I’ve always been registered as in independent. Ive always thought it was stupid I couldn’t vote in a New York Democratic primary but it never seemed important until this year. I believe Hillary Clinton could be one of the best presidents in history and I needed to vote for her, partially as a vote against Senator Bernie Sanders. It’s not that I don’t agree with his viewpoint – my politics are to his left. I’ve always considered myself to be a Socialist-Communist. I’ve never understood why people hated Communism so much? The politics of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba are not Communism. They are Socialist dictatorships. It’s not remotely the same thing. Either way, Bernie Sanders might have some great ideas but I think he’d be the most ineffective president since Jimmy Carter. Great ideas and great leadership are not the same thing.
A month before the primary, I went online and changed my registration to the Democratic Party, only to hear on the news if one wanted to vote they had to change their registration six months in advance. I was pissed! My registration card came in the mail a week before the primary and I figured “what did I have to lose?” I went to the polling station and there was my name on the rolls. I voted for Hillary. End of story.
I heard a month or two ago that Shen Wei Dance Arts had moved their studio into the old church on 86th and Amsterdam. It’s only three blocks from my apartment. I’ve passed that church thousands of times during the past four decades and it never seems to change, appearing abandoned with homeless people sleeping on the steps. Not long ago, Noché Flamenco moved into the space and I wondered if it was becoming a new dance center. The building was built over 130 years ago and has always been a Presbyterian Church. I was surprised to learn the congregation still held Sunday services.
My voting location is around the corner from the church. After voting I decided to head over to Shen Wei’s studio to see what was going on. I got to the church and attempted to open the side door on 86th street before seeing a set of doorbells. Before I could press the button listing Shen Wei the door opened. It was like a scene from a movie. The middle-aged Hispanic woman who opened the door was likely the care-taker. She didn’t say a word. I finally said, “I’m going to Shen Wei.” The woman opened the door and I began heading up the wooden steps only to realize I had never seen the inside of the church before. I headed back down the stairs and entered the sanctuary. I asked the woman if it was okay. She looked at me but there was no response. I took that to mean yes.
I could see there had been a lot of cheap renovation over the years and the stage was not original to the church. Still, it was a beautiful place and there was something wonderful about the simple quality of the room. As much as I love the great European churches and stained-glass windows I’ve always felt places of worship should be plain and simple. Instead of spending great fortunes on churches and synagogues that money should be used to feed and house the poor. It only makes sense.
I headed up the four flights of stairs and when reaching the top I could see into a dance studio lit by large north-facing windows. I didn’t see any people but I heard soft voices and the sounds of bodies moving across the floor. I could feel it was Shen Wei working with his dancers. Since the first time I photographed the company I’ve always felt a spiritual connection with Shen Wei and his dancers.
I spied Stephen Xue in the office and went over to introduce myself. I let him know I only lived three blocks away and it made sense that we worked together. Stephen seemed excited that I wanted to come in and shoot. I don’t know why that always surprises me. I feel it’s an honor when I company lets me into their rehearsals. I was the one who was excited. A few days later I was in their studio shooting.
The first time I photograph a company in the rehearsal studio I try to arrive an hour after the rehearsal period begins. It’s not that I don’t respect the process. I want to get there when the dancers are warmed up and ready for photographs. As with my Intimate Portraits, shooting dancers in the studio requires a great deal of trust from the dancer-models. It’s not a performance. There are no costumes or makeup. They need to believe the moment I walk in the door I’m going to capture them at their best. It’s easier once they’re warm and shaken out the morning’s cobwebs. Once they get used to my presence I can arrive to a rehearsal at any time. I become one with the company.
Shen Wei wasn’t there when I arrived. Every company works differently. Jacqulyn Buglisi always leads her rehearsals. Pascal Rioult is there most of the time and so is Bill T Jones.. When I shot for ABT many years ago, Baryshnikov almost never attended a studio rehearsal unless he was dancing in the piece. Those were the days.
I walked into the studio. Through Facebook I already knew many of the dancers and had posted photographs of them after our past work together. Those shoots were dress rehearsals in big theaters so there had never been a proper introduction. Kate Jewett saw me walk in and introduced me to everyone. Alex Speedie, Chelsea Retzloff – they already felt like friends. It’s funny how Facebook changes reality. Social media can be surreal. I try to only see the good in it.
It took me a little while to find my place in the studio. The dancers were amazing. They seemed to trust me immediately. I could get close and not feel as if I was interfering in the rehearsal. The light in the studio was a problem. It was a dreary day and I didn’t get the quality or amount of light I had expected from the large windows. The lights in the ceiling were dim. To get the best light I needed to shoot from the side — a poster covered wall as my background. That didn’t make me happy.
I’ve learned when I’m having trouble I should always shoot close. I focused on the dancers I knew best. Chelsea was flying around right in front of me. It was dark. I was having a hard time just getting the camera to focus let alone finding the right moments and deciding on composition. Chelsea Retzloff really is a force on the stage. I couldn’t help but be inspired by her movement and emotion.
With time I began to figure it out. The light through the window became brighter. More important, as the dancers got deeper into the rehearsal their bodies opened up. There was something special in their movements. I moved around the studio as I photographed the rehearsal, winding in and out of the dancers as they performed across the floor. It usually takes me four of five rehearsals with a new company before I move on to the dance floor but today they all made me feel like I was allowed to enter their space. I was often in their face. I felt their bodies move behind me. Kate and Zak Schlegel were on the floor. I don’t know what piece they were rehearsing. The old wood made a beautiful background. I stood above them — my toes just inches from their heads. I couldn’t get enough space around them. I held the camera high over my head, putting the viewfinder on “live view” so I could quickly check after each picture as it was taken. Did they know I was there? I often wonder. I’m on my tiptoes hanging over their bodies, my white socks almost in Kate’s hair. Yet they go on as if I’m not there. Or do they go on, emotionally deeper into the dance knowing every move is being watched and photographed. It’s a question I rarely ask.
At the afternoon break the dancers all left the studio to get lunch. It wasn’t the nicest day. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit outside for thirty minutes. I wondered how I’d feel sitting outside, in my own neighborhood, less than five minutes from my front door. I get into an intense mental state while shooting. Would sitting on my street, across from my local CVS and grocery store, take me out of that place.
I decided to go out. I know the corner the church sits on very well. There are bus stops both on 86th Street and on Amsterdam. Bus stops are some of the best locations for my Smokers’ Detritus series and I’ve shot on this corner before. Shoe’s on. Down the stairs. Out the door.
There are almost always homeless people on the steps of the church and this day was no exception. The steps are greasy and dirty. I felt miles away from the beautiful moments I had just captured in the dance studio. I felt too close to home. Of course there was a great selection of cigarette butts around the M7/M11 bus stop on Amsterdam. For some reason the sidewalk around that stop is unusually disgusting! It had been drizzling so the nearby street garbage was basically mush.
I shot the best butts and moved around the corner to the bus stop on 86th. I get very focused when working on this series. Shooting extreme close-ups with a camera or phone is technically difficult. If the focus is off by one quarter of an inch the picture is ruined. Any camera movement is magnified. If I’m not concentrating I lose too many photos.
The sidewalk had some very nice textures. I think it’s the backgrounds behind the cigarettes that I love most about the Smokers’ Detritus series. After a time, the cigarette remains will all begin to look the same but the textures of the sidewalks and streets are endless. Near the cigarettes there are often bits of nature on the ground along with all the stains caused by human garbage… oil, gum, coffee, etc. Years ago I did begin to notice the textures in the street when the city repaved Columbus Avenue. The workers were using a new concrete combination that supposedly would last longer. There were so many bits and pieces of different colors and reflectivity in the mix. For a while I noticed how old sidewalks had larger pieces than the newer ones. Over time I began to look up again and forgot what was under my feet. Now my eyes are almost always on the ground.
I heard a voice. It was Chelsea Retzloff. She wondered if she could get a copy of a photo I took of her when she performed in Shen Wei’s Rite of Spring at Lincoln Center. Shen Wei Dance Arts was invited to perform during Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance’s inaugural season in 2015. I had been stalking Chelsea for a long time on Facebook. I thought she would be a perfect subject for my Intimate Portrait project. I asked her to do a shoot and warned her about the physical contact. She didn’t say no! We’re going to shoot in May or June when the company is back in town. Chelsea’s portraits are going to be amazing!
The dancers slowly returned from their lunch break, standing outside of the church, not quite ready to resume rehearsal. Some of us talked for a minute and headed back up to the studio. The dancers prepared to rehearse Folding. I believe I had seen a dress rehearsal of this dance years ago but wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I think when the dance is performed in New York City the women are topless for part of the piece and the company didn’t want me to have any pictures “like that.” To say the least I was extremely frustrated by that situation. The dance is beautiful. Having all of the dancers topless, men and women, gives them an androgynous look. I imagine that’s the point. Not to allow a dance to be photographed as it is meant to be seen seems a bit silly to me. Thank goodness when I photographed Boston Ballet performing Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura I was allowed to photograph the entire dance, including when the women were topless. Like Shen Wei’s Folding. Kylian’s dance is an amazing work of art and was the featured photo-essay in the fifth issue of my magazine, the VISION Art Journal.
During the lunch break the light had brightened in the studio and the choreography during Folding allowed me to shoot at angles that worked with the windowlight. Shen Wei arrived to the studio. Were the dancers working harder now because of his presence or is it something about Folding that brings out the best in a dancer? It probably was a little of both. The picture possibilities were endless and I shot away, so focused on what I saw through the camera I had to be careful not to run into the dancers as I moved about the studio. They were all good enough to work around me and Shen Wei didn’t seem to consider me a distraction.
At one point in Folding, a group of dancers move slowly upstage while Alex Speedie has a long solo, standing mostly in place at the front of the stage. I moved in front of Alex in a way that made it seem like he was dancing for my camera. Maybe he was? When working with (Martha) Graham I often find incredible energy directed towards the camera while I’m close to the dancers. Alex was intense! I’m sure it was only a couple of minutes but I felt like we had an hour long photo session together.
I was aware of nothing in the room but the two of us. The dancers in the background became the shapes I used to balance the composition. For me it was a perfect photographic moment. Shen Wei said something to Alex I couldn’t hear. I think Alex wasn’t exactly at the right spot onstage. Alex said it was because the studio didn’t have enough depth. It is possible but that happened to be the place I was standing. Alex probably could have taken the proper position if I wasn’t in his way. I didn’t feel bad. It did make me feel like Alex had indeed performed for me. It felt right. I later thanked Alex for his concentration.
Shen Wei and I spoke for a minute during a short break. He had been watching me as I photographed Alex. He said, “Your concentration is very strong.” I believe he then added, “You work like a poet.” It was an interesting comment. The way I handle shoots has changed very much since I began the Intimate Portrait project. It doesn’t matter if it’s a portrait shoot in the studio or outdoors, a dance shoot in the studio or onstage – I now approach my photography in a more intimate manner. I can’t explain it because I don’t understand the change myself. All I know is it’s working and making my photographs better. More important it has changed the way the people I photograph respond to me while shooting. They embrace the physical and emotional closeness. There is no question this has made me not only a better photographer but also a better person. It would be interesting to consider my new work as photographic poetry.