Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dancers Tweeting Among Us

Last week I shot dance photographs for Skybetter and Associates, a contemporary dance company in NYC that is performing at the Joyce in June. I wanted to do something fun and different, so I proposed creating a social media campaign utilizing social media in the photographs. The goal is to encourage people to follow the company's Facebook and Twitter posts religiously, and I wanted to show the dancers actively video blogging, Facebook posting and tweeting, even in the most unexpected moments - since they never stop updating, you should never stop following them.

The company members - Kristen Arnold, Gary Schaufeld, Jennifer Jones and Jordan Isadore - were exciting to collaborate with because they were up for anything. Sydney Skybetter, the Big Kahuna, gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted. Once he saw the process unfold, he began to fear backlash from NYU, but he bit his tongue and perhaps even enjoyed himself. As planned, we began by shooting in the rehearsal space, but then I wanted more creative options. That led us to the ladies room, the dressing room, and - my favorite - the shower!

This photograph features the irrepressible Jennifer Jones, who I've used several times in my Dancers Among Us series. I've asked her to do some crazy things, including jumping through a blizzard, but at least she's kept her clothes on.

Until now.

Jennifer suggested a terrific tag line for this photo - "There's so much more to see. Follow us on Facebook."

All artists steal from each other, but this next idea I stole from myself. Here's a photograph from Dancers Among Us.

And here's Kristen Arnold, utilizing her very expressive toes in the NYU bathroom.

My tag line- "We can't hold anything back. Follow us on Facebook."

Here's Kristen again, this time using her iPhone to tweet while applying makeup, as Gary Schaufeld blogs in the background.

Here's Sydney's tag line- "We never stop tweeting. No seriously. We have a problem."

These next rehearsal photos attempt to capture the heightened state of narcissism that social media has exposed. If we don't post about it, does it even happen? It's a new twist on the 'tree falling in the woods' scenario.

Jennifer video blogging, Jordan Isadore updating Facebook, and Caleb Custer live streaming while Sydney films himself and I photograph everyone.

Kristen and Gary rehearsing an intimate moment while recording themselves, as Sydney watches the footage.

My tag line for both images- "Others wait until after rehearsal to post. That's so 2010."

If you think of any fun tag lines for these photos, please post them on my Facebook fan page. We're having a contest. And if you think of cool scenarios for future images, post those as well. We will continue adding photos to this campaign.

By the way, doesn't this series look like an Apple campaign? Perhaps a corporate sponsorship is imminent. Anyone know Steve Jobs?

PS We had invited an additional group of dancers to join us for background action, but I decided against using them - it felt too cluttered. I want to thank everyone for showing up and participating in the process - I'm sorry I wasn't able to incorporate you into the photos. I hope you enjoyed yourselves anyway, and I'm sorry I never wore that leotard.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cancer Uncovered

Most of you are familiar with my Dancers Among Us series, but it is actually the second series that I've done. Over six years, I photographed over a hundred women bare-breasted in New York City. They varied in terms of age, education and profession. Every one was a volunteer. Every subject faced reactions to her decision to defy convention, and many confronted feelings of shame and inadequacy. But after the shoots, the women were unexpectedly euphoric—and I wondered just what I had uncovered.
Many of the women agreed to interviews or to write their own texts for my book, Uncovered, and below are some excerpts. Though the book does not focus primarily on breast cancer, many of the participants had suffered from this terrible disease. I am humbled and honored that they trusted me to share their bodies and stories with the world.


"When I heard that I had breast cancer, I thought, 'I would rather be dead than lose a breast.'"


"When your boobs are as big as mine, they're like an extra pair of arms.

"When I saw this picture, my eyes went immediately from my boobs to the mole on my right shoulder. I had never noticed it before. I decided the next time I went to the doctor, I'd have it looked at. I did. I was diagnosed with a melanoma that was growing very fast. Had I not taken part in the project, I would simply never have noticed. I was treated in time, and there is no doubt in my mind that this picture saved my life."


"I was photographed on Broadway, two days before a double mastectomy."

In the book I never comment on anyone's text, but I have to share this story about Karen. She took a train from Philadelphia to NYC to be photographed for Uncovered. She arrived on Sunday afternoon, and Tuesday morning she was scheduled for a double mastectomy. She had lost her entire family to various forms of cancer, and she did not seem confident that she would have a long life herself. She seemed resigned to her fate, and accepting of it. When she took off her shirt on a crowded corner, she started to dance and play. She was celebrating her body, and her joy was contagious. People were cheering and smiling and rooting her on. She was shirtless for five minutes before the police asked her to stop. This is the final image I shot of Karen. I never heard from her again.


"The fact that I had breast cancer was not going to stop me from doing the things I liked to do. I realized how many women were out there, their lives ruined because of this. Your life doesn't have to be ruined. I'm proof that it doesn't have to be.

"I was on for a while and I met this man, an attorney. We met one night for wine, had a nice time and decided to see each other again. The second date was a week later and we met for martinis and appetizers. Sounds nice, doesn't it?

Afterward, he embraced me, giving me one of those lip-lock kisses, and then he said, 'Let's go back to my loft.' I said, 'There's something I need to tell you. I'm a breast cancer survivor.' And he backed up like I had leprosy. He said, 'You had a mastectomy?' And I said, 'I had reconstructive surgery.' Then he said, 'You may think this is shallow of me, but I'm into beautiful breasts.' I said, 'My breasts are beautiful.' He said, 'This is too much. I can't take this.' So I said, 'You're 55? I would prefer you to be 45 with a full head of hair. I had breast cancer. You have a daughter. You might find yourself wearing one of those pink bows to support her one day. She might tell you a story about a man treating her the way you just treated me. And by the way, the same risk statistics apply to men for prostrate cancer! Sometimes the only way to save a man's life when he has prostate cancer is... should I spell it out for you?'"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dancers Among Us Knocked Out of Avery Fisher Hall

Last week I photographed Jordan Isadore for Dancers Among Us. We met at Lincoln Center on a cold, damp evening. I had no plan to use that location - it's thick with security guards dying to blow their whistles. But we needed to warm up, so we quickly ducked into Avery Fisher Hall where I saw a listening station near the box office. Nicely dressed patrons were enjoying opera on headphones. The image of a dancer rocking out to opera immediately popped into my head, and I laughed out loud.

There was security everywhere, so to avoid calling attention to ourselves prematurely, we went outside to rehearse the pose. Jordan has an absurdly flexible back, and I wanted him to incorporate a back bend into a rock and roll pose. "How far back can you bend?" I asked.

When I saw this pose, I thought, "This could be really cool!" I was buzzing with excitement! But I was also worried about security. I loved the idea of the photo, but I knew all the variables meant that it would take time to get it right, and security may not let me take that time.

We went back inside (trying to look inconspicuous) and grabbed our spot. I took out my camera, which was like having a neon sign flashing, "Kick Me Out! Kick Me Out!," and I wondered if I'd even get off one shot (earlier, security had stopped me immediately when I tried to shoot in front of the fountain outside). To make matters worse, I had to sit on a banister to get my angle.

I asked Jordan to rock out, and he improvised with an air guitar move. I loved it.

I was lucky - I took twenty shots and got a good one before any security arrived. I knew Jordan could bend farther back, and I was hoping for some fun reaction shots. I kept shooting with one eye looking for more guards. People were starting to notice and react.

Fun, but the elements didn't come together perfectly. Crowd shots are challenging because the dancer's position, the crowd's expressions and the spacial relationship between them is all essential. If one of them isn't working, the shot doesn't work. After fifty shots, Jordan was exhausted, but I felt we needed more options. We hadn't matched what I saw in my head (was it possible?). We kept going, and took another fifty photos. Where was security? On a coffee break?

So close. Jordan's position is good, I love the air guitar, and the man's expression is nice. Plus there's space around Jordan, so he stands out. BUT the other guy has his back to us, rather than pointing focus towards Jordan, so it's dead space. And I think Jordan can dip farther back.

Another fifty photos. I'm no longer worried about security - I think they're having a staff meal, or something.

Even closer. Both guys are looking at Jordan, and their expressions are perfect. But I miss the air guitar, and I think Jordan can dip a little farther back. Another twenty photos.

There it is - the image I had in my head! Exhausted, Jordan put everything he had into the pose (including a protruding tongue), just at the moment the woman turned to look disdainfully at him. Two hundred photos later, all the elements finally came together.

And then security arrived. I showed the guard the photo, thanked him for taking his time, and allowed myself to be gently nudged out the door.

As Jordan enjoyed a celebratory cigarette outside, I couldn't help but notice the lights illuminating the steps. "Hey Jordan, can you do one more back bend?"

Postscript - Jordan dances for Skybetter and Associates. I have a really fun shoot scheduled with them on Wednesday from 5pm-8pm at NYU Tisch in the east village. We need volunteers to be in the shot, so email if you're interested..

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Power of Yes

Good things usually happen when I say yes. It seems that a great deal of life's success can be traced to choosing between yes and no. Yes generally means more time and effort, so maybe that's why people say no so frequently. I hear no all the time - why people can't do something, rather than why they can. But I don't usually hear it from the very successful people I photograph. They tend to be fearless and up for anything.

This lesson couldn't have been more clear Tuesday. I was shooting Dancers Among Us with the beautiful ballerina Michelle Joy. We decided to meet on Stone Street in the Financial District to capture a little old world feel. The block has been preserved through the centuries, with outdoor cafes lining the street. It's a perfect place for a beer on a warm afternoon (and Tuesday was 80 degrees).

I asked three young guys to pose in the shot with Michelle. They had loosened their ties and were drinking beer, so I assumed they'd be up for the experience. Surprisingly, they were apprehensive.  They deferred and returned my business card as if they didn't want the product I was selling.

I was lost. I looked around. I wanted young men, and there were no more to be found. Then I heard a very New York accent, "You want us tuh pose wid her?" Three men - not young - acting tipsy and aggressive, wanting to grab a quick shot with their arms around a pretty blond dancer before heading back to the office. My first reaction was to ignore them, my second was to say no thanks, but I acted on my third. I said yes.

"Sure guys. But we need to set it up. Call the office and tell them you'll be late. Let's order some beers. Don't eat the fries - they're props. No you can't touch her - this is art!"

I borrowed an apron from a waitress and had Michelle wear it. Given the (how do I say this delicately?) slight difference in age, it made more sense for the photo that she'd be serving them beer rather than drinking it with them.

The beers arrived, and Michelle was practicing balancing the tray while standing en pointe. One of the men stood up to demonstrate. And then things started to unravel.

(bottom photo by Geoff Legg)

He dropped the beer. Mayhem ensued. His friends were laughing hysterically. Glass was everywhere. I had to corral them back to the table, get another beer and shoot quickly before they got bored or passed out. Michelle is a beautifully trained dancer, and she nailed it every time. The guys started improvising, taking the beer off the tray and thoroughly enjoying themselves. Their joy shows in the photo.

(click photo to enlarge)

It turns out these guys were not middle management hacks but big players on Wall Street (Beer Spilling Guy is huge - the seas parted as he walked past the tables, people falling all over themselves to say hi). We all bonded. They bought us beer. We were on an adrenalin high. I started complaining about the scared associates at the next table, how they said no to this amazing experience. And Beer Spilling Guy said, "That's why they'll never be us."

(photo by Geoff Legg)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Greatest Living Portrait Photographer

And I must confess, it's not me. Last week I went to a photography lecture at the International Center of Photography. The guest of honor was the celebrated portrait photographer Platon, and as I watched him speak, I felt like a school girl at a Justin Bieber concert (I originally wrote "Beatles concert", but I'm making an effort to appeal to a younger demographic - today's screaming tween is tomorrow's art director). This guy is so cool that I was - quite literally - sitting on the edge of my seat.

My task here is to convey why I was so inspired by this man. I've written about inspiring photographers before, and I'm sure I will again. Being in the room with Platon was thrilling and infuriating at the same moment. I was thrilled by the clarity and honesty of his images, and I was infuriated by the scope of his work. Does he not sleep? Or eat?

Platon's style is very recognizable - intensely intimate and brutally honest close-ups, often black and white. He's well know for portraits of the powerful and celebrated. Now, at the height of his success, he's shifted course. He's using his unique style as currency, turning his lens on unknown heroes and making them celebrities by association. He's decided to use the power of his photography for something greater than his own advancement. He created a stunning series focusing on civil rights heroes, and he is now working to bring attention to victims exiled in Burma.

I understand how competitive the world of portrait photography is, and how difficult it is to create your own unique style. Everything seems to have already been done. What makes Platon so exciting is that he's using a very typical approach to portraiture - straight-on, studio lit - and creating images unlike anything I've ever seen. He's taking the common and making it unique. I've included a few examples of his work below, but they honestly don't do him justice. You need to see them large, projected on a huge wall, in the dark.

And bring some popcorn too - it's better than a movie.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Shooting Outdoors Is Better than Indoors

Of the fifty posts I've written, the third most popular one is, "The Best Light for Taking Photographs," about shooting in the winter. I've received a lot of follow-up questions about natural light vs. studio light for actor headshots. I've touched on the topic before, but I'll be a little more specific here.

The main arguments studio photographers make against outdoor photography is either 1) the background will be distracting, or 2) with uncertain weather, the light is unflattering. Since I shoot in my studio as well, I’m not purely an outdoor photographer, but for argument's sake, I will address these concerns as a representative for all outdoor photographers.

I’ll speak directly to the studio photographers (but you’re free to listen in)-

1) Distracting Backgrounds

Your argument about distracting backgrounds is legitimate if the photographer has no idea what he’s doing. If I pick up a point and shoot camera set on automatic, the shots won’t look so great. But I don’t use a point and shoot, so it’s not a problem. A great background is flattering without drawing attention to itself, and that can be achieved inside or outside. The background colors should bring out the client’s eyes, hair color and skin tone and make the photograph more interesting as a composition. The variety of locations available outside makes this much easier to accomplish. As you know, agents' trashcans are overflowing with headshots that lack these qualities, and they’re usually studio photos.

Here are a few examples that show a variety of outdoor backgrounds-

2) The light and weather are uncertain

Photographers who find natural light to be unflattering or inconsistent just don't know how to use it, plain and simple. The best studio light aims to recreate natural light. Of course, natural light changes every minute, location photographers need to be comfortable with all conditions, and the weather changes constantly, especially on the east coast. Sometimes it's cold and sometimes it's hot. This just means I need to shoot quickly and take lots of breaks - it's an adventure, it's spontaneous, and it's unique to each person. I'll take this any day over a laborious studio process that consistently repeats itself.

Interior light-

Back light-

Direct light-

Overcast day-

Sunny day-

Rainy day-

Snowy day-


On a personal note, I'd go crazy shooting with the same set-up, in the same room, every single day. I'm pretty certain that I'd get to the point where my fake backdrop would start talking to me, and I'd pull a Jack Nicholson in The Shining, completely flipping out and chasing a client through a giant hedge maze. Shooting outdoors looks less like this:

And more like this:

And in my book, the latter beats out the former any day.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dancers Among Us at the Restore Freedom Gala

Recently, I was a featured artist at the Restore Freedom Gala. It was hosted at Angel Orensanz by Restore NYC, a nonprofit charity that helps foreign-born sex trafficking survivors find new hope in the city. I donated five photographs for auction, and during the gala I entertained the guests by photographing Dancers Among Us with Jennifer Jones, who is currently rehearsing Orfeo for the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Metropolitan Opera House.


Angel Orensanz is a particularly intimidating space to photograph, because it's massive and Gothic and overwhelming. And stunning! Jennifer would have to fill the space or be swallowed up by the surroundings.

An hour before the shoot we found a private corner and rehearsed some poses. I wanted Jennifer to have her cigarette lit by a debonair gentleman in a tux. I would add background people to the stage to make it look like a party. We had no gentleman and no background people yet, but first we needed to settle on the pose. We would have only ten minutes to take the photo, so there was no time for improvisation (the process usually takes a couple of hours).

First we considered a jump.

Nice, but it would be very difficult to coordinate the jump to line the cigarette up with the lighter. Next, we tried a turn to accentuate the movement of the dress, as if she was turning quickly, enraptured by the gentleman.

Stunning, but the dress didn't cooperate consistently, and I wasn't sure the pose was dramatic enough for the surroundings. Jennifer suggested a back-bend, stretching her cigarette out to the lighter. Perfect!

We had twenty minutes to wrangle up some participants. We walked around the party like casting directors, looking for the most representative cross-section of people drunk enough to agree. We had an easy time of it - only one person said no, and he changed his mind once I pulled out my trump card: beard envy!

Finally, we needed a gentleman to light the cigarette. We noticed the musical guest for the evening, Zack Martin, was wearing a tux. And he was suitably debonair, in a scruffy kind of way.

THE SHOOT (photos of me by Geoff Legg)

We stormed the stage with the difficult task of making the laborious process of photography entertaining to five hundred people, while creating an image worthy of the location, in ten minutes.

I asked everyone to come on stage, and to my surprise I was swarmed with volunteers. As they gathered I checked the lighter (probably not the best moment to try a prop for the first time).

The background was looking much too cluttered, so I had to release many of the people I had asked to participate - that’s life in show business! I loosely organized the remaining guests...

and demonstrated my preferred lighting technique to an amused Zach.

I set-up the pose and relied on Jennifer to hold it for five minutes. That may not sound long, but try doing it for ten seconds. I did, and my back may never be the same.

Once Zach stopped laughing and waving to the crowd, I started directing and shooting. The background seemed to demand vertical framing, so I spent my time trying to make it perfect.

As we ran out of time, a familiar voice inside my head said, “Try something different.” So I ran over my time and shot some quick horizontal images. I always listen to that voice because it’s usually right.

(Click to enlarge -- the detail is beautiful!)

After the shoot, Jennifer and I expressed very different views about the experience, thus proving how much easier my job is.