate Project, found a way to make sure I got the photographs I needed.

During the past five years I have photographed Alida more than anyone else. The fact we hadn’t worked together in a while didn’t matter. In some ways it is like a couple who broke up some time ago, only to begin a new friendship years later. There are things that have been shared that can never be lost. It is a language only the two of them understand. Alida and I did several shoots together for the exhibition. She gave me too many great photographs. The original selection for the show included three photographs of her. Only after the final seminar did I realize as much as I love Alida, she couldn’t be half of my presentation. I had to remove one image of her from the show. It hurt me but I know she will understand. I hope Alida realizes how much I appreciate her love and support.

kelly in my living room

6. Kelly Vaghenas in my living room. May 2, 2018

In some ways Kelly is my next Alida (Intimate Muse #1). Kelly is a muse who gives up so much for my art it embarrasses me to accept her treasured gift. If I stated Kelly is the nicest person I’ve ever met it’s likely I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know how a person like her can exist. Kelly contacted me last fall. She is friends with another dancer who told her I might be looking for new models. That is always true. I’m constantly looking for people who will inspire my art. There is a funny thing about many of the women who contact me, asking to collaborate on my personal projects. I look at the pictures they send and never want to photograph them. It was that way with Alida and a few others who became my favorite muses. The second they sit before my camera they all prove my initial instincts wrong. I now understand and always agree to work with each of them. In every case it is their words that tell me I must take their photograph. These future muses – they all have a story to tell. There is something sincere and honest in their voices. It took me a few months to get back to Kelly but I knew we would do special work together.

I was already part of Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab the first time I photographed Kelly. She has always been part of the my work for the exhibitioin. Initially I thought I would work on my BLUE Film series for the ExLab but things didn’t work out as planned. After the first seminar I changed paths and decided the Reflection series better suited the design of the workshop. I’ll never really know if it was the right decision but I am incredibly happy about where the process led. This portrait is from my last shoot before Michael Foley and I chose which images would appear on the walls of his gallery. I don’t always know when a shoot is a success but when Kelley and I took this picture I knew it would hang in the exhibition. I love the photograph because Kelly looks like how the shoot felt.

the photograph of alida i love that couldn't be in the exhibition

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

04/17/18: blue

blue film series

blue film series

I now understand writer’s block. I put a few sentences down on paper and then can’t move forward. I’ve only written 3 essays during the past year and finished nothing in months. On the other hand, it’s been a fruitful year for creating photographs, new projects and old projects revisited. My work has appeared in several group exhibitions across the country and the mirror-portrait series will be part of a group show at Foley Gallery in July. My Intimate Portrait Project has morphed into something more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. There are several new, very special muses. Several of the past muses have reappeared, once again becoming part of my photographic life. If I can only get my thoughts on to paper everything will be great.

pratya studying my mirror series at foley gallery

I’m not sure why my BLUE series began but I do know how it happened. During the past few years I had begun shooting a roll or two of film, using either my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad cameras. I have owned both cameras fo a many years. Even before digital they were retired from use decades ago. Sometime around 1972 my father bought the Rolleiflex from a freelance photographer who worked for the same company. My father paid $70 for the camera. I knew he’d never use it. Against his wishes it went with me to college. There’s no question it was happier in my hands. I used the Rolleiflex for some of my favorite photographs while working for Northwestern University’s yearbook and newspaper.

ron and beth's wedding. august, 1975. photographed with my rolleiflex

I bought the Hasselblad in the early 1980s while working as Gordon Munro’s darkroom manager. The camera model is from 1960. It was already old when I bought it though at that time in photography, used cameras were treasured and would last forever. The thing weighs half as much as a tank and never needs repair.

It wasn’t these cameras that inspired me to begin shooting film again. I began because of my vintage and antique camera collection. At one point I bought a No. 1 Pocket Kodak Series II camera at an antique store. The camera was built in the mid-to-late 1910s. When I took it out of the box it looked, smelled, and felt like it had never been used. The camera has a bellows and when I opened the body, the bellows made a soft crackling sound as if this was the first time the camera had been opened for use. My imagination had this camera sitting in a big wood storage box in a dusty attic for 100 years.

04/23/18: One Week Later
As Ronald Reagan so famously said during a 1980 presidential debate with then President Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.” Distractions. Writer’s block. Six days ago I began this essay, only to jot down a few paragraphs before life pulled me away. Hopefully I’ll do better this time.

some of my camera collection

My camera collection. I own over 250 vintage and antique cameras. I began collecting them on occasion while antiquing across the country. The old cameras are beautiful. I owned only a few until I discovered Ebay. This was during the website’s early days when you could still get a bargain. I went crazy. I had boxes coming to my apartment almost every day. I was surprised to find how many of the cameras worked.

my great-grandmother. probably 1920s. this picture could have been taken with my pocket folding camera

Often the cameras I bought used 120 film. Kodak first made this film in 1901 and it has been in use ever since. The negatives typically are 2.25″ x 2.25″, larger than the 35mm film most people know. Many of the older cameras took slightly larger images (2.25″ x 3.25″), resulting in 8 photographs on a roll of film instead of the twelve I get when using the Rolleiflex. When I look at my parents’ old photo albums, many of their pictures are contact prints of old negatives of this size. I began searching for cameras that took 120 film when adding to my collection. It was only a matter of time before I would rediscover film and try out a few of these purchases.

I don’t know why the first camera I used was a No. 2 Cartridge Hawk-Eye Model C. I imagine it was the first camera I pulled off my shelf that was both in working condition and used 120 film. This model Hawk-Eye was built in the late 1920s. It’s really nothing more than a cardboard box with a thin glass lens and a little metal lever to release the shutter. It couldn’t be any simpler to use. The Hawk-Eye was the point-and-shoot camera of it’s day.

Alison Cook Beatty was my main muse for several years. She made herself available for my art during an important time of experimentation when I was making my transition from commercial to fine-art photography. I have photographed Alison more times than anyone else. It’s only natural I would pull out a film camera for her. That was almost eight years ago, August 30, 2010.

alison cook beatty photographed with the cartridge hawk-eye in riverside park

At that point shooting film was something I did for fun and pulling out an old camera made the models feel more important. I have to admit. It did feel exciting using a camera that was old enough to have taken pictures of a Model-T Ford or bread lines during The Depression. Still, film was a side adventure. It was the digital images I considered important. I could see my digital images immediately in the back of the camera. The film, I developed whenever I had extra time. I never thought to photograph the film as it came out of the developing tank, ready to hang over the same bathtub where my film first hung to dry forty years ago. For decades I had no problem waiting for the negatives to dry. Now I scanned my negatives instead of making contact sheets in the darkroom. I could wait for them to dry.

oceane in central park with the pocket folding camera

I finally pulled out the Pocket Kodak Folding camera while working with Océane Hooks-Camilleri on a nice fall day in September 2013. It was our second shoot together. Océane had already become a muse. She was, is an extraordinary woman. I still miss working with her. We shot on my rooftop and in Central Park. I digitally photographed Océane holding the Pocket Kodak, wearing one of my vintage dresses. I then photographed her with the antique camera. The photographs we took look like they could have been taken the day the camera was first purchased, 100 years ago. We later shot one roll in my dining room after hanging out and sharing lunch. The shoot was “officially” over but I needed more from her. That roll is the first one I digitally captured, just after pulling the wet film out of the tank. I needed to see Océane’s film images right away. I got five frames in the capture and they’re all beautiful.

I developed my first roll of film at sixteen and tens of thousands of rolls since. In the past, in the days before digital, I always had to wait for the film to dry, cut it into strips, and make contact sheets before I could see the images on paper. Now I can photograph my film, still wet, the second it comes out of the tank. A few minutes later I can see the images big on my computer’s monitor. It is beautiful. Until recently I only saw this digital capture as a reference for images I might print or use on my website at a later date. It wasn’t art.

hannah weeks and emily pacilio for the intimate portrait project

As I moved away from shooting more typical portraits and as the Intimate Portrait Project developed into a strong emotional body of work, shooting film remained an afterthought. The Intimate Portraits work best in the 35mm horizontal format. The process of shooting hundreds, no thousands of images during each shoot became a necessary part of the intimacy. I play no music during the Intimate shoots. The room is silent except for the click of my shutter. The model and I both meditate to the rhythm of the clicks. The slow method of shooting film would never work.

katie mattar photographed with my rolleiflex... before blue

Sometimes during the Intimate shoots I saw something special that might work in the square format and pulled out my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad. The antique cameras are too difficult to use in the natural, low light situations that has become typical of these shoots. Anne O’Donnell, Katie Mattar, Zarina Stahnke and Hannah Weeks – I shot film during all of their portrait sessions. At that time, I would photograph only a part of each roll when hanging it to dry. I would take a few quick snapshots of four or five middle frames on the roll. If I though the film looked special I might try to capture a few extra images near the ends of the roll.

film hanging in the bathroom

Over time I began to study this digital capture of the wet film, not just a quick glance for fun, blowing up some of the single frames on the computer. The deterioration due to the wetness of the film was interesting and unexpected. This look added to the mood of the photographs. Each image had it’s own quality depending on the how fast the film began to dry of the film or the angle of the camera while copying the wet film. It was spontaneous. The images weren’t perfect. I had always strived for technical perfection in my photography. The wet film captures weren’t like that. It was good, pushing me to see in a new way.

caitlin trainor pregnant

I began posting the wet film images on Facebook. A shot of Caitlin Trainor pregnant went up first. Caitlin is one of my best friends. I photograph her both for my Intimate Project and with her dance company, Trainor Dance. It’s strange. I never consider Caitlin as one of my muses even though we have taken some amazing pictures together. I think it’s because our friendship is so strong. I imagine I feel the photographs we create are secondary to our special relationship.

I loved the way the pregnant photos of Caitlin turned out. They motivated me to take a few rolls of film at almost every shoot. I went back and looked at the film I had shot during the past year with a different eye. I had begun a new portrait series without realizing it.

Cheryl Esposito. I have been secretly in love with Cheryl Esposito since we first met at our friend Claudia Paul’s wedding years ago. I can’t say exactly what it was that attracted me to her but it certainly has to do with her energy, spontaneous joy, and endless warmth. I don’t know what took me so long but I finally asked Cheryl if she would pose for my Intimate Portrait Project. I expected her to graciously decline. The shoots are nude and both physically and emotionally intimate. Much to my surprise she immediately agreed.

cheryl esposito. the first blue film image

I don’t know what I expected from Cheryl. Her shoot was like a dream. It was the first time we had met since Claudia’s wedding yet we both felt like we were close friends. Cheryl is one of the few models I’ve photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project who’s not a dancer, yet she still moved with precision and grace. There was something different. Her movement didn’t feel as studied and surprisingly her physicality felt more natural. It seemed easier for Cheryl to let her emotions take over her entire body than it has for many of the dancers I work with.

cheryl esposito. blue film series

I couldn’t wait to develop Cheryl’s film. As it came out of the tank I photographed a few frames but this time I forgot to set the camera to monochrome (black and white), shooting the negatives for the first time in color. As I processed the files in my computer, inverting the negative strip to a positive image… there was the BLUE.

I had never seen my work look like this before. Fifty years of taking pictures and now something new. The results reminded me of cyanotypes, only better. I felt these images looked more natural. The skin of Cheryl’s body appeared to be absorbed into the blue film. She melted into the negative. I needed to see more.

caitlin trainor pregnant. blue film series

I went back to the film of Caitlin Trainor and reprocessed the digital files in color. Whoa! Magic happened. I reprocessed Whitney Johnson, Lindsey Miller, Can Wang, and Bronwyn Updike. The BLUE series had been staring me in the face for months. I was so excited just to shoot film I hadn’t noticed what was happening. The look of the blue film matched the emotions of the muses. I don’t have an explanation for it yet. It’s possible I never will. What is important is that the models and I both understand how the process works and we’re able to create new photographs, improving with every shoot.

bronwyn updike. blue film series

I became more aware of the progress while working with the two muses who I’ve worked with the longest. Alida Delaney and Juliet Doherty. I shot film of both women years ago, Juliet in Central Park using the 100 year old folding camera and Alida in my living room with the treasured Rolleiflex. During the past couple of weeks I photographed both women for the BLUE series, now using my Hasselblad. I always first shoot digitally until we’re comfortable. We take a break. I load the Hasselblad.

alida delaney. blue film meets the mirror series

These women know me. They know what I’m looking for in my photographs. There’s an excitement surrounding the BLUE portraits. Time appears to slow down when the film camera is in my hands. Digital photography is fast. Of the moment. Film photography returns to the past when immediacy wasn’t important. Focusing and composing are more difficult with the old cameras. I only have twelve exposures to get it right, not the thousands available on my digital memory cards. I pull the camera to my face, concentrate, and let the model know I’m ready. It’s not necessary for me to say anything. They’re prepared long before I’ve composed the shot.

juliet doherty. blue film meets the intimate portrait project

Click, Wind. Click. Wind. Refocus. “Turn a little to the left.” Focus. Click. Click. Click. “Hold the mirror higher.” Focus. Click. Click. Click. “Chin up. Not so much.” Focus. Click. Click. “Move an inch closer to me.” Focus. Click. Wind. Click. “Oh, we’re finished. That was wonderful. Twelve pictures goes by so fast.” We laugh. I pick up the digital camera an continue to shoot away. For a few moments I’m still thinking about the film. I can’t wait to develop it in my kitchen sink and get it out of the tank, water dripping on the bathroom floor. I now photograph each negative with the same care as if the woman on the film is alive, standing right in front of me.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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