Dancing in Air

The magnanimous Lois Greenfield's subjects are often suspended in air, frozen in incomprehensible positions. But there's no manipulation, no retouching. What you see has somehow come to pass: The work of an ephemeral moment. While your eye might not catch it, the camera tells another story – and Greenfield's work is proof of that. A luminary within the dance photography genre, her shots are laden with creative deception via visual aids – mirrors and beams, sheer cloths and shadows. The photographs are strong, but vulnerable. Alive. Perplexing. Absolutely moving. And beautiful.
A ruminator on her art form, Greenfield graciously spoke with me on what she loves about her work as a dance photographer, and how she arrived there.
What about photography captivates you, or initially drew you in?
"I started as a newspaper photojournalist. I think I was intrigued that photography was a way of entering another strata of society. It gives you access to life situations you'd never have access to otherwise – whether it's the maximum security prison at Walpole, or backstage at a rock and roll concert, or a firemen's ball or parade. You can just walk through a door, and there's this whole other world. Something else, too – which I think all photographers might share – is the feeling that being behind the camera isn't really erasing your presence, but intensifying your presence. It's somehow hiding who you are behind the camera, somehow becoming more anonymous, even though you're more visible and intrusive. So, going incognito behind the lens – that was appealing to me as well."
You originally wanted to be a photojournalist for National Geographic. How did you make the switch, in terms of professional aspirations, from capturing news to capturing something visually intriguing?
"I found that I liked taking photos that were appreciated for their artistic merits rather than their editorial content. The editors of the newspapers where I worked always chose the images that reflected a political point of view – and I always wanted to choose the most visually interesting ones, rather than the ones that told the best story. I thoroughly admire photojournalists as much or more as any other type of photographer – especially now, with the plethora of images in our lives, and the fact that photography is even more democratized with everyone's cell phone. Photojournalists have to tell a story. But I don't have to tell a story with what I do. And without a caption, you don't necessarily know what the story is: Looking at a photograph of a bunch of women waiting at a train station – their faces welled-up with emotion – you have no idea if their sons got off the train or didn't. There's an ambiguity of narrative in photojournalism, even though it's supposed to be literal. It needs the narrative, needs the words. So, I admire it for that reason. Plus it's hard to move someone emotionally."
How long does it take you to get the perfect shot?
"It's hard to say. The way I work is extremely counterintuitive, because I use strobes. They don't recycle fast; you can't do continuous action shots. The dancers do a phase, and I have one click. I ask the dancers to improvise, then when I find something I like, I ask them to repeat what they did – and I've never had a dancer say they can't – but their energy flags. There's sort of ramp up, and it coalesces until the moment has come to its fullest expression, and then it starts to peter out because it's no longer fresh, because the dancers are trying to replicate positions, or they're exhausted. After maybe 10 or 12 tries, their energy is on the way down. It just doesn't sustain itself. So, at that point, it's time to move on."
Do you miss shooting on film?
"It's not really a yes or no. I don't gain by shooting digitally insofar as I get to see it right away – I either get the shot or I don't. Because I started with film, I'm trained to engage with what I see through the camera. I don't know how much people trained on digital actually really look through the camera. If they were then handed a film camera, without the benefit of seeing what they just shot, would they take the same quality shots? But with my generation, we engage more with the moment of capture. Dance photography is an anticipatory art form, and what I do with a split second is virtually imperceptible. If I didn't sense it as it was happening, and without the right lighting, I wouldn't have the pictures, because the moments don't come back. You can repeat something, but it's not the same – and that's one of the aspects of dance photography that fascinates me. The one thing I do miss in shooting with film is better focus. Digital cameras don't have the same depth of field as film cameras."
Is there any photograph that fully satisfies you?
"There's a photograph of a dancer flying in and playing the bass, and I'm very fond of it for a couple of reasons. It was one of the few times that I had an idea for a photo ahead of time; it's usually improvisation. I was asked to created a poster for a JVC Jazz Festival, and I had the idea to have a jazz musician fly in. The photo was taken at the casting session, and there was still a backdrop up from my previous shoot. At first, the dancer/gymnast in the picture – Andrew Pacho – couldn't do it, but said he'd stay and help coach the others trying out. So we had an assistant holding the bass. Each dancer would try to launch himself horizontally, come down letting go of the bass, and the assistant would jump in to catch it. Finally, at the end of the day, Andrew said he figured out how to do it. That whole moment would never come back, so I put film in my camera and took the picture. It was the lighting, his mood, the backdrop – it all came together. It was the perfect picture. I don't feel that it should have been any other way. And with the dancer's generosity toward everyone else, in the way it happened, I like what it symbolized."
View the breadth of Greenfield's work on her website:www.loisgreenfield.com
Filed under: Dance Photography