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- Dancer: The Portrait
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- Take 250 of These and Call Me in the Morning
- The Concept That (Almost) Got Away
- The Death of the Moment
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- When Dancers Don't Have to Dance
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Category Archives: Dance
So I found myself on a jetty outside Mayport, FL, late Saturday afternoon, with a score of professional dancers. The portion of the jetty we were on was made of rocks. Big rocks. Sharp rocks. Not necessarily flat rocks.
So there we were. Some dancers wearing pointe shoes, some wearing no shoes, all trying to balance, stay upright in the fairly stiff breeze that was blowing, avoid bees, not fall between the boulders, strike a dance pose, and be photogenic.
I kept telling the dancers, “if it was easy anyone could do it” as I was attempting to bolster their confidence, all the while praying they didn’t fall, the company owners had signed waivers, they were in focus, and the light was right.
Ah, the joys of location work.
Me? Well let’s see. The lightstand holding my strobe (in a 16″ deep rigid reflector) was sandbagged with 60 lbs worth of weight, but the light was 10′ in the air and therefore, I believe, does still quality as a sail. With a pack-and-head system merrily swinging along with it. I was having focusing issues shooting into the backlight provided by our friend the sun.
Ah, the joys of location work.
Even though wide aperture is where I try to live, now was not the time to go big. Getting the shot, and ensuring it was quality, meant going small. Really small. I felt I needed not only the safety margin in case focus was off, but there wasn’t time to work with a Vari-ND filter given the circumstances in order to go wide (we were shooting late in the day, but still with an f/8 ambient).
So it was small aperture time. f/16 anyone?
The background was interesting enough to remain in focus (the St. Johns River), and hopefully key shifted enough, to balance the talent. Highlighting, using light (photo graphos) the dancer so there would be no question where interest should be centered.
Backlighting also helped, not only by providing rim to help separate the dancer from the background but also by placing specular highlights on the water. It also inverted, so to speak, your normal expectations of light: rather than falling off in the distance, it actually intensified. This provided an interesting effect as the river snaked its way away from us. The ambient gave the images a 3 dimensional feel, normally the job of Mr. Focus. Today, however, he got the day off.
WIlfred illustrates my points.
Bokeh from wide aperture would have been nice but was not worth the risk, at least not on this day. Besides, the cruise ship was an expensive prop and you at least want to be able to see it.
Sometimes I feel that shooting talented dancers is almost like cheating. I do find that my posing skills tend to degrade following shoots with them, since they already know what to do, how to control their bodies, and how to project. Besides, they are very nice people to be around. I am spoiled.
Adding a sense of motion to a photograph can be done in a couple of ways, either at exposure or afterwards during post processing.
For this image of Natalie, I chose the later.
Actually, I did not envision the final image when it was taken. We were experimenting with some cloth I had brought to a shoot. The image was appealing, but I felt that it needed something more. I added some motion blur in post, and I think the images becomes more dynamic as a result.
Some photographers feel that there is a purity to limiting an image to the moment of capture. I have always felt that it is the final image – not how it is achieved – that is important. If the story the image is telling is about that moment of capture, then I agree to let things stand. If not, and if the story is enhanced in post, then too so be it.
With the help of 3 very lovely and talented dancers I was shooting our monthly assignment for Insidious Tomatoes – May Flowers. I decided to use a Lois Greenfield shoot that I have seen as inspiration; she used shredded paper, I used flower petals. At least it’s part of a flower. I am one for brevity.
As documented in my last post, I wanted a very bright set, with lots of light to catch the petals as they flew around. And, like the Dumbo ride at Disney, the cycle time for each shot was long: gather petals, throw into fan, jump, lather, rinse, repeat.
Although we did not take as many frames as usual, we did come away with many shots, a representative 3 below:
Although I am equally fond of all of them, I’m not sure what the select will be (a consequence of a successful shoot). I’m leaning to the first, or another not pictured here, although the second here (as well as yet another not pictured) is strong, also. Decisions, decisions.
I love tone-on-tone images. Black-on-black. White-on-white.
We were in studio shooting a project theme for Insidious Tomatoes. I had solicited the help of 3 young, talented dancers, all proper, highly skilled professionals:
Prima ballerinas, they.
I think we succeeded in getting what we were after. And then some (as the above illustrates). It was a long shoot, due to shot logistics and props, but fun.
I think I have returned to an “umbrella phase” of studio shooting. This time no parabolic, but a return to that simple, humble lighting mod which throws light
all over the place in a semi-controlled manner: the reflective umbrella. Just what you need for dancers on the go.
The reflective umbrella is where nearly everyone starts in lighting; here I used 3: 2 to light the background and a third as warm fill (it was gold). My key was a simple rigid reflector. What I was after was very “wrappy” light, meaning very soft transitions between highlight and shadow. I wanted lots of light, but without a “flash” look to it. And just a bit of punch courtesy of that key.
I also wanted plenty of wrap coming from the studio’s white cyc. We could make it come and go, on demand, by varying the distance the dancers were from it.
Although the primary image was not tone-on-tone (and you’ll see why I chose the setup I did in a future post), when I learned that Addie, one of the dancers, had brought a white platter and white top, I couldn’t resist. Given her skin tone and golden hair, and with all that light, the following emerged:
I could have chosen B&W in post, but I think color, in bringing out her skin tones and red lipstick, added just enough to offset all that white, and in fact to turn it up a notch.
I confess I do get tired of shooting on white. But there are times that an image demands that simplicity. I haven’t done it in a while, and, like the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. So now was the perfect time.
You’ll notice that I did not bring the background to paper white, otherwise the platter would be totally lost. I do love the translucent nature of the platter, though, with only a hint of its outline. It blends into the background behind her, barely discernable. A hint of the delicacy of her costume and that dichotomy that is the ballerina: muscle and power harnessed to a very graceful art.
And though the ballerina is the hero of the shot, it is that infinity wall that makes it. It provides negative space to balance the image to complete the story. Its power lies in its subtlety. This is, after all, a story of tones. And the grace and power of our dancer.
Inspiration can come from many sources. Before most sessions, I generally plan the shoot loosely based on images that I see in magazines or on the web. I don’t go for replication; there is a difference between being inspired by an image and trying to copy it. I go for the former.
Doing this also serves as a communication vehicle between myself and the talent. It is much easier to show someone the look and feel I am after than trying to describe what are generally very non-precise concepts.
For the JCA shoot, I didn’t take this approach. This was after all images for client needs. Posing etc. was not under my control (other than minor adjustments).
However, this didn’t necessarily mean I went in with a clean slate in terms of planning. While my plan dealt with technical details – how I was going to light it, how the space was to be used, etc. – somewhere in the back of my mind must have been images I had seen of Lois Greenfield’s. In fact, the lighting design was loosely based on what my perception is of how she lit the ones that I had studied.
It’s interesting to me that in post production the images became heavily influenced by Irving Penn’s Small Trades. Again, not intentional, but when I saw my post processing materialize it seemed suited to how these were shot. The simplicity and “honesty” of the space seemed to demand this look.
So I suppose you can summarize the style of these images as Lois Greenfield meets Irving Penn.
This image from the shoot features Larris and Addie; it is a striking pose, one of those power/beauty dichotomies so prevalent in dance. It is what maekes the image and the experience of photographing it so compelling.
Jay Maisel has been credited with saying “Light, color, gesture: pick 2″ as ingredients for a successful image.
Sometimes, however, one of these is so dominant as to render the others, well, like the backup band for Adele. Except there’s only the piano player. He’s good. Really good. Now back to Adele.
This image is definitely all about gesture. Light plays a role (the piano player in this case), but Natalie doing a straddle into the upper atmosphere of the studio where the thin air lies, while Larris folds himself in half below, is what this image is about.
I see a fine art book project coming our of this shoot at Jacksonville Center of the Arts. The dancers were incredible and we got plenty of gesture, as you can see.
More to come.
I was in a bad place yesterday.
Then I went to a scheduled shoot at Jacksonville Center of the Arts (JCA). 250 or so exposures later I left a changed man.
I often blog about what photography means to other people, generally the recipients of a photograph. Yesterday’s experience reinforced what photography means to me.
Don’t get me wrong – one of the allures of this endeavor is making other people happy through the imagery that is created. And this photograph did not fully emerge until well after I had left, when the photographic process is completed through post processing. But the act itself of photographing – of setting the lights, the process of taking the pictures and watching them as they materialize on my laptop, and, perhaps most of all, the opportunity of working with such wonderful and talented people, can be very uplifting in and of itself. And served this day as needed medicine.
I left feeling privileged to be a photographer. My aching back and sore knees let me know it was work. But it was joy, too.
Some of the people responsible for my attitude change are pictured below: David, Willie, and Dominiq (from left to right).
I eschewed bringing a background and used a wall of the dance studio we shot in (this was a location shoot. My back will tell you that). To me, this brought an honesty to the images reminiscent of Lois Greenfield’s work.
The images will be featured in promotional material for the studio. As such, a graphic designer will probably extract the dancers and place them in other contexts. I knew this going into the shoot and designed the lighting to make it easier to do the selections. I wasn’t concerned with the background knowing this, but some inner voice must have told me that not using seamless or another background was the way to go. There are practical reasons for not using these with dancers – the seamless, if used on the floor as well, will not survive long, and if not you’ll see the floor joint anyway, and the muslin or canvas will wrinkle – but, again, there is also an honesty that comes with a marked dance floor. The wall we can make anything we want. I used a gradient to highlight them on what was a yellow wall, although my decisions for this image in post went more to a simpler white background which made this effect very subtle.
Driving home I was exhausted, to be sure. Tired and hungry. But I left a changed man. For the better, I think.
This month’s assignment for Insidious Tomatoes.
I came up with 2 shots, neither of which were my original idea on solving the problem. I have yet to locate the appropriate talent, so I was left to my own devices.
My first attempt was, well, a little too cliche for my taste:
At least it’s not the model on the railroad tracks wearing a gas mask and giving the middle finger. But it’s close.
The second, and what I am (currently) going with, is a (very large) variation on my original idea:
Both are composites.
Hopefully I can identify the talent I need for what I really want to shoot. MTK.
Be sure to check out IT, particularly if you are looking for photography. If it’s not my style or specialties you are after, certainly one of the other photographers may be able to help.
I’m also excited to attend an exhibition of Lois Greenfield’s work at the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts. Lois is definitely an inspiration and I like her approach to photography. Lois is, as they say, old school. I like that. It’s not my style but I like it. She uses a medium format camera and back but, unlike those who try to differentiate themselves by what equipment they use, Lois does so by how she uses it.
Lois shoots dancers almost exclusively, and not just for her client dance companies. They find their way into her commercial work and her fine art as well.
What intrigues me about Lois is how she photographs dancers. This is on 2 levels.
From an artistic perspective, what ends up on her files (and in print) are un-manipulated images of the dancers (in the sense of their movement being faithfully recorded). So their position and stunts are as happened. She also doesn’t use that much choreography (so it isn’t dance per say that she is photographing but the dancer). She basically lets it happen, focusing on their ability to control their bodies and their athletic ability. We see eye-to-eye on this one.
Speaking of focusing, the other thing that intrigues me is that while Lois uses a medium format camera and back, I’m not talking about a new Phase One. I’m talking a Hasselblad 500 C/M, a camera out of production for 30 years. You know, where you have to crank down the mirror and cock the shutter after each exposure. Now that’s old school. Even the back is a relatively pedestrian Leaf. I mention focusing because the Hassie is notorious for being difficult to focus on moving things. Like, you know, dancers. Heh.
And the Hassie has a 1/500 second shutter speed, so it can’t stop motion either (like the rig that I use when I shoot with flash). It’s up to the lights, and, again like me, that’s where Lois spends her money. Great minds, you know. Ok, she uses Broncolors. Old Brons, I think, but Brons none the same. These are the Lamborghini of lighting equipment.
So I’m excited by what lies ahead. I’m only disappointed that I did not get to meet her. Maybe next time.
Sometimes I get the feeling that dancers in my images get lost in the story. That’s not done on purpose. But, as an editorial photographer, my images are meant to tell a story and the story itself is often the focus. When it’s a portrait, that distinction disappears – dancer or otherwise.
The last shoot I did was a continuation of a series I started on ballerinas with tools. The theme of ballerinas in unusual situations certainly isn’t unique to me, but I haven’t seen this juxtaposition before and frankly it intrigues me. All of the wonderful dancers who have participated have added much with their skill and their personality. But it is the overall story, and not necessarily them, that is the focus.
Towards the end of most shoots I try to reverse this and tell a story about them. I try to reserve time for the portraits.
This is Kristen; she is a dancer, but she is also a young woman, and hopefully this sequence does these facts justice:
I’ve written before with some insight, hopefully, of what it is like to be a dancer. Actually, this post explains a lot (although truth be told it applies to photographers, engineers, just about anyone). What separates dancers as people, I think, is the unique combination of athleticism and art. Dance is tough on their bodies (you’ll find out more about this girls, believe me). It is a commitment in a challenging field with lots of competition (am I talking about photography? O wait – I mentioned athleticism, didn’t I).
But in the end it is about an individual, and their pursuit of their art. A performance art, to be sure, but an art. And hopefully I never lose sight of that – editorial photographer or not.
Insidious Tomatoes is now live. Designed as a mechanism for art directors and others looking for photography, it features 24 photographers (including yours truly) offering a variety of specialties and differing styles. I am proud to be a part of this endeavor and hopefully it will lead directly to some interesting work.
I was reading Joe McNally’s blog entry on Dangerous Dancing, detailing his experiences photographing Bolshoi dancers in Moscow during the late 90′s, and there was a line that really struck a chord with me. Actually it’s a joke:
What’s the difference between a prima ballerina and a pit bull? The jewelry.
Joe is probably the biggest influence on my lighting style, but he is also influencing my writing style as well. He has a conversational style that is very easy to read, includes lots of humor, and of course is very informative. He also shoots a lot of dancers – not as a specialty, for he is more of a generalist, but as an avocation. And he likes to photograph them in unusual locations. Sound familiar? Joe is very approachable, and that is a goal with my writing as well.
Having photographed young dancers on many occasions, I can vouch for the authenticity of the joke. With nicknames like Beast would you expect anything less? Even just hanging out in the marsh seems to bring out the animal in them:
Addie here is doing her best leopard impersonation, only with a lot more style. The other dancers are apparently just hanging around, ready to pounce at their opportunity. You know, the hunters stalking their prey.
I wanted to give this image a commercial feel with the post processing.
I’m having trouble understanding the leading motion blur since I am on rear curtain sync; it’s interesting how the trailing leg is frozen while the leading is not (but her upper body is, which is to be expected). It must be moving faster then the trailing leg, but still looks unusual, at least to me. The phenomena in general is explained in my previous blog post.
Not that I don’t like the image, because I do. Technically the jump is very well done, and I like the sense of motion. I also believe it conveys her athleticism along with her form. The lighting, meant to mimic sunlight on her, reminds me of theatrical lighting; the supporting cast is 1 stop under her and the ambient another down. The direction of the light – she is leaping straight into it – provides enough shadow to give definition to her muscle tone. Ballerinas are, after all, athletes. Graceful, yes. Badass? Sometimes. Powerful? Always.