Moving and Seeing: Photographing Dance; Far More Than Passive Documentation, Dance Photography Can Collaboratively Aid Dancers and Choreographers in the Development of Their Art

Article excerpt

Are you a dancer interested in being photographed? Or a choreographer, dance teacher, or dance company director who is planning a photo session? Or a photographer interested in photographing dancers? If so, this article is meant for you. It contains practical suggestions based on my own experience as a professional photographer.


I am a photographer who specializes in dance, primarily modern dance and ballet. I work collaboratively with adult dancers, including students at the undergraduate or graduate level as well as professionals. Usually I work with one or two dancers at a time, and only rarely with larger groups. The physical setting of my sessions is most often a theater or dance studio, but occasionally it is a city street, park, riverside, woodsy trail, old building, parking lot, beach, swimming pool, railroad yard, staircase, warehouse, or other extra-theatrical site.

Rather than trying to photograph rehearsals or actual performances, I prefer to work in sessions dedicated to photography. I gave up shooting rehearsals long ago--but that does not mean that you should! It may work for you; I will return to this point later.

This article includes some questions and answers that have come up in seminars and discussions with dancers and photographers. It also incorporates a list of warnings of possible problems. For the most part it avoids technical matters such as shutter speed, aperture, and depth of field; readers interested in those aspects of photography can consult other excellent sources (e.g., Ang, 2002; Burchfield, Jacobs, & Kokrda, 2001; London & Upton, 1998).

A number of photographs, mostly my own, appear in this article. These were not chosen to exemplify specific things that photographers should do or avoid doing. Rather, they are meant to illustrate the results and uses of dance photography.

Why Photograph Dance?

One reason for photographing dance is that dancers and dance organizations continually need images for portfolios, promotion, and documentation. A typical example is the image, at the beginning of this article, showing a ballerina executing a grand jete.


A second reason has to do with the dancing itself. During the photo session, because of being observed in a new way, the dancer may be stimulated and encouraged to try new things. After the photo session, looking at the images can provide insight into the work done during the session, perhaps leading to a subsequent session where the process is repeated at a higher level. In other words, photography can contribute to the development of choreography, just as movement contributes to the development of images. For example, the photo above of a deliberate fall encouraged the dancer to develop this movement for a piece that she was choreographing.

A third reason has to do with the dancers themselves. Sometimes--and I wish I had a magic formula to guarantee this result--the camera reveals not only the movement but the mover's inner self. This may occur because of the special way the camera sees things, or because the presence of the camera encourages dancers to open up emotionally. An example is the photo of the dancer in the striped socks, on the cover of this issue. In this jump, the dancer displays her unique personality and commitment as well as her sense of humor.

A fourth reason is to help dancers see themselves. Other artists can observe their instruments--pianists their pianos, painters their paint and brushes--but it is difficult to see one's own body in action, and the body is of course the dancer's instrument. Even if photographs do not win awards, they can assist dancers in self-scrutiny. The accompanying photo (opposite, left) helped the dancer evaluate this particular movement, a leap while looking downward.

Dance Photography as Documentation

One often hears that photography is used for documenting choreography or performance. …