Just finished two new classes for Kelby Training, which are in the pipe, and will most likely come out fairly shortly. They’re pretty in depth looks at creating, with just light and a plain wall, an environment in which dancers can thrive, create their own sublime shapes, which then, at camera, you simply hope to capture. I’m a big believer in the fact that when the camera observes a performer, it simply stands in service to their creativity. Consequently, the best thing a shooter can do is provide a comfortable place for them to experiment, light them simply and well, and then sorta, kinda, get the hell out of their way.
I’ll never be known as a dance shooter. I’ll really never be known as any particular kind of shooter at all, being resolutely, the generalist. (I spun from this studio into a job for the Geographic where I’m traveling with 27 cases of gear, two Suburbans, and negotiating the shooting of large, static objects.)
And I enjoy both of the above styles of assignment in equal measure, though I have to admit that the interaction with dancers is a helluva lot more fun. It’s a safety valve for me, to shoot dance. Think of a vent on a pressure cooker. I’ve always been a star struck kid when it comes to virtually any of the performing arts. Recently, I was in Vegas for a gig, and I took my youngest daughter with me. (Her first time in Vegas, and she really liked it. Should I be worried?)
We went to the “O” show, and both sat there with our jaws dropped at the exquisite talent on stage. I feel the same way about looking through the lens at dance.
The above set featured modern dancer Jeff Mortensen, and he was able to create whimsy in the air, assisted by two Elinchrom Rangers into long strip soft boxes, one directly overhead, and one off to either side, depending on his gesture. I “found” Jeff through the long standing relationships of David Cooper, a friend and fellow shooter based in Vancouver. David is one of Canada’s leading theater and dance shooters, and his daughter Emily (who calls herself Mini-Cooper) is not far behind in terms of skill. They are prominent members of the creative community in Vancouver, which is a city I love to go and work.
I was also able to work with Lisa Gelley, Josh Martin, and Shay Kuebler of the 605 Collective modern dance troupe based in Vancouver. They are dedicated to creating new versions of aesthetics in the air through the intricate interweaving of their articulate bodies while in flight. Above is Josh, lit with two TTL speed lights. Below, bigger lights were used, a combo of Ranger and Quadra.
Keeping things simple, we used just one speed light for the above shot of the soulfully expressive Bevin Poole. Here’s where you need to explain yourself as a photographer, and try your best not sound like a complete lunatic. I had no relationship, really, with Bevin, until she walked into the studio. I had just seen her picture. But for some reason, I saw her short hair sort of tufted and her face and body painted in some way shape or form. I don’t know where that came from, it just did. Here’s where collaboration with an excellent makeup artist is irreplaceable. I discussed this off the wall notion with Tamar Ouziel, an extremely talented HMU artist in Vancouver, and she immediately got on board with it, made suggestions, refined the idea and made Bevin up. Bevin, bless her, listened to me, a complete stranger, as the first things I said to her were that I wanted to paint her face and body and nestle her in a bird’s nest of tulle. She listened, smiled, cocked her head to the side, and said, “Sure.” (This is another reason to love working with dancers. They not only agree to your fevered, improbable imagination, they then take it and enlarge it, enhance it, and embody it.)
I helped Lastolite re-design their very popular 24″ Ezybox, creating one with a white interior instead of a silver. (As I’ve mentioned, I kind of feel like a golfer who’s been on the Tour for thirty years, and finally got asked to design a course.) I was happy to pitch in, as I’ve been using the Lastolite stuff for a long time now, and their product manager, Gary Astill, is an amazing designer. I used the white Ezybox for the above. I would have been a bit apprehensive about using a silvery interior on this white on white study. What I needed was a quiet fade from highlight to shadow, and not something abrupt and contrasty. It worked well, as the one light in the picture. What you see below is the whole set, and all of the lighting. (To the left is a heater. With the tempura paint drying on Bevin, she got cold. Dancers don’t have much body fat, so that was a point we made during the shoot in terms of creating a comfort zone for them.)
Keeping it simple, once again, the below is two speed lights, a main and a fill. The main is kind of a new kid on the block called the Lastolite 8 in 1 umbrella, which I’ve been using a lot, mostly in shoot through mode, with the mask on it. It tends to create a more controllable light, with good fall off into shadows, which you can, in turn, choose to fill in or not. What the light is doing here is simple. What the dancer, Alexander Burton of Ballet BC, is doing, is not.
Speed lights were also used for the wonderful leaper, Gilbert Small, below, also of Ballet BC.
The classes really discuss fully the use of all manner of lighting, most of it very simple, brought to bear in the studio, which is, as I always feel, an empty box you fill with your imagination. It also emphasizes the importance of collaboration with the dancers, the makeup artist, and the crew. Any photo that might be any good that comes out of a day in the studio like this is very much the result of a team effort and the creative input of all involved. I was blessed on the set with Tamar, and Syx Langeman, a talented Vancouver shooter, our own Mike “Double Guns” Cali, and of course David Cooper, whose studio we rented. (Anyone traveling to Vancouver in need of a studio, contact David. His shop is about as comfortable and complete as studios get.)
The above is of Alexis Fletcher, who is truly magnificent. She is particular, as classical dancers tend to be, and she can float through the air as effortlessly as the rose petals we blew into the frame with her. She would look at every frame we shot together, and effectively, she coached me through it. She remarked on my timing, and her form, critically, but also wonderfully. Because of her devotion to craft, she, effectively, pushed me to be a better photographer on the set that day.
A number of years ago, I had a show of my dance work at the Shanghai Art Museum. They asked me to write up something that addressed the notion of why one would shoot dance as a theme. Here is what I wrote.
“I have always photographed dance, ever since I moved to New York to become a photographer. One of my first apartments in the city was on 65th St. just by Lincoln Center, nexus of the dance world, and home to the New York City and the American Ballet companies. Through my windows and walks in the neighborhood, I would see these lissome creatures, hair pulled tight in the inevitable bun, dance bag over the shoulder, lovely to look at, even in their occasionally ungainly, splayfooted gait. Dancers all, making their way to the studios just across from my tiny, dungeon-like studio apartment.
I grew curious about this world, and managed to find my way into the studios with my camera. There I began to witness the beauty, the audacity, and the sheer grit of the dancer. The reasons for their sidewalk awkwardness became apparent. Dancers are not meant to trudge through the concrete grime and blaring traffic of the city. They are creatures of flight, stopping just short of having wings, with astonishing abilities to parse the human figure into a wide range of shapes and stances, all of them equally, impossibly beautiful. They are meant to be in motion, on stage, magnets for the eye, and thus the camera.
In the course of their careers, dancers will have many partners, but a constant one is the camera. Why else to fly and leap so magnificently, except to have that flight recorded and preserved? No other medium has the ability to slice time, and freeze moments. Given the quicksilver, all too brief career of a dancer, this is highly desirable. The photograph preserves that split second when it appears gravity is suspended, and the rest of us, earthbound earth forever, gasp.
These photographs are my own gasps. I have been privileged to simultaneously have had my breath taken away and my camera to my eye many times. This selection represents a few of those moments. The camera is the dancer’s eternal partner, lockstep in a lovely pas de deux.”
I sincerely thank Scott Kelby and the whole Kelby clan down in Tampa for creating the opportunity to both shoot and teach something that means a lot to me.