Creating performance through the lens of a photographer:
Preface: The intended reader is all sides of the article: choreographer, photographer, and audience.
The following is a compilation of ideas and struggles I have found participating in each role. Generally,
performance photography principles apply across studio, promotional, rehearsal, and live performance
documentation circumstances as choreographers may apply to similar scenarios in different settings.
It is by no means suggesting a best or absolute way of creating work. I do suggest that due to the
availability of photography, all individuals have a pre-programed understanding of it even if they cannot
directly articulate it (I recommend looking up advertisement, branding, and image association research
for further information.)
A special thank you for Isabel Umali and Rachel Switlick for editing
“[...] it is not recommended to lighten up a dark space.”
Because of the strong focus on the ideas of community and the sense of self for this fellowship, I’m realizing the overlap between my community, my choreography, and my photography. When I came to NYC, I was more of a dancer and less of a photographer. Then an injury inhibited me from participating as a performer, so I maintained access to the performance community through photography: I met people photographing them, I saw their work through my camera and photos, and I even helped them create their own work through experimental shoots. Through experiencing dance from the photographer's perspective, I gained a lot of information. I have found mechanisms/principles of performance photography, and I apply them as a lens and choreographic tools to create performance work, beyond thinking of creating picturesque moments. Photography is more widely accessible to potential audiences due to its ability to be packaged and sold, its availability, and its simplicity. Picture frames line homes: wedding shots, newborn sessions, school portraits, snaps of one time friends from summer camp, band posters, cityscapes, landscapes, and space fillers. Now that digital and social media has come to the forefront of our daily lives, the general population has access to multitudes of photographs daily. They exist as documentation, craft, and fine art. The form of photography is easily accessible, even if the theme is esoteric because individuals have had to interpret it throughout their lives. When I have inquired about how someone likes/appreciates a photograph, I’ve never experienced the answer, “Well, I’m not a photographer.” However, I’ve been met with that response — and a hesitation or complete refusal — when posing the same question about a performance. Asking them to think about one moment as a picture gets a very thorough response. There is merit to addressing potential crossovers or view points from photographic to choreographic approaches. Along with utilizing the mechanics of photography as a method of making choreographic choices, it harnesses the audiences comprehension of photography and applies it to a less approachable form. Also, an understanding of photography principles could help the choreographer present their work in ways that assist in the production of their desired promotional and documentary material.
All photographs begin with light, and it is the guiding factor for the settings on the camera. Contrary to popular belief, “This bathroom light was too good; selfie!” is false. I realize that without a photographer's knowledge, one wouldn't know that the light they like will not translate well to the photo. I tell everyone the best light is the sun and adjust from there. Natural lighting is not always available or reliable, but the sun provides the greatest amount of light to tell the truth in: it allows for clear shots regardless of movement speed. If there is going to be bright, revealing light, all aspects should be treated as visible; therefore, the choreographer should not assume the audience is not going to see something or that it won’t exist in a photograph. A directional light can add clarity to the movement, but allow for obscuring other aspects. It can provide shadows and contrast, but a variation can include a bright directional light with the. For the production process, it is always easier to make shadows darker, but it is not recommended to lighten up a dark space.
When adjusting for lower intensity light, the photographer can increase the sensitivity of the sensor. Increasing the ISO means increasing the sensitivity, which also increases the grain or noise (term for visual distortion in digital photography). The human eye makes a comparable adjustment with pupil dilation and a process known as dark adaptation. After sitting in dim lighting, people have an increased sensitivity to light. The details eyes receive when adjusting to dimmer light, however, is reduced and they have a similar grain/noise. Also, due to differences in visual acuity, not everyone has the same ability to adjust, and a camera will never have the same acuity as a human eye. I think this may be an important aspect to consider: not everyone has the same capacity to adjust, so choosing the least amount of adjustment possible may be the best option. In addition, flashing causes drastic changes at an unadaptable speed, so movement is captured somewhat arbitrarily. Choreographers may want to decide if being able to see the movement is more important than the aesthetic of flashing lights. It may be advisable for choreographers to designate a time to shoot that material with a steady light.
Beyond lighting, I think an important idea for photographer and choreographer is that not everything will be recorded. Photos exist in moments; what happened before or after doesn’t exist, and effort/movement is not always readable. The camera cannot continuously click, and the photographer may not be able to get the shot of the moment the choreographer wanted; the audience is not going to remember every moment, so identifying the more important aspects of a section, phrase and piece can help identify points to amplify or redact. Frequently, I ask the choreographer if there are any specific moments they definitely want captured so we may produce them in a specific way. Mostly the reply is, “It is all important,” which goes against my mantra of “nothing is precious.” Generally, I can tell what aspects or moments of a piece are more precious to the choreographer based off motifs of the piece or how long they focus on a moment during a limited tech rehearsal. When attempting to take a specific shot, the performer or choreographer may ask to start a moment from an earlier moment or continue on past, which expends time and energy. The idea that the moment before or after doesn’t matter resonates here. There are many ways to come into a moment, but some moments have unreadable efforts in photo, video, and live performance. A sense of extra fluff has to exist in order to be readable, but this is often given a negative connotation of acting or dramatizing. I can recall a particular moment that a piece had a repeated sequence with a jump, but I was unable to capture it while the performers were running through the entire sequence. I asked to just take a shot of that jump, but the performer started from further back in the phrase because that’s where the jump comes from for them. Focusing is difficult when the object is moving forward so after repeating it a couple of times, I explained that the movement before the jump will not be captured in a photo and that doing to jump, in isolation, will look the same. Once we got a shot of the jump itself, we realized that while the moment felt large to the performer, it needed a bit of exaggeration of parts to capture the intended efforts. (Side note: I’m just going to be frank here. We all have that moment where we felt something was very intense, but when we see a recording of it we realize it doesn’t look close to how it felt from the inside.) These moments may be more identifiable from an outside eye who has not been fully invested in the creation of the work.
Every photographer has a preferred framing: close-up and intimate, mid range, full-body, full frame. With zoom lenses a photographer has a certain amount of play; however, a live dance audience does not. Since the audience cannot zoom, it is important to indicate the choreographer’s preference, and the choice has to be made by the choreographer through proximity or spotlighting if necessary and available. To create a sense of intimacy, place the actions at the front of the stage and/or highlight only the parts of the stage you want to be seen: cropping to zoom exponentially increases the noise. This intimacy also corresponds to the depth of field or the depth measurement that remains in focus. The farther away things are, the larger the depth of focus; the closer things are, the smaller the depth of focus. There are small changes that can be made, but creating a larger depth of field requires more available light, however, apart from in a photography studio or in broad daylight, there is generally not enough light or stillness to allow for any change in aperture beyond largest aperture (smallest depth of field).
For me as a creator, I tend to make performance work from visions of images or short clips of films that occur randomly in my head. I extrapolate from there, filling in the open spaces between those images. I feel as though most of the information I put forward is already known, but for creator and audience, these ideas may have never been articulated. It is useful for the audience who attend the community garden performance on 29.9.19 to consider these ideas of light, space, place, and effort as they directly correlate to how I’m able to manufacture the experience. The piece is laced with other ingredients, including subtle hints of modern witchcraft and gender discourse, but the base of my practice is cultivating movement and investigating how to frame it.