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Dance and Theater Photography

photographs photographers photographer dancers

Dance photography makes photographs of an art form that is defined by movements. Rather than simply stopping that movement, the best dance photographs somehow suggest movement through the position of the dancers’ bodies, using purposeful and artistic blurs, or even multiple image techniques.

As with any kind of specialty photography, dance photography requires a photographer to know the terms, attitudes, and working methods of the subject—in this case, dancers and choreographers. With classical ballet and other known dance works, the best photographers familiarize themselves in advance with the particular dance that will be photographed. With any new production, conscientious photographers will attend rehearsals and choose the best moment to shoot, operating pre-focused cameras much like sports photographers anticipating the big play. Permission for when and where to photograph is always needed, and always before the photography begins.

Dance photographs that publicize a specific event most often feature sharp, easily understood images of moments from the performance; however, advertising and promotional photos take more liberties in an effort to suggest the scope and energy of the dance event. Artistic photographs, intended for exhibition or for publication in books, offer subjective interpretation, a photographer’s own response to the dance.

Clive Barnes wrote that, “we remember dance through its pictures.” Some of the early dance pictures were paintings and lithographs. The first dance photographs were made of the Ballet of the Second Empire, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the ballets of Imperial Russia. Dance-world legends Isador Duncan and Vaslav Nijinsky dance through time in the images of Arnold Genthe and Baron Adolf de Meyer.

Technological improvements in cameras and film gave birth to the mid-air, stop-action dance photograph. Gjon Mili is believed to have been the first photographer to use strobe lights to photograph dance. Experiments with slower shutter speeds suggested the possibilities of creative blur—when either the panning camera or the dancing subject moved during exposure.

Barbara Morgan, renowned photographer of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and José Limón, among others, used her spiritual oneness with the dancers to capture the gesture, the vitality, the moment of triumph. Her photographs of American modern dance in the 1930s and 1940s, “strike the viewer with the impact of live experience” ( Dance Magazine , August 1991).

Since the 1970s, Lois Greenfield has photographed what she calls “experimental” or modern dancers defying gravity with their leaps. Annie Leibovitz has transferred the physicality and body consciousness of dance to her photographs of nondance celebrities as well as celebrated dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov. The directness of dance makes it easily accessible to the photographer willing to become the audience for studio setups and on-stage photo calls. Because it is a visual art, dance ordinarily does not need translation. An ability to feel the music and the dance and, somehow, to channel that feeling to the camera trigger finger, underlies the best dance photographs. Some photographers such as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton actually tried dancing to give them better insights into their dance photography.

Anna Pavlova is quoted in Opportunities in the Dance as saying, “For the dancer must feel so perfectly at ease, so far as technique is concerned, that when on stage she needs devote to it not a single thought, and may concentrate upon expression, upon the feelings which must give life to the dance she is performing” (Denis). Similar words apply to the photographer of the dancer.

Dance photography continues to be practiced. In fact, many fine art photographers are drawn to its grace and athleticism of its performers. Howard Schatz has earned a notable following for his work in this area.


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