Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Racing the Clock- Sunrise and Spontaneity on Lake Michigan


“Sweet Jesus you’d better be awake.”

My Chicago collaborator and tour guide, Katie Yohe, is meeting me downtown at 5:30am, and her text says it all. We're doing a sunrise Dancers Among Us photo with Jessica Deahr. The idea is titled, “Walk of Shame". We meet near a bunch of bars.

I immediately don’t like the location. Maybe I should have done some pre-production. The clock is ticking. Sunrise is scheduled for around 6:45am.

“Is Lake Michigan nearby?” I ask.

“Four blocks to the east.”

I decide to abandon the "Walk of Shame" idea (for now), and get a sunrise shot on the lake instead. I have less than an hour to figure out exactly what that shot will be.


We arrive to magical light on the lake. The cityscape is breathtaking, and I have no idea what to do. How do I find a pose that equals the beauty of this moment? We still don’t have Jessica- she is looking for parking. I really should have done some pre-production.


Jessica arrives. In a frantic effort to create a scenario, I borrow someone’s coffee cup. She strikes a pose and is immediately swallowed up by the environment.


Forget the cityscape. Let’s shoot the lake instead.


Forget the coffee cup. It looks too contrived. With no other prop in sight, I consider settling for a beautiful pose in the sunrise. I hate the idea, because it’s just so obvious and has been done a million times already. Why, oh why, didn’t I do a little pre-production? Just this one time?


Wait, is that a dog in the water? Before I even ask, Katie runs over to the owner Molly and works her magic. The dog’s name is Cooper, and Molly is willing to help tame the puppy's frantic energy. We decide on a game of fetch. This just might work.


That’s a pretty pathetic looking stick. We scour the beach looking for a better one. I hand Jessica the coffee cup and a new stick.


Why am I holding on to this coffee cup idea? Get rid of it already. Just a girl playing with her dog- beautiful! Except that Jessica is terrified of big dogs, and keeps dropping the stick in sheer terror. Eventually she warms to him a little, and we shoot for ten straight minutes (except when Cooper is running around in circles or chasing other dogs- tick tock Cooper!).


We review the images. I can sense Katie’s dissatisfaction immediately.

“She’s a dancer. She needs to be doing something! It needs movement.”

You’re right. Thank you, Katie.

Now if only Cooper would look at her.


Bingo! It only happens once but we get the shot. Cooper stands up, ready to fetch. He looks right at Jessica. She nails the pose, the stick in perfect line with her leg. A sailboat magically appears on the horizon. The gathering clouds are illuminated with a pre-dawn glow.


Minutes later the sun appears and Cooper, now a seasoned veteran, poses majestically. Jessica, exhausted from jumping in the sand, gathers her energy for one final push.

Pre-production is for sissies.

Katie put together a fun and quick video that gives you a behind-the-scenes look at this exciting morning. Take a look.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

5 Days and 50 Dancers Among Us -- Getting Gritty in Chicago

I booked my flight to shoot Dancers Among Us in Chicago before I had any dancers, any ideas or anywhere to stay. I figured if I got a few quality dancers I could get maybe a dozen shots I liked. But you just can't overstate the power of social media. After a few tweets and Facebook posts, I had over 50 terrific volunteers. I was able to shoot 23 of them in five days, and I ended up with 30 photographs I love.

Good week at the office.

Chicago is an amazing city. The dance community is tight knit and extremely talented. I was blown away by the skill of the dancers volunteering their time. They were creative, athletic, fearless and beautiful. They made me look very good.

I arrived at a coffee house Monday morning to meet my first three dancers, Kara Lozanovski, Justine Humenansky and Erin Clyne. I knew nothing about Chicago and had no idea where to go.

Luckily I had Katie Yohe. I photographed Katie years ago for my book, "Uncovered", and I hadn't seen her since. She proved to be an invaluable asset, volunteering her time and considerable energy to help me navigate this unfamiliar territory.

I wanted to shoot a ballet dancer en pointe at a construction site. Not the easiest way to start my trip, but Kara's enthusiasm made me hopeful. She was willing to do anything!

We all hopped in a cab and Katie took us to the Fulton Meat Packing District. I assumed Kara would be standing in front of a warehouse on her lunch break, but a wrong turn by the cabbie landed us at an Asphalt factory instead. We couldn't have been luckier.

I approached a couple of the guys on the site and showed them my work.

Photo by Katie Yohe

They suggested I shoot around the corner, away from the prying eyes of The Man in the office.

"Can we borrow your vest? And helmet? Oh, and how about your goggles?"

Believe it or not, there was even an abandoned shovel. If I had done pre-production for a month, I couldn't have found a better set-up. I asked Kara to roll in a mysterious black substance. She happily complied.

I had Kara stand on top of this soft mysterious substance. I asked her to lean on the shovel like she was exhausted, and kick her leg up while en pointe. She kept sinking in or falling down. I was desperate to get the shot quickly. The location was perfect but we had no permission.

Photo by Katie Yohe

We kept frantically shooting. After almost an hour and over 200 photographs, I realized I had tested everyone's patience long enough. I pulled myself away and reviewed the shots. They looked great! The location and the sky couldn't have been more perfect, and Kara nailed her pose.

As Kara walked towards me, I saw what this mysterious substance had done to her pointe shoes. I needed one more shot. She climbed back up on the mound and posed again.

This was an unbelievable start to an incredible trip, and it portended good things to come. I will release more Dancers Among Us photos later this week. In the meantime, if you want to know what that mysterious substance is, take a look at this fun behind the scenes video.

Video by Katie Yohe (of course!)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My Son's Inspiring Moment, and the Book Deal That Followed

Dancers Among Us will be coming to a bookstore near you! I have agreed to terms with Workman Publishing for a national book release of Dancers Among Us, tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2013. This gives me another seven months to shoot a slew of new images across the country before the book goes to press. Anyone have a spare RV collecting dust in their driveway?

In a recent blog post, Will They Like Me In Kansas?, I outlined the process that eventually led to this book deal. What I didn't mention was the moment of inspiration that led to the first photograph. For that, I must thank my son, Hudson.

One afternoon two years ago I watched Hudson play with his toy bus. I was trying to follow the fantasy racing through his three-year-old mind, as he intensely played with a yellow plastic box and armless figurines. At least that’s what I saw. He saw a thriving community rushing to catch the 77 local bus to Australia. He frantically jumped in place, mouth agape and slapping his knees, joyously reacting to a world I couldn’t see, but one nonetheless powerfully present for him. As we get older and wiser, what happens to this enthusiasm, this ability to be wholly present in the moment? Why are these pure moments of passion so often replaced by cynicism, boredom, and indifference? As I played with my son, I thought about creating photographs that would show the world as if through the fantastical eyes of a child. The people in the images would be alive and in the moment, celebrating all aspects and emotions of everyday life.

Shortly after playing “bus”, I attended a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and I knew immediately I had found my collaborators. Asking dancers to embody these ideals makes perfect sense. Dancers are storytellers. They’re trained to personify passionate moments, their bodies imbued with a stunning combination of artistry and athleticism. They create a fantasy world, offering us a deeper look into familiar settings. They bring to life what we feel but are unable to express physically.

The process of producing the images is organic; created through a spontaneous collaboration with the dancers. The essence of the subject material parallels the current state of our society, where people are finding an appreciation of smaller, simpler pleasures. I try to infuse the images with humor and joyfulness to make the viewer feel good. I hope the carefree nature of the work is a welcome antidote to the persistent anxiety that defines many people’s lives.

I’ve created Dancers Among Us for my two children, who are everything to me. There is so much I want for them. My hope is that they will live long and healthy lives, find loving partners and fulfilling careers, and experience the joys of parenthood. Most importantly, I want them to be free from self-consciousness, to discover the deep happiness of impassioned lives, and to find the serenity to be truly present. The photographs communicate my dreams for them more powerfully than words alone-- relish moments large and small, recognize the beauty around you, and be alive!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Curse of Faulty Equipment... and the Patience of Paul Taylor

"We've got a problem."

I was standing in the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center, talking with John Tomlinson, Executive Director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company (PTDC). Director of Marketing Alan Olshan stood close by, looking concerned.

"I enlarged some images to 80 inches for posters from last week's shoot, and they're not sharp enough."


The shoot to which John was referring was the two day, ten dancer marathon recently documented in my blog, "When Life Gives You Lemons..." I ended that blog with a confident declaration about the quality of the final images.

Perhaps my boast was a bit premature.

The campaign will not be revealed for a month or two, so I cannot mention any specifics. I can say with confidence that it will be stunning, unlike anything seen before. The dancers are phenomenal, and the concept PTDC created is fun and unique. They produced a tremendous amount of exciting images for any print and media campaign they pursue.

But there's this little issue with the posters. You know, the big posters hanging all over Lincoln Center. The face of the campaign. Well, they're not sharp enough.

I had rented a special camera for the marathon shoot. The Nikon D3X is specifically designed for shooting large images, but it wasn't focusing properly. Let me reiterate- I rented a camera to solve the problem before it became a problem, and it was broken! So I turned to my trusty D3S, the very best camera on the market. It takes amazing photographs that look flawless, even if you blow them up to 60 inches.

Did they say they needed 80 inch posters?

We returned to Lincoln Center on Monday to reshoot two dancers, Michael Trusnovec and Amy Young. I rented the D3X again, and it was fully functional this time. We had a very successful shoot, and we parted ways, excited to see the results. The images would look stunning as 80 inch posters.


I got home and ran straight to my studio. I couldn't wait to see the photos. I popped in the memory card, opened the file, and...

Nothing. No images. The memory card was corrupt.

I can't write about the rest of that evening; I don't have the skill to put a voice to the level of my frustration. I will say this though- I wasn't looking forward to the reaction from PTDC. I wrote an email promising my third-born child for one more chance to shoot these damn posters.

I hit "Send" and waited to hear the explosion on Grand Street. Ten minutes later my cell phone rang.

"Jordan, this is John Tomlinson. This isn't a call to strategize about the next step. This is just a call to calm you down. It's going to be fine."

Now I know why his dancers speak so glowingly about him. His calm absorbed my anxiety.

In the end I was able to retrieve some images, and we're hoping the memory card's service department can recover more.

We've scheduled one final shoot for next week. I'm going to bring three cameras, ten memory cards, two computers, four assistants and the CEO of Nikon.

Is that overkill?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Goodbye to a Friend- The Blog I Wish I Had Written Earlier

Two weeks ago, Geoff Legg, my friend and assistant, died tragically young. His behind-the-scenes photography has been featured in many of my blogs, most notably in a Valentine's Day Chinatown blog. I had always intended to write about him and his path to NYC. He loved the idea of being the subject of my blog and had anticipated it with great enthusiasm, but other priorities distracted me from writing it. So I now write this blog not for Geoff, but for his family and friends. They know they've lost a gentle and caring man, but they may not know that we've all lost a passionate and talented artist.

Geoff gave me the title for a blog about him-

From the High Country to the High Line

In Colorado, Geoff was kind of famous. He was known as a progressive thinker, and he dedicated his life to making the world a better place. He started the first "green" painting company in the world after studying for a year at the oldest renewable energy school in the country. He could build a wind turbine out of junk-yard parts. He dedicated himself to volunteering for non-profits, and he ran some of the biggest arts/crafts/music festivals in Western Colorado. He bought an old schoolhouse so he could start his own arts/music/organic farming school. On top of all of that, Geoff was an avid landscape photographer.

Geoff believed in positive change. When he moved to NYC and found it difficult to find like-minded people, he called me out of the blue and expressed an interest in my work. I invited him to join me on a Dancers Among Us shoot, and he photographed the process beautifully. The first blog featuring his photos, "Getting Kicked Out of the Plaza", went viral, which I don't believe is a coincidence. We hit it off immediately.

He joined me on many shoots after that, and he found great enjoyment documenting the process. I called him a "behind-the-scenes documentarian." The next time I saw him, he handed me a business card with that title under his name.

Geoff loved the creative artists we were photographing together. He was exposed to people who thrilled and inspired him, and he seemed to be having a blast. He saved a very special place in his heart for dancer AdeChike. Geoff had seen Ade compete on "So You Think You Can Dance?", and he was a bit star-struck at the opportunity to work with him.

Eventually I started putting Geoff in front of the camera as well. He appears in the background of several Dancers Among Us photos. The final time we worked together, I asked him to take a face full of iced coffee thrown by dancer Allison Jones. It was a spontaneous request, and he wholeheartedly agreed without hesitation. Ten minutes after we got this shot, Geoff gave me a coffee-soaked bear hug and walked through the subway doors. I never saw him again.

I always found comfort in his presence. His passion for photography mirrored my own. Though his love was landscape and art photography, he had an uncanny ability to capture candid moments as well. Without any time to prepare, he was able to record my shock as I asked Ade, "So, can you jump?" This is my favorite photograph of me working, and he knew it.

Even a very static process like shooting headshots looked interesting when seen through Geoff's lens.

Having lost my mother earlier this year, and now my friend, I'm struck by the sudden finality of death. Shared experiences I had casually anticipated will never be realized. Relationships are left frozen in time, with no opportunity for a deeper connection. I am more saddened by the loss of future possibilities than I am by memories of the past.

As I look again at his photography, I am reminded of Geoff's great potential. These are a few of his favorite photographs. Each of them could easily be sold in a gallery, and the world could celebrate an artist whose images mirrored the man himself- thoughtful, unpretentious and beautiful.

I'd like to end with a stunning self-portrait taken by Geoff in Colorado.

Goodbye, Geoff. I miss you already.

To see more of Geoff's work, you can visit his website,