dance photography

Dance Photography Closeup: NYC Dance Project

If you have never spent an afternoon cursing under your breath while trying to photograph the rapidly movement of a body under dim lighting at just the perfect fraction of a second required to get a well composed photo, you may not realize how very difficult it can be to capture that one simple moment of dance. If you have, chances are you developed a deep appreciation for those photographers whose work seems to effortlessly capture the spirit of the dancer in flight. During the process of writing my Dance Production book, I had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of these talented photographers.

When I saw the work  of the NYC Dance Project, formed by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, I was immediately struck by their ability to capture the essence of the dancer in motion. NYC Dance Project is a collaboration between Deborah, Ken, and some of the top dancers working in the industry to create some truly stunning works of art. Each photo shoot is prepared as though it were it’s own dance production, with attention paid to costumes, locale, movement, and lighting. Over the last few years, Browar and Ory’s work has been on fire, showcased in some amazing publications – most recently the March 2016 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, featuring photos of American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer Misty Copeland posing in Degas-inspired scenes for the magazine. You can find more of their work online at nycdanceproject.com or on their Facebook page. In addition, they are publishing a book of their work with Black Dog & Leventhal/Hachette Books in September 2016.

I interviewed Deborah in 2014 regarding the process of dance photography. The chapter it was associated with was cut during my editing process, leaving me without a logical place for it in the book. I always hoped there would be a good place to showcase it, and I thought this might be a good platform in which to do so. I’ve included the interview below:

Tell me a bit about your background – do you come from the dance world?

I have a background in dance, I was a dance major at the University of Michigan. I danced professionally before I became a photographer.  Ken came from a fashion photography background, but had photographed some dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet early in his career for a magazine and also an advertising campaign.  He only dances with my children in the morning making them breakfast!  He is currently completely immersed in the dance world, seeing performances and meeting choreographers and dancers.

How did you get your start as a dance photographer?

My freshman year of college I was injured and was unable to start the semester.  My father had just bought a camera and had not even taken it out of the box.  I had to go to watch the rehearsals of the pieces I was supposed to dance in and brought my new camera with me.  It seemed like a completely natural transition.  After I graduated, I did commercial work for magazines and did not have time to work on dance photography.  I had 2 children and was very busy with commercial work.

After I met Ken and moved to NYC, my children began dancing at the American Ballet Theatre school.  We were redecorating my daughter’s bedroom and were searching for dance photos for the walls.  We both decided we needed to take them ourselves!  We decided to start NYC Dance Project and began photographing dancers together.

How does storytelling factor into your dance photography?

We are trying to tell stories with our photos, they are capturing a moment in time.  We are looking to capture the personality of the dancer, the feeling and emotion of the movement and the way that particular dancer moves. We feel Martha Graham says it best in this quote:  ‘To me, the body says what words cannot. I believe that dance was the first art. I believe that dance was first because it’s gesture, it’s communication. That doesn’t mean it’s telling a story, but it means it’s communicating a feeling, a sensation to people. Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body.’Martha Graham, 1985 

What does your typical session entail?

For us it is a little like a performance – there is hair/makeup, costume decisions, lighting, music and movement.  The dancers often tell us our sessions are harder than a performance, they have to be completely on the entire time.  We collaborate on the choreography together, or sometimes watch them improvise and stop them when we see a movement we want to work with.

Do you find a need for different photography techniques connected to certain styles of dance?

Not exactly.  We bring in a special floor for pointe work and we adjust the lights according to the movement.  We really adapt to each dancer individually, regardless of if they are a ballet or modern dancers.

What are some of the primary concerns in photographing dance for the stage?

You lose a lot of control when you photograph a dress rehearsal.  It’s no longer your shoot and you can’t control the lighting, movement, etc.  You really can only document what is happening.  You don’t get to work directly with dancers and it has a completely different feeling – the photos are about the particular dance and not about the dancer.

Is there any specialty equipment you use for dance vs. other types of photo shoots?

We still work with a large format camera, which really slows us down.  Ken wanted to work this way, and I resisted at first, but now see the advantage to working slower.  You really have to pay more attention and you need to know exactly what you want to capture.