In dance photography, what was once quite difficult has become quite easy.
With film, shooting performances in the theater was a frustrating affair because there was never enough light and never enough film in the roll. Current digital photography allows for unlimited shots, shooting in almost no light, and fast auto-focus lenses keeping things sharp. Studio photography has become quicker and more flexible as well, though an expensive strobe pack still makes life easier. The only real limits to street or location shooting now are caution and common sense.
But with all these technical advances, most dance photographs still don’t really capture dance.
With the exceptions of Yi-Chun Wu, Steven Schreiber, and Julieta Cervantes, few performance photographers make consistently exciting images that capture the essence of a dance piece. Out of several hundred images, almost every photographer will come up with something useful or interesting, but that seems a pretty low bar to jump, given the few technical barriers. I don’t mean to be dismissive, just to hunger for better.
Granted, it is difficult to anticipate images in a piece one has never seen, and most photographers at dress rehearsals are watching a piece for the first time. Dance is about quick and subtle shifts, though, and capturing the essence of a dance involves more than reacting to action onstage. After seeing a motion once, catching it as it comes around again is tricky but possible, and anyone who has seen some dance should have a sense of where and when limbs will be before they get there.
Probably more important to capturing a dance’s essence is getting the overall feel and arc of the piece: is it about swirling groups? individual struggle? emotional interaction between partners? joy? loss? In other words, what is important about what is happening onstage as it relates to this particular piece, this choreographer, these dancers? Is the background a flat color, or is it a video image or an intricate pattern? Are the costumes important to the piece? Is the lighting unique or an integral component? Music can’t be captured in a still image, but does the photo reflect the soundscape?
Studio shooting differs from performance photography, but it should share the goal of capturing essence. Obviously, some photographers want to be known for a specific style and their work reflects that, no matter what the subject is. And in the play between photographer and dancer, the photographer is making more of the decisions in the studio. Still, do we see a photo of a jump because it is easiest to make and looks impressive or because it best reflects the style of the choreographer or dancer? If the choreography is grounded and the partnering heavily weighted, there is a way to shoot that. If humor or darkness are prominent in someone’s choreography, that should be in the photograph.
The job of choosing dance images is fragmented between photographers, choreographers, presenters, press agents, and editors. Any one of these can influence the image we ultimately see, and each has their own subjective preference, but whenever a dance photograph can be a strong image and convey the essence of what was shot, we all win.