a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

musings on the artist's life

Posted in: Creativity, Photography

Ignoring the rules

I can get pretty wound up with everything I’m juggling and, every now and then, I need a remedial lesson in breaking through walls and trusting my instincts. Here’s one of those from a few years back, a week-long reminder:

There’s an indulgence in letting oneself go, an indulgence we don’t often given in to. Can I creep closer to that edge between reality and madness, like some of the great painters? Some days, it’s incredibly tempting. Even if madness is not my goal, pushing the boundaries is a great idea. How far can I go and still be able to return to my normal work? If I give up the safety net of needing to return, will I see more? Will I be able to express it better? Will I lose myself? Would it be worth it?

I spent a week in November with the dance company because the director and choreographer, John Malashock, and I have been trying to work together for the last two years. Schedules never meshed, somehow. No expectations going in, no results required.

If I give up the safety net of needing to return, will I see more? Will I lose myself?

I dragged some old film out from the back of my refrigerator, different kinds, and didn’t pay too much attention to what I was using – just kept feeding film into the cameras. Everything from Delta 100 (pushed) to Kodak 1000 (prints for birthday parties). Deliberately did not use my normal, indispensable TMZ.

I had no one to answer to on this project so I got to play. Learned some interesting things about the film—did a lot of documentary style work (accurate, useful). Couldn’t quite let go of the left-brain and found myself composing shots for PR or brochure purposes (centered, lots of room for cropping, useful either horizontal or vertical, razor-sharp focus, using the short zoom to get a full picture). Got to know the sequence of the dances as they were being worked out.

Some of the best shooting was from improv sessions, explorations of action-to-reaction in emotional terms translated into the physical. John set the situation, then watched and later, extracted certain movements, sometimes abstracted them down to something else, and incorporated them into the work.

Here, I started letting go of the PR-correct images. And towards the end of the week, I started to get wonderfully out-of-focus images. The light in the studio is (mercifully, for once) less than ideal, so I was shooting at a 30th, a 60th, gives a great sense of movement. I started to place figures at the edges and towards the corners of my frames.


A month later, I returned to rehearsals for two days. Maybe it was just me being a different person, maybe I was learning to see the dancers by having, slogged away at shooting their work last month, not seeming to get anywhere terribly interesting. This time it was different and I knew it as I was shooting—I was very much in the zone, that mental place that has no roadmap, you’re just there. Time stops. No sense of it passing, and I’m always surprised when I come out of it, like a diver surfacing or a dreamer returning to consciousness from deep REM sleep.

I never got out the short zoom, used only the big lens, sometimes with the extender. Didn’t try to record the essence of the dance by shooting the dance but concentrated on one dancer in each runthrough, just body parts—their instruments of expression—deliberately cutting heads off in my framing, pushing the subject to the extreme edge of frames with 80% negative space. All of a sudden, something’s been said here. And it can go much further still. And it was fun.

I’m always surprised when I come out of it, like a diver surfacing or a dreamer returning to consciousness

Going back again next month. The colors are particularly interesting, especially since I usually see—and shoot—in black and white. The film is old enough that the colors are no longer sharp and have started to shift, beautiful, gentle golds and lavenders.

Watching the improv exercises was a good reminder of the need artists have for play. John would take a movement, have the dancers incorporate it into a section, realize he didn’t want to use it after all, and discard an afternoon’s or a couple days’ work. Not everything we do needs to be productive in and of itself. It doesn’t all have to result in a finished project. It’s a path, a means to an end, and we’re better off for having taken the detours along the way.


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