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You Can’t Photograph Dance

I was watching Life Through a Lens, a documentary film about Annie Leibovitz. In the film, she made this statement: “you really can’t photograph dance.” Understand that she has photographed Baryshnikov, Morris, and Margie Gillis.

What she meant of course was that it was impossible to capture the performance. Dance is continuous movement. Photography isn’t.

This sentiment never stopped her from photographing the dancer. She categorized what she took as a portrait. Fair enough. I agree with that.

I think sometimes though that dance itself is so complex that some things get lost in the performance. Let me rephrase that: to me, the moments – those stoppages of time – can provide as much insight, beauty, and meaning as the performance as a whole. In some ways that makes photography the perfect medium to reflect an understanding of dance: it unveils and preserves those moments, which may get lost as we watch the performance. Photography provides the images for us to reflect on.

Sometimes you don’t even have to see the dancers.

Take this image:

I think several things were accomplished here.

First of all, from a photographer’s perspective, it solves a problem. There were perhaps 30 dancers on (a very small) stage. It is extremely difficult to photograph that type of situation and capture what that moment was actually about. You could show the entire scene, but the dancers become small and inconsequential. We’ve all seen images like that.

A solution I often turn to is to highlight a particular dancer. This solves the problem of scale. If you include enough of other dancers as background elements you can get a sense of context.

But I chose here to instead focus on the dancers feet. This provides a point of reference (we know what they are doing), while at the same time conveying a sense of motion, joy, and passion about the art. It allows a hint of what photography does best: it gives us something to reflect on. ┬áMy goal here was to simplify as much as possible a very complex scene; I even removed color as I thought even it added too much complexity. What we are left with are a dancer’s tools and the shadows they create. Nothing more.

Perhaps it is enough for us to envision what was happening here. We may not be able to photograph dance, but we can at least capture a representative moment. It doesn’t even have to be a portrait. As long as it provides a visual clue, we can at least gain an understanding. And sometimes that understanding is ironically achieved when we remove as much as possible from an image. Hopefully this was one of those times.

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