Author’s note: This essay has taken me over a month to write. Writing about one’s art can be complicated and as I begin to photograph the Martha Graham Dance Company my artistic life is in transition. It’s good. It’s fulfilling. It’s confusing. Please read on.
I haven’t been able to write for a while. It’s not for lack of inspiration. During the past six weeks I photographed Buglisi Dance Theatre, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Bill T Jones. So much great dance so close together was a shock to my system. I could only think of that day’s pictures sitting in front of me. No words could describe them.
During the same period, I put the finishing touches on the first issue of my magazine, “VISIONS.” Focusing on essays I’ve completed was much more important than beginning something new. But leave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get my creative juices flowing again. This evening, after wandering around various galleries, I began a walk through the exhibition, “Impression, Fashion, & Modernity.” So much amazing painting in one place! Incredible works by Tissot, Monet, Degas, and Manet (plus others) I had never seen before. I was so struck by the imagery I had to run through the gallery to find a bench where I could sit and begin writing.
Now here I am, surrounded by masterpieces, inspired to create great works of my own once again. One painting by Manet in particular has moved me. It’s named, “Young Lady (Jeune Femme) in 1866.” It’s different from the other paintings in the show. It’s more personal. After reading the painting’s description I understand why. The “young lady” is Victorine Meurent. She’s Manet’s great muse. Meurent is the model for Manet’s “Olympia” and the nude woman featured in “Luncheon on the Grass.” Need I say more? The women I call “muse” are so important in my life, it was instantly obvious to see how perfectly Manet captured one of his own.
And now I can finish my essay about Martha Graham.
Like everyone else, photographers have their own particular bucket list… the photographs they need to take before they die. Photo exhibitions. Done (I want more)! Book published. Done (PHYSIQUE: An Intimate Portrait of the Female Fitness Athlete)! Baryshnikov. Done! Photographing backstage at the Kirov. Done! A billboard featuring my photograph in Manhattan. Done (thank you Alan Olshan at Paul Taylor Dance)!
I still have a long list to fulfill. Photographing a ballerina in Red Square (I have shot bodybuilders there) and a modern dancer on the Death Valley Dunes are two of my wishes. But this month I was able to cross one of my unfulfilled dreams off the list. For the past two weeks I photographed the dress rehearsals of the Martha Graham Dance Company. I’ve waited 30 years for this.
I had photographed the company a few times before. A dress rehearsal in at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1985, a dress rehearsal at City Center in 1992, at the first Fall For Dance Festival in 2004, and at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase in 2005. A smattering of quick shoots. Nothing where I could really focus on what the company and Graham choreography was all about. I needed more.
I’ve loved Martha Graham since high school, when I began to photograph seriously and consider some of my pictures works of art. I read every photography book in the local library and often came across the photographs of Martha Graham taken by Barbara Morgan. They were amazing studies of a very special woman. Morgan’s book, “Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs,” is a must have for every dancer and photographer. I think my copy has disappeared? It was one of the first photography books I bought when I moved to New York City. I will have to buy it again.
I was well prepared mentally for the Graham dress rehearsals. The week before I photographed the Buglisi Dance Theatre, a company who is influenced by Martha Graham and uses many past and present members of the Graham company in it’s performances. In fact as I go through my early Graham shoots, I find images of Buglisi dancers, Terese Capucilli, Christine Daikin, and Virginie Victoire Mecene featured in my photographs. In back to back weeks I photographed Natasha Diamond-Walker dancing with both Buglisi and Graham. It was a very special few weeks of dance photography.
Having so many chances to photograph the Graham company during their two week season at the Joyce Theater was everything I imagined it would be. When photographing for myself I always shoot in black and white and Graham’s choreography seems perfectly suited for my style. It’s as if she created her dances to appear on film. Twyla Tharp is the only other choreographer who I feel has the same sense of space on the stage.
The rehearsals I photographed were “photo calls;” rehearsals open to all press photographers. It’s not the best situation for me but that’s the way it is with dance photography now. Unlike most dance photographers, who prefer to be close to the stage while shooting, I prefer to be farther back in the theater. I’m higher up, at the same level as the dancers on stage. If I have to shoot close to the stage, I always feel like I’m shooting up their noses. Jumps might look higher but it’s not a flattering angle for the dancers’s faces. Beautiful faces are the most important thing to me when taking pictures. I see everything as a portrait. If the face is not great I don’t care how perfect the body looks. The entire photograph must be perfect.
A few days before the last Graham rehearsal, Katherine Crockett asked me if I would shoot her “Phaedra” rehearsal. It was going to be a tech (a rehearsal without makeup or costumes) but Katherine would dress so at least I could photograph her. Personally, I don’t care if the dancers are in costume or not. It’s about the movement and the emotion. Most of the time I feel like the costumes only get in my way, distracting from the dancers themselves. When the dancers heard I was photographing Katherine, they all agreed to dance in costume and makeup. A dress rehearsal “just for me.” Something like that hadn’t happened in decades.
It was the last of this season’s dress rehearsals. “Lamentations” was the official photo call and the first dance. “Phaedra” was the third dance of the rehearsal. Every other photographer left after Lamentations. No one, except Graham’s official photographer, Costas, thought it was worth returning for “Phaedra.” I couldn’t imagine leaving. I’ve photographed dance for over 30 years but still relish the chance to photograph great dancers whenever I can. The second dance of the rehearsal, “Diversion of Angels” was only partially in costume and “officially” was not to be photographed. I was not going to stand for that. Those who know me understand how much I hate to miss a good photo opportunity.
I began shooting the dancers while they warmed up on stage and got a great close up of Lloyd Knight. I quickly ran over to Jane Eilber, artistic director of the company, and showed her my image. I told Janet I would be shooting the “Diversion of Angels” rehearsal but just in case anyone was worried about it, I would only take close ups of the dancers who were not in costume. Janet loved the picture of Lloyd and I went back to my spot to shoot. It was great. No other photographers in the theater. I could shoot from 15 rows back, exactly where I wanted to be.
I guess the stage manager did get worried! As I was shooting away during the warm ups, out of the corner of my eye I see someone on stage pointing at me. Since no one was told in advance I’d be shooting she must have been concerned. I walked up to the stage and explained the situation, letting her know I had been given last minute permission to photograph this dance. She thanked me and we all went back to our jobs.
I’m happy! I’m photographing the Graham company during a stage rehearsal and the only clicks I hear are my own. I love that. It used to happen often when I photographed for Twyla Tharp and the American Ballet Theatre in the 1980′s and it happens now with Bill T Jones but it is so rare now a photographer can photograph a dress rehearsal of a major company without the distraction of other photographers jumping up and down around him. I didn’t realize how lucky I was in the past and I guess I was spoiled. Of course, halfway through the piece I’m interrupted yet again. This time it’s the company manager, telling me I’m not allowed to shoot. I was not going to let this rehearsal escape me. I had wanted this experience with Martha Graham dancers for too long.
I know she was only protecting the dancers. I’m sure the company does not want any “bad” pictures appearing on Facebook or anywhere else. I can understand that. Once again I explain how I’m shooting mostly close ups, that I have permission, and how much I want to work with the company in the future and won’t do anything to ruin this new relationship. I promise to send the company disks with pictures from all of the dress rehearsals. Faye smiled. I guess I said the right things and she believed me. I go back to work wondering why there has to be so much drama in the dance world these days.
It’s weeks later now. I’ve been invited to photograph two studio showings of “Rite of Spring” next week along with the company’s rehearsal sessions in June. The photos I’ve put on Facebook have received a tremendous response. I’m shooting this week with Luca Veggetti and PeiJu Chien-Pott at the Graham studios. I’m living my dream. Life is good!