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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.