The History of Dance Photography

Dance photography falls into three main categories - Posed, Production, and Performance.

Posed photography, in a studio or elsewhere, is the original and classic medium used to publicise performers and performances. With the limitations of early cameras this was the only method of capturing dancers who were required to remain motionless for up to twenty seconds.

At the inception of posed dance photography in the early 1900s some ethereal images were captured, but they did not encapsulate the emotion of motion – the heart of dance. Not withstanding, photographers, who were limited and frustrated by primitive equipment, used their guile and ingenuity to bless us with images that stain the memory to this day. And to this day, posed photographs are still an essential and oft used vehicle.

Production photography is, in essence, recreating the performance without the audience and within parameters defined by the photographer. This was the next step in the evolution of dance photography. Photographers were able to recreate the atmosphere and appearance of a performance in their own time, under their own lighting direction and without the inherent constraints of having an audience.

One of the key hindrances for a performance photographer is the need to be invisible. If you’ve paid good money to see a show the very last thing you want is someone obscuring your view with a big camera and a distracting flash. A good photographer must be sensitive to, and aware of, the audience. The negative consequence of this, from the perspective of the photographer, is that one is rarely in the ideal position to capture the performance. Naturally, a good photographer will work around this, but he / she will still walk away at the end of the night wishing he’d been over there during the lift, or higher up when she spun, or closer when emotion was etched on the performer’s face. Production photography is a means of nullifying all those restraints and creating a setting conducive to painting the picture. Unfortunately, it is a very costly pursuit. Effectively, one is bearing all the costs of a performance without the counterbalance of a paying public. 

Personally, I like to show-up before a performance and photograph the rehearsal. This is as close as I can get to production photography. Yet, it’s far from ideal. The performers are rarely in make-up or costume, the lighting director is honing his craft, performers are going through the motions and not the emotions, random people are drifting around on the stage, the director is the one in charge (and not me), etc……

And finally, to Performance Photography, the ziggurat for dance photographers. It’s what we all strive for. That one perfect still image that captures all the energy and passion of the dance and the dancer.

It all began in 1872 with an English photographer named Eadweard Muybridge and his involvement in a popular debate of the day. The question was – Do all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground at the same time during a gallop? In 1878 Muybridge proved, in a series of photos called The Horse in Motion, that all four hooves do leave the ground. I won’t go into the detail here, you can do your own homework, but suffice it to say that this was the first photographic study of motion. This endeavour, along with his invention of the Zoopraxiscope, was the forerunner of today’s cinema.

His work in Animal Locomotion (that includes us humans) catalyzed our collective curiosity of the body and it’s movement. There is tremendous beauty in the sinews of a strained and contorted animal. From George Stubbs’ magnificent paintings of horses and Leonardo da Vinci’s enduring illustrations of the human body to Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually charged imagery we cannot remain indifferent and unmoved by the sheer beauty of form and flex.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that performance photography became feasible and the suggestion of travel and motion could be translated to a still image. For the first time, photographic equipment had progressed enough to allow gestures to be captured. Ever since then we photographers have been appeased with great strides in technology – lenses, cameras, and lighting.

Over the entire span of the 20th Century we have all begun to grasp the value and magnitude of photographic images. Their immediacy furnishes us with a fresh and instant empathy. Within the realms of dance we photographers have been able to freeze unique moments that speak to performers and audiences alike. The 21st century is a new playground in which we photographers can push the limits, explore, experiment, and struggle in our endeavours to depict an art that has been at the heart of our species from day one.  The physical expression of the self predated language and remains, to this day, the most venerable and credible of all forms of expression – “…….artists use lies to tell the truth.”

Yet, as valuable as we dance photographers are, we are nothing without the performer, and this fact must always reside in our minds. It must constantly inform our art. 




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