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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.