Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dancers Among Us Heats Up in Baltimore

The enthusiasm dancers have shown to participate in Dancers Among Us has been humbling. I have never paid anyone to participate, yet I have had the good fortune of working with talented and creative artists who are always willing to spend long hours pushing their bodies to the limits, simply for a photograph.

This week may have taken the cake. On Friday, Rachel Bell from Dance/USA in Washington, DC rented a car and drove two hours to meet me in Baltimore. The temperature reached 107 degrees, and the southern humidity was in full swing. It was oppressive!

This was the third time Rachel has driven from DC to work with me. The results of our past efforts were recounted in an earlier blog- "Dancers Among Us Celebrates America". For Independence Day, Rachel produced these two stunning photos:

Apparently the previous trips weren't enough, and Rachel braved the sweltering heat for another adventure. We met at the Inner Harbor; I wanted to use the USS Constellation as a backdrop. Rachel jumped 28 times as I laid on steaming asphalt for the best angle to capture the moment. We were both just a wee bit drenched as we reviewed the images.

On paper I liked all the elements- the flag matching her dress, the people watching her, the pose, the gorgeous ship- but in practice it looked too busy. Time to move on.

We decided to try a different perspective from Federal Hill, which overlooks the Baltimore skyline. It didn't take long to discover the perfect scenario- a dancer in a red dress draped on a lone cannon perched high above the city. Enticing Rachel to comply was another matter. I'm not sure what concerned her more, the burning heat of the black cannon or the distance of the potential fall.

Rachel secured herself by wrapping her left leg around a steel plate on the cannon. I wanted her to hang farther over the cannon, so I recruited a passer-by to hide behind the base and hold her foot. Nothing like entrusting your life to a stranger (in my defense, he was a pretty strong dude!).

Beautiful! After a mere 170 photos and it was time to stop. But I couldn't drag Rachel all the way from DC for just one photograph, no matter how exciting the experience. We headed into the countryside to a former plantation I've had my eye on for a month. I asked Rachel to bring a "farm girl doing chores" outfit, handed her a pail and pitchfork, and asked her to jump off a high split-rail fence.

It was too high; she nearly sprained her ankle. I assumed we were done; I was satisfied with the cannon shot and grateful she didn't hurt herself. Instead she offered to try again (away from the fence). Gotta love dancers- they just never give up!

This was her first jump-

It's impossible to describe how difficult it is to nail a jump on the first try, let alone while holding a pail and pitchfork, and jumping with a sore ankle. And again, gotta love dancers- they just keep making me look good!

The sun had already set (finally!), and the sky was turning into a deeper shade of blue by the minute. I wanted her position to look a little more purposeful, as if she was rushing to finish her chores before dark. We took 35 more photos and nailed it on the final frame.

That's when I saw the police approaching.

Apparently this site is private property, and I shouldn't have mistaken the warm hue of the porch light for hospitality. I apologized profusely and left with my police record still clean. It's amazing how the police keep arriving after I get my shot- the photography gods are looking out for me. Let's hope they stick around as Dancers Among Us travels west.

Next stop, San Francisco! I hear the police are pretty nice there.

Feel-good postscript: On Federal Hill we ran into Kelli and Mike, a beaming couple who had just gotten engaged. They were ecstatic, at least partly due to Mike's creative proposal:

Can't you see a dancer in a beautiful pose, holding onto the wing with one arm, his body elevated by the force of the wind?

Or is it just me?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dancers Among Us Rises to Terrifying New Heights

Immediately after meeting Rhythmic Gymnast Evgeniya (Jenia) Chernukhina, my mind went to Dancers Among Us. She hired me for headshots and a promotional dance photo, but how could I resist? She has been training eight hours a day in Russia since she was four, she was familiar with the project, and she was excited to participate (plus she knows five languages, which has nothing to do with anything but is very impressive). This was going to be a very good day at the office!

I didn't have any ideas nor any props to use, but I knew it needed to be special; I couldn't waste this opportunity! We found one of the most beautiful spots in Manhattan at Fort Tyron Park, overlooking the Hudson River. The park has a magnificent 100 foot cliff stretching down to the West Side Highway. My assistant, Travis Francis, and my makeup artist, Valerie Weiss, both looked at me with concern. "You're not going to ask her to stand on that ledge, right?"

They already knew the answer, and they could barely watch. Jenia didn't seem concerned though. I asked her what pose made her feel the most secure, preferably one that resembled the "king of the world!" moment in Titanic. We practiced on the grass a few times to make sure she was very stable. Jenia climbed on the wall and Travis hid behind her, ready to grab her if she, well, you know. Valerie covered her eyes, and Jenia hit her pose as I shouted, "Try it again! Amazing. One more time. Can you get your leg a little higher? Smile!"

A small crowd had gathered behind me, watching intensely. One of them expressed his unease. "I'm totally freaking out. What if she falls off the cliff?"

Honestly, I was a little freaked out myself.

I rejoined my team and we reviewed the images. We loved them. I had dodged a big bullet. Then the sun came out and it was time for a little more Russian Roulette (terrible, yet irresistible pun).

"Let's try it one more time. Open your body to the sun. Close your eyes like you're basking in the afternoon light."

Crazy idea, but maybe she could do it.

And she did! I captured 102 photos of Jenia on that ledge in eight minutes. It was finally time to thank the photography gods and move on.

Satisfied that I had a beautiful shot for Dancers Among Us, I turned my attention to her dance promotional photo. We decided on a jump. I found a location filled with beautiful light and flowers that matched her shirt. Of course, she nailed the pose.

Beautiful! Perfect form. Nice composition. Quick and easy. It's a wrap.

EXCEPT the composition was so nice that I wanted to turn it into another Dancers Among Us shot. But what could she do?

Jenia looked very Daisy Duke. I started politely accosting all the sunbathers in the park, looking for a prop to match her country vibe. The very last group I approached had a pair of water guns (the photography gods were still hanging around). I recruited Valerie to be her playmate, splashed some water on them and asked Jenia to jump and laugh.

She nailed it every time. I only needed seven frames before we got this shot (quick shout-out to Valerie- your back looks amazing!)

Now I was finished. Seriously. What more could we do? It was hot. Jenia was tired (though she didn't admit it). I loved the photos. It's a wrap!

"EXCEPT remember how when you were warming up, you did that little thing where you kick your leg straight up and touch your head to your knee? Feel like doing that real quick? Maybe while you're crossing the street?"

Finally we parted ways, and I promised to photograph her again soon. Coincidentally enough, Jenia and her teammates train in Philadelphia, which is one of the three cities listed in my current poll on Facebook to determine the next Dancers Among Us location! Guess what city I am now rooting for...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

25 Beautiful Women and 2 Frantic Photographers- How We Photographed an Olympic Calendar in One Day

Months ago I was contacted by the US Women's Rowing Team to photograph their 2012 Olympic calendar. I immediately called my partner, Jeremy Saladyga, whose gifts for lighting and visual concepts never cease to amaze me. We envisioned black and white portraits highlighting the women's strength and athleticism. We also knew we had to take photographs of the women in action on the water, which of course had to be at sunrise. This was going to be a long day.


The day before the shoot we traveled to the USRowing training facility in Princeton, NJ. I dragged Jeremy kicking and screaming to a couple of Dancers Among Us shoots, and then we were off to meet the team. They welcomed us with a lavish BBQ, which very well may have been the most intimidating meal of my life. We were surrounded by disarmingly nice and extremely athletic women over 6 feet tall.

After the welcoming meal, we headed over to the team's weight room to set up the backdrop and lights for the next day's portraits. We requested a model to test out the lighting- they sent us Olympic gold medalist and cover girl Susan Francia.


We headed back to the hotel for a few hours sleep, but instead we tossed around ideas late into the night. The schedule for the shoot was nearly impossible. We had only two hours on the water, and we had 6-8 shots we wanted to get. That meant a photo every 15 minutes, including travel time. Much of the calendar will likely be these rowing shots, and we needed at least a day to get it right. Instead, we had two hours. Jeremy and I were each on a boat with a bullhorn. We were shouting directions to try and coordinate and photograph eight teams, while also making sure we didn't get in each others' way.

photos by Sabine Pallat

Somehow it all came together. Before the sun rose over the bridge at 5:00am, a stunning orange hue lit up the sky. We screamed, "Someone grab a boat and get in the water. This is our light!" It was go time.

The shoot was incredible! The women were extremely efficient, the water was wonderfully calm, and the light was absolutely beautiful. Our greatest success was that neither Jeremy nor I fell into the river. We were a little behind schedule, but we got all the shots we hoped for, and even some we hadn't anticipated.


We rushed off the water and headed to the studio. As we arrived, three women were in place and ready to be photographed. Several more were finishing makeup. And this was just the first group. I finally understood the expression, "out of the pot and into the fire".

When we discussed the studio schedule with the crew team the week before, we laid down the law! "We absolutely cannot shoot more than 15 women. That is the very maximum. We have to light each woman individually, come up with a concept and pose, make sure their hair and makeup look great, and direct them in front of the camera. The process can take a long time to get it right. We prefer only 10 women, but 15 is the max."

They scheduled all 25 women.

We rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

Some photos came together organically and others had to be constructed. Many of the women have won medals in past Olympics, and we insisted on including them in the photographs. We wanted each woman's portrait to be unique, and it became increasingly more difficult to come up with a new concept every time. Often the women would aid us with suggestions.

"Show them how high you can jump."

"Look at the muscles in her back."

"She can do more push-ups than both of you combined."

25 women and seven hours later, we shot our last portrait. We are proud of each one. I am thankful they scheduled everyone and forced us out of our comfort zone. After all, they know something about pushing beyond your limitations.

The day was exhilarating and exhausting. We rarely stopped shooting from the moment the sun rose. We were surrounded by athletes at the very top of their profession, and we were determined to rise to their level. It was as close to the Olympics as we will ever get, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Jeremy and I will continue updates about the calendar, so keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter pages for regular posts and to view more photos of these stunning Olympians.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dancers Among Us Celebrates America

As Dancers Among Us continues to go national, the response from regional dancers is growing extraordinarily! Dedicated even over the holiday weekend, four amazing dancers traveled from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore County to participate in Dancers Among Us- Kamille Upshaw and Alexei Geronimo of Bad Boys of Dance, Rachel Bell from Dance/USA in DC, and Christina Jackson of Capitol Movement Dance Company. I was also joined by Penny Green, a lovely D.C. photographer who wanted to observe the process and take behind-the-scenes photos.

With only five hours on Saturday afternoon to capture all the shots, we first met at my in-laws' home in Towson, MD to shoot a series of "Americana" images celebrating Independence Day. Quite fortunately, their house is about as all-American as you can get. You can practically smell the apple pie from the driveway.

1:22 pm

I have always wanted a gardening photo, and this location was perfect- the American flag, dappled sunlight, and stone house are right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Rachel Bell came up with a terrific pose, and to complete the scene I recruited my dog and 19-month-old daughter, Salish- and was that asking for trouble! I wanted them seated and focused on Rachel, but neither of them felt compelled to stick to the script.

Finally Salish sat down, looked up at Rachel and started petting the dog, who then looked back at Salish. Rachel nailed her pose as the breeze blew the flag. Perfect!

2:26 pm

The next location was the local bowling alley to shoot a favorite American pastime. I had a pretty difficult idea in mind, and I attempted to demonstrate it to Christina Jackson.

Behind-the-scenes photos by Penny Green

Usually I prefer to include passers-by in my shots, but Saturday afternoon bowlers are pretty intense. They didn't want to be distracted, so we couldn't shoot while they were focusing on their bowling. Instead, I recruited my D.C. entourage. Everyone got their own bowling ball, and we staggered the start time so all the balls would be in the lanes when Christina struck her pose. This took some serious teamwork, and I got just a little amped-up trying to coordinate everything.

I took 82 shots to make sure it was right. I probably owe Christina a visit to the chiropractor.

4:05 pm

Next stop on the Americana wagon, McDonald's! No celebration of America would be complete without a little fast food. Plus, I was in the mood for a Big Mac. The concept was simple but the execution was the tricky part. I wanted Kamille Upshaw to utilize her incredible dexterity at the drive-thru by paying with her foot. I assumed I would only have a few seconds before getting kicked out, so we practiced in the driveway.

Incredibly, I was able to capture 48 photos in two minutes as Kamille kept her leg in the air and the $20 snug between her toes. The employee kept holding out the bag, seemingly amused. Finally she ducked her head inside the window, and I braced myself for a frantic manager screaming at me about brand recognition. Instead, I ended up with a fun photograph and a stale Big Mac. It was worth the trade-off.

5:27 pm

Fishing is another cherished American pastime. I wanted a Moby-Dick shot, so we headed to the reservoir. We needed to weigh down the fishing line, and Penny generously offered her own sneaker! I asked Alexei Geronimo to give me a back bend and expression that suggested, at the very least, a small whale on the line. I demonstrated in the parking lot.

We had less than an hour to get this shot. We rented a couple of boats and hit the water.

Many things went wrong- the sneaker didn't sink, the boats were difficult to maneuver, the currents kept drifting us away from the location, the light kept changing, the geese kept begging for scraps, the line got tangled in the motor (shown in the second photo below), and Alexei almost fell out of the boat a dozen times. We managed to keep him dry and got many nice images- I am having a difficult time selecting just one. Have a favorite?

24 Hours Later

In five hours I got terrific photos of four amazing and creative dancers. But I still had a surprise waiting for me- Rachel Bell came back the next day for just one more Dancers Among Us image! On a break between class and performance, she rented another Zip Car, grabbed her boyfriend and drove an hour north to produce one of my very favorite shots of the entire series - "Love on Independence Day"!

Thank you to Penny and the wonderful Dancers Among Us for making my Independence Day weekend so memorable. From gardening, bowling, and fishing, to picnicking and the fast-food frenzy, capturing America's pastimes continues on its national quest!