Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Clothes Don't Make The Man... Right?

On Friday night I photographed a classic New York City wedding in Flushing, Queens. The bride and groom were passionate...

And ecstatic...

And gracious...

There was a Jewish ceremony and a Korean ceremony...

And the guests partied so hard they collapsed.

So given the significance and formality of the event, why in the world was I wearing this?

Photograph by Ryan Carville

Because until Friday afternoon, there was no wedding scheduled for that evening.

Brian and Lisa Hong contracted me several months ago to photograph their wedding on Saturday night, at the Chelsea Piers. But there was this little storm called Hurricane Irene chugging up the coast, scheduled to hit Manhattan right around the time of the first dance. On Friday afternoon Governor Cuomo shut down the Piers (has he no sense of romance?), and the Hongs were forced to scramble.

The rehearsal dinner became their wedding. My assistant, Ryan Carville, was scheduled to shoot the rehearsal, but they wanted me there as well. At 1:30pm, I received an urgent phone call from Brian.

"Can you please come tonight? Anything you can do!"

"Brian, I would love to but I'm completely booked with shoots already tonight. And I'm wearing shorts and a silly hat. And I only have one camera and lens. I'm so sorry."

"I'll call you back in 15 minutes." Click.

Five minutes later the phone rang. It was Lisa.

"I don't care when you arrive or what you're wearing. Bring a Polaroid camera if you have to. Just please be there."

Brian knew how to play me. I can't say no to a desperate bride.

I had a blast. The event's spontaneity gave it a whimsical and relaxed feeling that is unusual for a big city wedding. And excluding nudist ceremonies, I was probably the most under dressed wedding photographer in history.

After the wedding, Brian and Lisa did what everyone else was doing Friday night. They shopped for provisions.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Surrendering to the Storm- The Lesson I Learned from Hurricane Irene

My home is surrounded by trees. Big ones. The kind of trees that squash cars and houses. As Armageddon approached, I watched these trees surrendering to Hurricane Irene, swaying violently in the unrelenting winds. There was a frightening blue glow in the early morning sky. I was powerless against nature's whims.

News coverage of disasters always focuses on the storm's aftereffects. I find it much more terrifying to look up, before any devastation has occurred, and see the potential.

Two days earlier, my daughter stood under these same trees, playing in their protective shade.

As the storm arrived and my fear continued to grow, I thought of my children, tucked safely away down south. I was alone to face this devastating force, but the image of my daughter finding protection under the trees reassured me. Impending disaster can be a source of reflection, and I found myself looking for a greater lesson.

Nature has given us what we have, yet it can take it all away in an instant. What protects us one minute can devastate us without warning. Since nothing in life is predictable, we try desperately to maintain control over everything. The more firmly we squeeze the reins, the more we realize the futility of trying.

As I came to this realization, with the wind screaming and the rain pouring down, I felt suddenly calm. I let go of my absurd attempt to exert control over the uncontrollable, and I saw the beauty around me. Taking my cue from the trees, I surrendered to the inevitable. The magnificence of nature and the power of the earth both humbled and excited me.

I hope I will remember this lesson as I encounter less dramatic, yet equally uncontrollable events in my life. There are great rewards awaiting those of us who dare to let go of the reins and to see where the horse leads us.

Monday, August 22, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons... My Adventures with the Paul Taylor Dance Company

I spent the weekend at Lincoln Center, photographing some of the greatest dancers in the world. It caused quite a commotion.

Two young ladies with painted eyes tentatively approached dancer Eran Bugge during one of our rare two-minute breaks.

"Excuse me, what company do you dance for?"

"Paul Taylor."

"Really? Paul Taylor? OH MY GOD! Really??? Agggghhhhh!! Really?? PAUL TAYLOR?!"

It was that kind of weekend. I was cool by association.

Photograph by Samantha Siegel

Over the course of eighteen hours, I photographed ten dancers in seventeen different locations. I had a total of one sandwich, six venti mocha lattes and twelve minutes of break. Every shot was a spontaneous decision. There were three photographers and one videographer recording the action. At any moment, there were at least ten people waiting for me to decide what to do.

Photograph by Sean Patrick Mahoney

Photograph by Francisco Graciano

Photograph by Francisco Graciano

Photograph by Samantha Siegel

I was running out of ideas. How many different ways can I photograph dancers in Lincoln Center? We had two shots left. Dusk was quickly approaching. Magic hour! I had been waiting for a beautiful sunset all day.

The skies suddenly darkened and rain poured down in buckets. No sunset. Everyone scurried to safety, the shoot interrupted at a critical moment. Two beautiful dancers were waiting in costume, with the final vestiges of light quickly fading away.

I remembered the expression, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

I looked at Parisa Khobdeh, who is one of the most creative and gutsy dancers I've ever worked with. I asked the question, though I already knew the answer.

"Will you dance in the rain?"

She didn't hesitate. "Let's go."

We all ran into the downpour. I found a light source and asked her to stand in the spotlight.

"Now throw yourself back and kick your leg up to the sky. Again. Again. Again. Again!"

I heard voices around me-

"She's going to be freezing."

"Have a towel ready as soon as we stop. And something hot to drink."

"She keeps falling down."

"Her leg is cramping."

"PARISA, ARE YOU OKAY?" someone screamed.

She didn't hear it. Or she didn't care. She stopped for a brief second, and then threw her body back again. And again. And again.

Parisa catching her breath

When we finally stopped, Parisa was the last one out of the rain. She was drenched. And exhausted. And beaming.

We were all safely tucked away under the City Opera overhang. Everyone was feeling relieved, but I wanted more. It was still pouring. Masses of people were arriving for a Friday night at the theater. The famous Lincoln Center fountain was illuminated and exploding.

I turned to Francisco Graciano. "Do you have bright tights? Time to get wet."

Francisco getting ready to jump

I've promised the folks at PTDC that I won't release any photos before they have a chance to see them first, so I can't share the final images we created that magical evening.

But I can say this- last Thursday I posted a blog about this upcoming shoot. I set my expectations very high, and I was worried I wouldn't meet them. I wrote, "It is my responsibility alone to create photographs worthy of the company's immense talent and reputation."

I'm not worried anymore.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dancers Among Us Faces Its Greatest Challenge

Tomorrow and Saturday I will be photographing the Paul Taylor Dance Company at Lincoln Center. The purpose is to illustrate their move to the David H. Koch Theater for their upcoming New York season. The images we will create are inspired by Dancers Among Us. Since many of the company members were the first dancers photographed for the series two years ago, this is truly a full circle assignment. And a huge one.

Paul Taylor is certainly one of the world's greatest living choreographers, so it is a distinct honor and unique opportunity to collaborate with his company. This is a very high stakes assignment that requires thoughtful preparation, yet my shooting style is spontaneous. I rarely scout locations, and I rely on my ability to improvise in the moment. Yet with ten dancers utilizing dozens of locations and costumes, with photographers and videographers recording behind-the-scenes footage, and with widespread rain in the forecast, my off-the-cuff approach is about to be tested like never before. To be safe, I've immersed myself in pre-production, creating a long shot list and researching each dancer's strengths. Right?

Not exactly. I stopped by Lincoln Center one evening and took a few iPhone photos. Does that count as pre-production?

As we used to say in my baseball days, "Dance with the one that brung you." The success I've received with Dancers Among Us is due to the spontaneous nature of the photographs, and to abandon that now would be undermining what makes the work unique.

I must admit, I have no idea what will happen. That makes me nervous. And excited. Great risk can yield great rewards, but that's not a guarantee. Everyone at Paul Taylor has been incredibly supportive of my process, but it is a huge risk for them as well. I enter the shoot with that weight on my shoulders. It is my responsibility alone to create photographs worthy of the company's immense talent and reputation.

As everyone gathers around me on Friday, waiting for instructions, I will focus on the environment around us, looking for inspiration. Will I find it?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Rendezvous With San Francisco's Loveliest Ladies

"I have to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge today! I'm leaving soon and I might not have another chance. Right?"

I was talking to Stephen Lee, my San Francisco assistant and protegee, as we drove into the city. I had four dancers headed towards the bridge. We were ready to attempt an iconic Dancers Among Us image, but I had an uneasy feeling that it was the wrong decision. It was certainly the obvious choice, but at the last minute I called an audible.

"Let's go to the Painted Ladies instead."

I have no idea why I did that, but I've learned to trust my instincts. I had heard of the Painted Ladies, but I knew nothing about them. Somehow I was being pulled there. Perhaps the photography gods were sending me a message.

As Stephen drove, I Googled "Painted Ladies": "A row of Victorian houses at 710–720 Steiner Street, across from Alamo Square Park, in San Francisco. It is sometimes known as 'Postcard Row'... The most famous row of houses in San Francisco."

We arrived as the sun broke through the clouds. I saw the tourists before I saw the Ladies.

Behind the scenes photos by Samantha Siegel

As I looked through my camera, I understood the appeal. A row of brightly painted antique Victorians framed by the modern San Francisco skyline. There was definitely potential here. But what would the dancer be doing? Kaitlin Ebert arrived in a pink dress, excited and ready to jump! All I needed was a scenario.

Alamo Square provided the answer. A man was playing fetch with his dog, and he was using one of those cool tennis ball throwing devices. He introduced himself as George and agreed to lend me both the thrower and the dog. Kaitlin jumped high in the air, looking as joyful as possible.

She nailed it! So did the dog. And so did the weather (blue skies can be an uncommon sight in San Francisco). I got my Painted Ladies shot. I guess that's what the photography gods had in mind.

Or maybe not.

As we were leaving, George casually mentioned that he lives in the blue Painted Lady. I stopped in my tracks.

"Can we take a photo at your home?" I asked apprehensively.


Access to one of the city's most famous houses should not be approached casually. We all scoped out the facade, looking for the perfect shot.

"Can she pose on that top balcony?" I asked George. Once I assured him he wouldn't be liable if she injured herself, he was happy to accommodate us.

But what could she be doing? Why is she up there?

"What if I'm kicking my boyfriend out of the house and throwing his clothes at him?" Kaitlin suggested.

Amazing idea. Just perfect.

I turned to dancer Brendan Barthel. "You can do a nice back bend, right?"

"Beautiful! Here's the idea- the clothes are about to hit your face, and you're bracing for impact. Of course, you have to be naked as well." He stripped down to his underwear and socks, and gave the tourists a nice show.

Kaitlin threw on a slip, grabbed a bunch of clothes and headed upstairs. It turned out to be a very difficult shot to get. Initially I had the wrong angle.

When I moved my position the shot looked better, but the clothes kept falling too far apart.

It was also missing an element of humor- something to bring it all together. Someone should be in the window, filling that empty space. But who would be there? Another woman maybe? Too obvious. A child? No, that's not funny at all. Or...

"George, can we borrow your dog again? Can you get him to look out the window?"

Unbelievable. Now if only he would look over at Brendan, just when the clothes are in mid-flight, while both dancers are hitting their poses perfectly and Brendan has a funny expression on his face.

We kept trying. The dog was getting antsy, and he kept disappearing behind the curtain. Then he poked his head out and looked right at Brendan. I screamed, "NOW!" I took four photos and he disappeared for good. We were done.

I looked at the photos, holding my breath...

I screamed in joy and ran around in circles! George and I celebrated together.

Thank you photography gods. I'll never doubt you.

Postscript- If you haven't already, you HAVE TO click the final Dancers Among Us photo to see it larger. Check out Brendan and Kaitlin's fantastic acting- Broadway is waiting! And thank you to everyone behind the scenes for making the shot possible- photographer Samantha Siegel (pictured on the sidewalk), assistant Stephen Lee, the irreplaceable Dudley Flores, and George, of course.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My San Francisco Angel- Dancers Among Us Finds a Guiding Light

I was fortunate to receive a very enthusiastic reception in San Francisco. So many dancers wanted to participate in Dancers Among Us that I was unable to work with everyone. I will definitely make another trip to that amazing city.

What really surprised me was the number of volunteers who showed up to assist and watch the process, even though I made no such request.

Most notably-

Anna Marie Panlilio, a terrific dance photographer, coordinated the initial shoot and connected me with several fun local dancers.

Stephen Lee, a student at UC Davis, spent two very long days at my side, enthusiastically assisting in all capacities.

Meagan Reidinger
, a gifted photographer studying at Brooks Institute, drove over 400 miles from southern California to be a part of the process.

And then there was Dudley Flores with Garrett + Moulton Productions, Printz Dance Project, and RAWdance. He was one of many dancers to email me in the days leading up to my arrival. His tone was so warm that I contacted him immediately. His modesty did not prepare me for his talent, which surprised me right from the start.

As always, I had done very little research before arriving for the first day of shooting. Three dancers and three assistants I had never met greeted me at a local coffee shop. After about a minute I asked, "So, where should we go?" Everyone seemed a bit surprised by my lack of preparation. They must not read my blog.

As I would later come to know, Dudley was a fountain of ideas. "Fisherman's Wharf is right around the corner, and the sea lions might be there." That sounded promising to me.

The sea lions were indeed there and drawing a crowd, which made for a photogenic location. Given the commotion, the dancer would have to do something pretty spectacular to draw attention. I turned to Dudley, "Can you balance on that overhang without falling into the bay?"

He didn't blink. I took 323 shots from five different angles. This was one of the last ones-

I had found my muse. Photo-love at first sight. Later I asked him to jump high off a wall and pretend he had to pee really badly. We only needed 25 shots that time.

The shoot was becoming the Dudley Flores Show, but I couldn't resist using him again. I wanted a cable car shot, as well as a steep hill shot- we found them both with one location. Dudley partnered with Jenni Bregman to create an image I call, "What's a girl gotta do to get laid in San Francisco?"

From that point on, Dudley was with me for every shoot. He often found amazing dancers to fit my concepts, and he was constantly offering ideas for locations. Twice he even traveled far from San Francisco just to collaborate. He was willing to slide on a wetsuit just to be a background player as his friend Brendan Barthel from Robert Moses' Kin got the attention.

When he drove RAWdance Artistic Directors Ryan Smith and Wendy Rein to The Dish on Stanford campus, I had to spontaneously put his amazing talent to use once again.

And finally, just for fun, I posed him with Brendan for a few quick shots in The Castro District.

As I travel around the country for Dancers Among Us I will be very lucky to find other dancers who are invested in the process and willing to volunteer their time and talents. But no matter where I go, I seriously doubt I will find anyone who compares to Dudley.

Perhaps I'll take him on the road with me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jordan Matter's Believe It or Not- Dancers Among Us Unveiled

Last week I spent an exciting Dancers Among Us afternoon in Westchester, New York with Lloyd Knight of Martha Graham Dance Company, Eric Bourne of Parsons Dance, and Broadway dancer Dayla Perkins. The dancers kissed in a photo booth, smoked cigarettes on a train platform, got stuck to gum on a boardwalk, and were busted jumping at an amusement park (who knew you aren't allowed to jump off picnic tables??).

As the sun was setting, we all rushed to a quiet beach in New Rochelle. I wanted a twilight photo of the guys splashing around in the water while Dayla levitates above the horizon. The fantastic thing about working with such talented dancers is that if I can imagine it, they can usually do it.

People often ask me if any tricks or devices are used to create my dance photographs. The answer is an emphatic "No!" There are no trampolines, wires, or Photoshop effects. I rely solely on the creativity and athleticism of talented professionals, and they continue to make me look good.

This photograph caused an unusual degree of disbelief among those who saw it. "Did she jump? If so, off what? Did they throw her? But their arms aren't in the air. How the frack did you do that? Did you combine two photos?"

Where's the trust, people? Where's the love? Have I ever fooled you before? Fortunately, my assistant, Travis Francis, brought his video camera. I have decided to expose the process, imperfections and all. If you believe the moon landing was rigged and Elvis is still alive, this video might not sway you. But for everyone else, you'll gain a better understanding of what the dancers put themselves (and their bodies) through for a photo.

This week I'm in the Bay Area of California, and I have discovered firsthand that the Pacific water is far too cold to try anything like that for another Dancers Among Us scenario. I am sure there are a slew of adventures waiting for me and the west coast dancers I will be working with here, and I look forward to sharing them with you!