Soon after moving to New York City, I thought shooting dance might be interesting. In 1977, I went to a studio on 23rd st. and 6th Ave., and in that era, well before people became scared of the internet, the owner let me in to shoot a few classes. Looking back at the photographs, it’s obvious there were some high quality dancers in that studio. But I knew nothing, mostly shot hands and feet and quickly lost interest. I was shooting fashion at the time which seemed so much more exciting.
Fast forward three years and while assisting a top fashion photographer, I helped work on a catalog shoot for Danskin. My boss, Gordon Munro, was a big fan of ballet and was lucky enough to have the Danskin account. When I walked into the studio and saw the dancers posing on the background I was totally blown away. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I can still picture the scene today, 30 years later. I bought a subscription to New York City Ballet and began to search for dancers I could photograph. I must have mentioned my new love of dance to an old high school friend and as it turned out, a mutual friend of ours had moved to New York City to become a dancer. I got Nan Freedman’s number and she quickly got me into a photo call for a Matthew Diamond dress rehearsal. Nan was performing with his company at the time.
If I say so myself, the pictures I took of Diamond’s rehearsal were terrible. I captured the dance okay but all I did was act as a recording device for the dance and added nothing personal to the images. It was all blah and about as inspirational as a brick wall. I was probably done with dance.
A few months later, Nan was in another piece with a small company of all women dancers. I was invited to shoot the tech and dress rehearsals. This is the moment my career as a dance photographer began. Where the Diamond rehearsal had been in a typical theater with a large stage, the Dianne McPherson Dance rehearsal was in a tiny, all black, theater where the seats came right up to the edge of the stage. Oh my god! All the dancers were so beautiful. I didn’t care about the dance. I only wanted to photograph their faces. I was so close I could see every bit of their emotion while they danced. And that’s how it started.
I photographed like I was doing a fashion shoot but instead of a set or location, the models were flying around a stage. Composition is such an important part of my photography and I wanted it to be no less of a factor here. I quickly learned it’s a lot easier to photograph a couple of models standing on a background than it is to photograph a group of dancers flying around the stage. I can remember the intense visual and mental energy it took that first time (and it still does). Just keeping the dancers in focus and sharp was an issue let alone trying to get something special. I decided to focus on one dancer at a time and let the action come to her. Francine Landes was such the obvious choice to be that one dancer. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her natural beauty and flowing movement.
Since I mostly shoot tight on the dancers, I can’t see 90% of what’s happening on stage. As I concentrate on my main subject, I have to anticipate when and where other dancers will enter the frame and shoot at the exact moment when all the pieces fall in place. With some choreographers that happens naturally. With others it’s a difficult learning process. During complex choreography I begin to see all the dancers as separate shapes on a background and hope they’ll place themselves in the right pattern. Kind of like Colorforms. As I click away I’m always talking to myself and to the dancers (in my head or a whisper, of course), coaxing and begging them to move into the spots that work for me. I’m cursing when I miss a great shot or when one dancer blinks or is slightly off while all the others are perfect. It’s, “Yes, yes, good, good!” when all the dancers fall perfectly into place and the magic happens.
Francine Landes photographed on June 4, 1981