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Capturing Emotion In Motion.


Dance photography not a new kid on cultural block at turn into the twentieth century. Neither was it a major field of endeavor. Photographic equipment was cumbersome, negatives were glass-based, and lenses were of a very slow speed. I think it safe to say that the earliest photographers of dancers were very determined dance lovers, indeed. By the early 1940s, with advances in camera design, film stock, and lighting fixtures, dance photography had crystallized into the three essential categories that exist today. The oldest is the dance photograph taken in a photographer's studio. The second category is the onstage production photograph, complete with stage sets, that is also made for publicity purposes and shows what happens in performance. The third category is dress-rehearsal or live-performance photography. Each of the three categories has provided particular benefits to dance history.


The need for professional publicity photographs was born ten years into the twentieth century, when Russian ballet stars were traveling abroad and American dancers Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Isadora Duncan were touring. The White, the Ira Hill, and the Herman Mishkin studios were opened in New York City to fill the demand for theatrical dance photography. They all created the American images of Russian superstar ballerina Anna Pavlova. Mishkin's full-figure portrait of Pavlova in her solo The Dragonfly is, to me, the iconic image of the legendary dancer.

In Europe some terrific dance photography was created by French-born Baron Adolf de Meyer (1868-1946) and the Germans E. O. Hoppe (1878-1972) and Arnold Genthe (1869-1942). De Meyer photographed St. Denis as early as 1912; he took the famed Carnaval picture of Vaslav Nijinsky in 1911, and the 1914 series of L'Apres-midi d'un Faune showing Nijinsky with the female ensemble. Hoppe photographed Tamara Karsavina in 1910 and Margot Fonteyn in 1935. He also photographed Shawn and Martha Graham in 1921. Genthe photographed Pavlova in 1914 and 1915. In 1916 he published a book of his photographs called The Book of the Dance and, in 1929, Isadora Duncan: Twenty-four Studies.

The early twentieth-century studio portraits of Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky, Duncan, St. Denis, and Shawn reveal much about each dancer--except how they appeared in motion. The completely immobile poses were taken using light coming through a skylight. Because dancers were required to remain motionless for about twenty seconds, wires and gadgets, later retouched out, would be used when they had to hold a pose such as an arabesque.

That technique of studio dance photography persisted until the early 1940s, when photographer Maurice Seymour in Chicago (and later New York City) forever changed the soft look to the glamour look. He distilled the best and most flattering effects of stage lighting by employing high spotlights to illuminate arms and upper bodies and cross spotlights on legs to make them appear longer, ymour did for dancers what Hollywood portraitist George Hurrell had been doing for Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and other larger-than-life film stars. Who, once they have seen it, can ever forget Seymour's glamorous full-figure portrait of ballerina Alexandra Danilova in her Swan Lake, Act II, costume? It was taken for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where Danilova reigned until 1957.

Although he primarily made fashion portraits, George Platt Lynes photographed many dancers in his Manhattan studio for Ballet Society and New York City Ballet. A close friend of Balanchine, Lynes took two memorable sets of photographs of his Orpheus in 1948. The first used Mafia Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Francisco Moncion, and Nicholas Magallanes. The second used only the male dancers, nude except for stage masks and props. My favorite Lynes photograph shows Balanchine with a group of young dancers, among them the eleven-year-old Edward Villella.

While Lynes was doing the special photography for NYCB, Walter E. Owen was busy doing the studio press photography for the company into the mid-fifties. Because his studio was near City Center, dancers would come to him directly after a performance, still in costume. (I recall his showing me some strong images of Nora Kaye in The Cage.)

From 1950 to 1995, while I was working in my New York City studio, producing 165 Dance Magazine covers, along with many New York Times dance pictures and souvenir book pictures for American Ballet Theatre, two other photographers--Martha Swope and Kenn Duncan (1930-86)--were also taking outstanding studio portraits. Both had been performers before taking up the camera. Swope hung up her toe shoes and began working closely with her mentor, Balanchine, in the 1950s, taking brilliant studio photos of Balanchine dancers during an especially creative and prolific period for the choreographer. (Swope also made the famous photograph of Balanchine playing with his famous jumping cat, Mourka, later the subject of a 1964 children's book by Le Clercq, illustrated with Swope's photographs.) Duncan, an ice skater before he became an assistant to a fashion photographer, later took over the studio and moved into dance photography in the late 1960s. Much of this photographer's work was done for After Dark and Dance Magazine, as well as for private clients.

The dramatic, dark, and grainy studio photographs of Max Waldman burst onto the New York City dance scene during the 1970s, and he continued to produce stunning work until his death in 1981. His work was especially effective in a poster format. Waldman photographed most of the dance stars of this period; his image of Judith Jamison in Alvin Ailey's Cry is the definitive picture of her in the role.

In London, from the late sixties until today, the prolific and dedicated dance photographer Anthony Crickmay has produced a large body of work in his spacious studio. His modern dance work, with crisp, stagelike lighting and a lot of space around the dancers in action, is spectacular. I particularly recall his photographs of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, led by American Robert Cohan.

In Paris, American photographer Peter Perazio has been doing studio dance photography since the late eighties. The French magazine Danser frequently uses his photography for covers, and he has done several Dance Magazine covers and layouts that featured major Parisian and regional dance companies.

One studio dance photographer who will, I predict, do the most for American dance photography in the early years of the upcoming century is former NYCB dancer Steven Caras. His work is technically brilliant, with soul and an obvious love for dance. Based in Palm Beach, Florida, and removed from New York City's critical hype, he is photographing wonderful dancers in America's finest regional dance companies. His 1999 Dance Magazine mini wall calendar won the National Calendar Association's gold medal for glamour photography in its category. With dance in America decentralizing, Caras should be right on target.

Most studio fashion photographers have an aptitude for dance photography. In the last half of this century, fashion magazines have published dance portraits of major artists by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, and others. Images that come immediately to mind are Avedon's portrait of John Kriza as Billy in Eugene Loring's Billy the Kid and his series of Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya; Penn's whimsical 1979 portrait of Merrill Ashley smiling as she stands on pointe and places her palms flat on the floor; and all of the flowery dance portraits by Beaton, a noted designer as well as photographer.


Production photos for dance companies probably generate a company's most valuable marketing tool. These pictures, produced at photo calls, show costumed dancers on stage sets and in action. Because of the high cost of stagehands, union fees, and wardrobe and dancer fees, photo calls are rare today but may still be done, at times, although rarely in New York City. The large new university stages provide some opportunities for this work.

The late Barbara Morgan made dance photography history in the 1940s with her series of onstage pictures of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Creating her own lighting with multiple flash bulbs, Morgan's definitive photographs of Graham's early masterpieces documented the Graham repertory when this great dancer-choreographer was in her prime--truly a watershed event.

My approach to photographing dance onstage changed forever in 1965, after I witnessed Life magazine's Gjon Mili photographing dancers in the ABT production of Harald Lander's La Sylphide onstage at the New York State Theater. Using multiple, high-speed electronic flash units, Mili photographed men doing barrel turns around the cauldron of Madge (Rosanna Seravalli), and Toni Lander as the Sylph jumping to snatch a wedding ring from the hand of a bewildered James (Royes Fernandez). A slightly distorting wide-angle lens was used for the entire shoot.

After that I never again worked under preset stage lights. When possible, I created the lighting with my electronic flash units. When that proved impractical, I asked the stage manager to rebalance the stage lighting and to provide some "floating" lights on long cords that I could place where extra lighting was required. My first major onstage electronic photography was a 1966 series of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Orbs. I went on to do many shoots, capped by yearly onstage sessions with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater during the eighties and early nineties.

A studio photographer accustomed to working with artificial light could easily adapt this aptitude to production pictures. Swope, although mostly identified by her work with NYCB, did stage production pictures for ABT. Hurrell and Seymour, both essentially studio photographers, did definitive production photos for ABT of Jerome Robbins' s Fancy Free in the forties.


Photography of actual dance performances became viable just before World War II with the advent and popularity of quality 35mm cameras and reasonably fast lenses. In fifty years, our equipment has evolved into motorized, autofocus, auto-exposure marvels, complete with zoom lenses and loaded with film of exceptionally fast speed. No concession is made to assist the photographer, who is essentially documenting a performance--and who will be criticized if the corps de ballet was not synchronized when he snapped the leading dancer in a flawless position.

From the 1940s through the early 1990s, Fred Fehl dominated performance photography in dance and Broadway shows in New York City. The tall, soft-spoken, courtly Fehl, attending dance performances with his unobtrusive Leica camera, was a cultural fixture. He captured many major and memorable ballet performances, but to me his most historic set is of ABT's Giselle at the old Metropolitan Opera House in the spring of 1955. The cast featured veteran ballerina Alicia Markova as Giselle and a young Dane, Erik Bruhn, in his debut as Albrecht. That performance catapulted Bruhn to instant ballet stardom, and Fehl got it all on film. Anyone is fortunate who owns a copy of the old LP recording of Giselle that features a major storyboard-style layout of Fehl's photographs of Markova and Bruhn on its cover

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Swope became the official photographer for NYCB and later a familiar sight in the tip of the First Ring of the New York State Theater. She ably documented the emergence of the troupe as a world-class company and the flowering of Suzanne Farrell's career as Balanchine's muse. Her 1965 performance photography of Don Quixote, with Farrell as Dulcinea and Balanchine as the Don, is visual history at its best.

Longtime Dance Magazine designer Herbert Migdoll is also a noted photographer, perhaps best known for his creative performance photography of the Joffrey Ballet and many New York City-based modern dance companies. An image of Migdoll's that I can never forget is an early 1960s color photograph of Martha Graham as she moved across the stage, leaving a blur of brilliant color across the frame. At once beautiful and sinister, it embodies most of Graham's roles. Migdoll is the first photographer I can recall who succeeded in capturing dance performance pictures in color.

The late Peter Moore (1932-93) also made a noble contribution to dance history by documenting the postmodern Judson Church dancers ifrom the 1960s into the 1970s. Dancers Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton were leading members of the group.

Among the veteran dance performance photographers who have covered events since the 1980s--and, I hope, will continue doing so into the 2000s--are Beatriz Schiller, Jack Vartoogian, Mira (Myra Armstrong), Tom Brazil, Tom Caravaglia, Johan Elbers, Costas, Nan Melville, Marty Sohl, and Paul Kolnik. Kolnik is the only photographer I know who uses a camera in a "blimp" (a soundproof case) for shooting during performances without ever disturbing the audience.

This is a personal overview of twentieth-century dance photography by one who has been involved in it for some fifty years. Besides the photographers previously mentioned, there are many others who have made significant contributions to the art and history of dance photography in the last hundred years. There are art, fashion, and commercial photographers as well as photojournalists in the group. From about 1925 to the present, the work of the following photographers is applauded: James Abbe, Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, Soichi Sunami, Edwin F. Townsend, August Sander, Man Ray, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, George Huyningen-Huene, Ilse Bing, Brassai, Serge Lido, John Lindquist, Paul Himmel, Herb Flatow, Zachary Freyman, Radford Bascome, Mydtskov, Arnold Eagle, Gordon Anthony, Roger Wood, Horst, Andre Kertesz, Bert Stern, Baron, Nickolas Muray, Alfredo Valente, Robert Mapplethorpe, Arthur Elgort, Roy Round, Lois Greenfield, Howard Schatz, and David Cooper.

Dance photography has improved dramatically during the twentieth century. Dance photography in the twenty-first century should develop by even greater strides. There are more good dance companies around the world, more accomplished dancers worldwide, and more photographers interested in dance photography. Add the technical developments in cameras and the ongoing evolution of digital photography, and it seems that the future of dance photography is very bright indeed.

Jack Mitchell, a longtime contributor to Dance Magazine, recalled his distinguished career in his 1998 book, Icons & Idols: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Arts, 1960-1995 (Amphoto Art).
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Title Annotation:photographing ballet dance
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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