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Capturing EmotionDenby on Photography


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#1 drb

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Posted 11 March 2007 - 09:31 AM

A post by bart today in Writings on Ballet references an article on ballet writers that ends with the following remark:

...to quote Denby, from a review that discussed the problem with dance photography:
"A shot can show you only one gesture, which is like hearing only one note of a piece of music, or one word of a poem. The more painstaking the photograph, the more pointless the effect. You don't see the change in the movement, so you don't see the rhythm, which makes dancing. The picture represents a dancer, but it doesn't give the emotion that dancing gives you as you watch it."
Leave it to Denby to get it just right.


This was in the context of the article writer's displeasure with some studio shots. However, I think there are photographers who do capture "the emotion that dancing gives you as you watch it." Recent examples would include Gene Schiavone's pictures of Vishneva/Malakhov in ABT's Manon (I saw the performances live), available on his website, and many of the photos in Rosalie O'Connor's Getting Closer: A Dancer's Perspective (again, including those of performances I'd attended).
Of course the photography I reference was of live performance, and I tend to agree with Denby on posed studio pictures.

#2 4mrdncr

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Posted 16 March 2007 - 01:35 PM

I agree with drb, but not totally with Denby. Yes, movement is part of the vocabulary of dance; but so is epaulement, line, and grace, which are usually still visible if caught 'within the movement' during a studio shoot, and therefore, still bring an emotional response from this viewer. No, I do not like "posed" shots, because the emotion/energy/motivation of a live performance are often missing--but not always, as Rosalie O'Conner's studio pics show. Again, it's a matter of catching the moment(um?) 'within the movement', and having dancers who can act always helps too.

#3 SanderO

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Posted 16 March 2007 - 04:26 PM

The use of ballet in photography is a very special genre. It can be looked at in one of two ways in my opinion. One being documentary snapshots... a slice of time which cannot possibly convey all that is going on during a dance. At best it might imply something. Studio shots are almost the equivalent of passport photos... of publicity shots.

Another type of photography using ballet as a subject attempts to use the dancers, the graphic composition, light and shadow, the ability to closely examine the human form much the way a painting is a visual statement. The purpose is completely different... and it is not meant to be ballet. It is meant to be PHOTGRAPHY. All photography has some subject... dancers and ballet happen to be one of many.

When we look at objective art paintings we don't dismiss them as irrelevant because they fail to accurately portray movement or show the effect of time, of gesture and so forth. They are not meant to be "life"... they are meant to make us think about the subject, the visual, and things "implied" by the artist.

Ballet photography is not meant to be Ballet... yet it is referential and can be very powerful and evocative of the emotions, as for example, in story ballet. Or it can be something which is visually stunning like a marble sculpture of Michalangelo or Bernini. Denby were these sculptors doing with that stone and chisels?

Photography of dance is meant to be different from film or videos of dance... which are really only "facsmiles" of an actual performance. No one would even claim that a video or film of a performance comes close to being "art". It's not meant to be. But some ballet themed photographs are definitely elevated to the level of art. It's meant to be art.

I would refer readers to view some of Gene Schiavone's work;

http://www.geneschia...incipal-Dancers

especially his black and white photos as the one mentioned above by drb. I don't know who Denby is, but he needs to spend some time with some of the photography of Mr. Schiavione and others, and I remind him of the painting by Rene Magritte who addressed the very concept that Mr Denby is so blind to, The Treachery of Images

http://en.wikipedia....i/Rene_magritte

What is really quite amazing about some ballet photography is the ability of a single still image to "transport" the viewer and capture some of the power of ballet. This is the genius of great ballet photography. It's rare, but it's there. Look for it!

#4 carbro

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Posted 16 March 2007 - 06:52 PM

I don't know who Denby is, but he needs to spend some time with some of the photography of Mr. Schiavione and others, and I remind him of the painting by Rene Magritte who addressed the very concept that Mr Denby is so blind to, The Treachery of Images

http://en.wikipedia....i/Rene_magritte

What is really quite amazing about some ballet photography is the ability of a single still image to "transport" the viewer and capture some of the power of ballet. This is the genius of great ballet photography. It's rare, but it's there. Look for it!

Well, it's a bit late for that. Edwin Denby (1903-1983) was a most distinguished dance (and architecture) critic. His compilation "Looking at the Dance" was an invaluable part of my early ballet education. You can search his other works on Amazon, and you can probably pull up a few of his essays or poems on the net.

Happy reading!

#5 SanderO

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Posted 17 March 2007 - 03:46 AM

Carbro,

Thanks for the reference. I, did indeed show and admit to my ignorance about Edwin Denby, but my feelings about ballet photography still stand. Even though Denby is dead and may have been a sensitive and talented dance critic... he was wrong about at least some ballet photography, in my opinion.

Perhaps when he was writing there weren't the quality of photography that is being produced today and he may have been accurate in his description of what he saw at the time. But conceptionally he was wrong even if no photographer of ballet at the time had done anything more than "snapshots".

This raises, in my mind the notion of the advancement of "art" over time. For me, this is most obvious as seen in film. Although there were undoubtedly great films done in the era when film was first introduced, the medium was new, obviously unexplored, and the efforts often look naive, crude and unpolished. Much of this can be attributed to technical advancements, but some of it has nothing to do with technical matters, like scripts, acting, blocking, composition and so forth. Although we have a lot of awful films produced today (most of them) we do find many talented cinematographers who have elevated film to a high art (almost).

Since I wasn't around in the early 20th or the late 19th century I don't know whether Opera and Ballet were more artistic, refined, polished or whatever word you want to apply... or if the productions were of the same level. When you introduce the technical advancements available today, a Met Opera production of Zauberflote, for example, looks very different than it would have in Mozart's time, but the music etc is exactly the same. Have the new artistic directors and artists who perform these masterpieces managed to elevate older productions or are they just a different "version"? Look at Shakespeare.. Now there's a timeless genius!

Most of what looks like advancement may be attributable to technical advancement, especially in the case of photography. But having more technical abilities at one's disposal may in fact, be the gateway to artistic expression, perhaps not achievable with more privative tools by lesser artists. That, of course is debatable especially for something like Ballet.

How much of the art of a performance is the dance, the music, the choreography, the costumes, the sets, the lighting etc.? Could a great performance at the opera be in a terrible production? Performance artists do have to consider and work in context... and in the case of ballet it can depend on the partner or the corp even!

Interesting stuff to thing about.

#6 bart

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Posted 17 March 2007 - 06:15 AM

I think there are photographers who do capture "the emotion that dancing gives you as you watch it."

I think I agree up to this point: a still photograph can remind one of an emotional state induced by watching complex movement. Or it can give a hint of the emotions you will feel when you watch the dancers moving.

But a photograph is still .... "still." Not in the sense of implying a brief pause in real motion. "Still" in the sense of frozen. Frozen eternally. I can't get over the feeling that there is a profound, unbridgeable gap between this and live performance. Dancers on a stage, even when not moving, are breathing. And you feel it. Life is never still, and its essence is change.

So what is a dance photograph: an object of contemplation? an aide-memoire? a launching pad for fantasy? something very beautiful that reveals and "holds" an experience often blurred by motion? All of the above. And certainly it has relevence, to use a point raised by SanderO.

It can certainly reach the level of art -- but, for me at least, it's a genre quite distinct from dance itself.

#7 SanderO

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Posted 17 March 2007 - 07:10 AM

Bart,

Photography is .. photography... Dance is.. dance. The subject of "art" is usually outside of the medium...

When dance is the subject of photography we are recalling dance and the fact that it is about living dancers... which may be dancing a "story" about people long dead or who never existed...

Art, whatever the medium is about "beauty" and is meant to make us think about life, form, and the human condition. If we are not provoked to think, then the artist has failed (with me anyway).

The artist who chooses ballet and dance as his subject matter is much like the artist or the sculpture who chooses to use humans as his subjects doing whatever humans do. You won't be hearing people say... that painting of is not about real living breathing people... it's just oil paint on canvas and the IMAGES of people.

But we think in images, and they have meaning as does movement and gesture. Some forms of art REQUIRE time for their expression... music is an example. You can't have a "snapshot" of music.. which has any real meaning or relavancy to the entire composition. Even the score is not the music but a graphic representation of it.

I believe that ballet photography can play a powerful and thought provoking role for lovers of ballet... and even those who are not "into" ballet. As a slice of time it can be graphically beautiful and demonstrate how the human body and form is evocative of meaning and for those who know the ballet it can activate their own memories which are little more than images flashing through our own brains.

A successful dance photograph is many things as Bart notes... but it is not dance. Neither is it "dance" when I sit in the hall and observe it! It may be for the dancers, but I am an observer of the dancers.

Dance photography is distinct from dance as painting is distinct from life. The key is what is the experience in the mind of the beholder. If the art works... it speaks to the observer. And there will be good dance photography and bad dance photography as there is good and bad dance... there could even be good photography from bad dance!

Read Godel Escher and Bach by Douglas Hofstader. he has some very interesting ideas in there.

#8 bart

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Posted 17 March 2007 - 07:36 AM

Thank you so much, SandorO, for your thoughtful, beautifully expresssed response.

I guess I was responding to something that hasn't actually been put into words on this thread (though it certanlny was on our earlier "Who are your favorite photographers of dance" thread, where some posters did indeed use language which seemed to confuse or conflate object and subject, so strong was their wish to praise certain individual photographer's work.

However, as I reread what has been written HERE, I realize that you, 4mrdncr, carbro, drb and I are very much in the same boat on this.

Incidentally, I especially appreciate the following:

Some forms of art REQUIRE time for their expression... music is an example. You can't have a "snapshot" of music.. which has any real meaning or relavancy to the entire composition. Even the score is not the music but a graphic representation of it.

And this:

A successful dance photograph is many things as Bart notes... but it is not dance. Neither is it "dance" when I sit in the hall and observe it! It may be for the dancers, but I am an observer of the dancers.

Both will change the way I look at dance and listen to the music. Thanks.

#9 SanderO

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Posted 17 March 2007 - 04:30 PM

What is interesting about art is that we are always different each time we experience it! So even for something as static as a photographic or a painting, as we evolve and grow, it is a different experience each time we look at it.

The experience of ballet or opera or music is very different for people who are intimately involved in these are as it for someone who is not. It is also very different as we accumulate artistic and life experience. as a performance art... it is never ever the same

I suspect this is one of the reasons that you see more older people at ballet, opera and in art museums and at concerts. A lifetime of exposure seems to open one's mind up to art in a way that perhaps a young mind is incapable of. But heck.. seeing something for the first time can be as memorable as losing your virginity.

Is the experience of seeing a ballet for the 50th time much different from seeing it the first or the second? Of course it is! it is because we take our entire life to the viewing experience and the more life we have in us... the more (life) experience we can bring to the ballet viewing experience. Technical training is a whole other matter and someone young with a lot of training and a lot of skill has a very different experience from someone untrained with little technical experience.

And then you have the geniuses who have been "in ballet" for years and then stay with it after they stop performing. Now those people really can see a lot that normal folks just can't. Thankfully for us non ballet people they generously offer up their wisdom.

I will say this about ballet and dance. It is an art expression that we (average John and Jane Q Public) have the least exposure to in our lives and probably the least understanding of it. Photography on the other hand is something which bombards us thousands of times a day and music seems ever present and hard to escape.

Ballet holds a very special and esoteric place in the arts.

You gotta go to it... don't ya?

#10 carbro

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Posted 20 March 2007 - 08:55 PM

Perhaps David Michalek's project for this summer's Lincoln Center Festival will bridge the gap. I'll be there!

#11 bart

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Posted 21 March 2007 - 05:41 AM

The films of just five seconds worth of movement were shot at super-high speed and replayed at a speed that makes each film 10 minutes long. The result is movement so slow that if you glance at the video, your eye initially perceives a photograph. But look at the image longer and it moves at a rate that allows you to watch the minutia of each step breath by breath. It solves the dance photography problem and goes one further.

I've seem some of this sort of slow-motion done with dancers doing barre. It's miraculous how much it reveals and how powerful the effect, especially in high definition. "Eye-opening" in a literal meaning of the term. Michalek's method seems to take this one step further.

#12 SanderO

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Posted 21 March 2007 - 01:43 PM

Seeing what you can't see with the assistance of technoly can be interesting. There have been motion studies in the past to better understand things which seem to move so quickly that we cannot see what makes up the movement.

This can be useful for scientists and I suppose for people who have a techinical interest in movement. And it can be a type of visual art as well... perhaps the way an xray or cat scan is.

As far as watching ballet whirl by... I am just fine with the limitations of my own visual system.

#13 bart

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Posted 21 March 2007 - 02:24 PM

As far as watching ballet whirl by... I am just fine with the limitations of my own visual system.

I guess my interest in this kind of "seeing" developed only afer I myself attempted ballet classes a few years ago.

What one sees of a dancer's movement on stage is the product of so many smaller movements, sub-conscious decisions, suble adjustments. And ... slow is difficult to do, even in real time. As is linkage from one movement to the next.

I confessed to being mesmerised if I can get close enough to see how this miracle of spirit and physics is achieved -- frame by frame, so to speak.


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