Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dancers Among Us Lands in Jail

So how did this happen?

It all started when I got arrested after a fight with two hoodlums who were threatening a ballerina. I ended up in a cell with Tomas Panto, a dancer with Atlanta Ballet. I bribed the guards to sneak in a camera, and we took this shot before being transferred to a maximum security prison. They felt I was a threat to the other inmates, so they confined me to lock-down until my attorney could get me out on bail.

Do you have any idea how much I wish that was true? The real story is much less sexy.

I actually owe it all to Mariette Edwards, a celebrated career coach who brought me to Atlanta to photograph some of her corporate clients. I agreed to the job so I could shoot for Dancers Among Us as well. Mariette took on the responsibility of suggesting locations, and she casually mentioned that her friend works in a set and props warehouse. Among other things, she wrote, they have a jail cell.

I flipped out. I've been lusting after a prison shot for months.

I didn't waste any time- we arrived at Special Projects thirty minutes after I met my first crop of dancers. I came with an entourage- three dancers (Tomas, Abby McDowell and Adrienne Hicks), Mariette, Chelsea Thomas, a dance critic with ArtsCriticAtl, and Will Day, an Atlanta based photographer.

We were given access to the costume shop, and had been told there were several orange jumpsuits. We desperately scoured the endless rows of costumes and only discovered orange scrubs. The shirt was too small, but the pants looked pretty good. Guess he'll have to disrobe a bit.

We were brought to the location. I was tingling with adrenalin. Not only was it authentically grimy in every way, but the sunlight pouring through the window filled the cell with a haunting glow. It was perfect.

Suddenly I was confronted with the reality that I had no idea how to use this amazing opportunity. What should Tomas be doing? Trying to escape, perhaps?

No, the bars are too distracting. Maybe planking between the bed and toilet?

Too cute. I wanted Tomas to embody a prisoner's desperation and loneliness. But there's very little to work with in a jail cell. Maybe leaning over the sink?

No, no, no! When in doubt, look for the light.

"Tomas, look out the window, towards the life you no longer have. Give me something simple, something lonely. Mariette, do they have a Bible in the props department? Let's put it on the bed."

Now we are getting somewhere, but the pose needs to be stronger.

"How's your backbend? Wait, that's a silly question. You're with Atlanta Ballet, you can do anything. Cling to the window and collapse backwards. The sunlight will wash over you. Let's move the Bible to the foreground."

Suddenly the room was alive with electricity. The dancers were shouting out positioning notes and I was bouncing off the walls. In the midst of the excitement, Chelsea had a poignant idea.

"Should he be holding the Bible?"

Then Chelsea added the final touch. "Do you want his shirt in the photo?"

It was an auspicious beginning to my day. I went on to shoot six more dancers and created some very exciting photos, but there is really nothing like your first prison experience.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dancers Among Us on a Timeline -- Social Media Saves the Day

Where would I be without social media? When I began Dancers Among Us 2 ½ years ago, I didn’t have a presence on Facebook or Twitter, and I had never written a blog. I found dancers to pose for me by asking around, calling friends of friends, and posting flyers at dance studios. Times sure have changed. Today I’m in Atlanta with over fifty dancers waiting for me, all because of last week’s blog, Where’s the Love, Atlanta? It was reposted all over Facebook and other social media outlets.

Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t care how weird you are- Facebook has made my life a whole lot easier.

On Friday night I posted a last-minute appeal to NYC dancers for a weekend shoot in upstate New York. I was afraid the foliage would be gone by the time I returned from Atlanta, so I hoped someone would be available on such short notice.

I received three emails within twenty minutes, and more followed on Saturday. Sunday morning, Cierra Cotton and Raymond L. Bennett grabbed a bus from Manhattan; two hours later we met in New Paltz, NY. They had both studied at the Alvin Ailey School, and their training definitely made me look good.

Now what? My publishers at Workman Publishing have set a deadline of late February to deliver all the Dancers Among Us photos for the book. Where should I go next? What regions have I neglected? Who wants to pose for me? I have some ideas, but I’d love to hear from you. Email me at, post on my Facebook fan page, tweet me @jordanmatter, visit me on Vimeo, or write a blog… Anything, as long as you don’t send me a request to join Linkedin!

Time flies when you’re having fun! Before we know it February will be upon us. Speak now or forever hold your peace (at least until I start work on the follow-up book).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Where's the Love, Atlanta?

"Come to Atlanta! You have to bring Dancers Among Us to Atlanta!!"

I've received this request many times on my Facebook wall, always with great enthusiasm. "Dance Capital of the South" was even bandied about. So I booked my airline tickets, got my hotel room, announced October 25-28 as my travel dates, and waited for the outpouring of excitement.

Cricket... Cricket...

Nothing. Nada. Zero. A goose egg.

Everywhere I've gone I've been greeted with an excess of talented, passionate dancers volunteering their time and energy. Atlanta has greeted me with... silence.

Please don't make me beg.

Atlanta dancers, you have so much to offer. The city is ripe with photographic possibilities.

photos via Google Images

If we decide to hop in a car and drive outside of Atlanta, we'll find small towns...

Scenic roads...

Beautiful bridges...

And classic southern estates...

Still not interested? Did I mention the impending nationwide book release through Workman Publishing?

Imagine yourself on a tepid first date, strolling into Barnes and Noble for a coffee before the movie. You see Dancers Among Us on the BEST SELLERS table. You casually mention, "Oh, I'm in that book." Your date leafs through the pages (much too quickly for my liking), sees your amazing photo and falls hard for you. The birds start chirping in the background, a marriage proposal is offered and accepted, children soon arrive, then grandchildren.

Crazier things have happened.

Plus, it's a really fun experience. If I can have a great time in snowy Harlem with Alvin Ailey dancer Michael McBride, imagine how exciting the process will be during a beautiful Georgia fall.

Next Tuesday, I will be carrying my camera and walking around Atlanta. Hopefully there will be dancers with me. If not, I will be that crazy man on the corner, babbling to myself about the good old days.

Please allow me my dignity. Email me at with any potential leads.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Stumbling Around Philadelphia- Dancers Among Us Gets Lucky Again (and again, and again...)

Another beautiful city, another stunning day of weather, and another outpouring of volunteers as Dancers Among Us continues to crisscross the nation. The Philadelphia dance community welcomed me with enthusiasm, and once again I was unable to photograph everyone who wanted to participate.

On Saturday I started at sunrise and spent 15 hours shooting 10 dancers. To say I was unprepared is an understatement. I put a loose schedule together when I arrived to my hotel at 12:30am on Saturday. Five hours later I was heading out the door with my equipment and a handful of granola. The day was a blur of activity. I had a few scenarios in mind, but I was primarily relying on chance.

One of my favorite sites is, perhaps because I rely on chance so much when I'm shooting. Stumbling upon shots was definitely the theme on Saturday, and it took several forms.

Stumbling Upon an Idea-

Sometimes I have no idea what to do. I have a dancer in front of me, an hour before the next shoot, and I need to manufacture something. Fortunately, current events took over on Saturday.

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko waited patiently as I finished a shoot at the LOVE sign. I had no ideas for Jaamil, and I was due in Old City soon. Across the street from LOVE was City Hall, bathed in late afternoon light. That seemed promising.

We arrived to a full scale Wall Street protest. The possibilities were limitless.

Walking through Center City with Kelsey Ludwig, we saw a crowd gathered by the Apple Store. A memorial had spontaneously erupted for Steve Jobs, and it was quite moving. How can we honor the spirit of this memorial without being cute or overly dramatic? We gave it our best shot, and I believe Kelsey struck just the right tone.

"I brought a skateboard." Miles Yueng was offering a suggestion for his shot. He had to leave for rehearsal in 30 minutes, so I had to be extremely decisive- which is difficult when you have zero ideas.

Falling off the skateboard would be funny. But where? We were in an upscale section of Center City- not exactly skateboarder haven.

Or maybe it is. Two great looking boarders, Tracy and Jordan, flew by me and stopped at the light.

"Guys, want to be in a book? Can you pose in this photo?" I asked. They were open to the idea, and even suggested a grungy alley around the corner.


Stumbling Upon Props-

"The Italian Market. Do the Italian Market."

I heard this from everyone, so I asked Barry Kerollis to meet me there at the busiest time of the day. Once again, I arrived in a rush with no scenario in mind. We had 20 minutes. I had spent five hours on two shots in the morning, so I was very behind schedule and trying to make up for lost time.

The Market was awash in authentic and surprisingly unphotogenic meat and fruit stands. We headed to the most famous stand- Giordano's. Sitting and waiting for us was one of the greatest props I've ever seen- John's infamous shopping bag cart. Ten dollars later, we had use of it for five minutes. It's all we needed.

Stumbling Upon Reactions-

Often it's the unexpected reactions of passers-by that make the shot, and sometimes I don't even know it's happened until I review the images later that day.

I couldn't leave Philly without photographing a slice of the nation's history. I asked Lauren Bilski to dress like a tourist, bring some binoculars and wear her pointe shoes. We stumbled upon a wall featuring the Declaration of Independence, and the reflection of the buildings gave it added drama. But it is the reaction of the family passing by that gives the image life.

Stumbling Upon People-

This happens to me with amazing frequency- I've got the scenario and the location, and we shoot until I think I'm satisfied. Then something magical happens- a person arrives and completes the story.

This happened twice to Evgeniya Chernukhina. First, we met at 6am for a "Rocky" inspired sunrise photo on the Philadelphia Museum of Art stairs. We shot until 8am, and I thought I had it.

Then I noticed Malik Gray teaching a fitness class on the stairs, and I asked him to join the shot.

Next, we headed to Philly's oldest road, a major tourist destination. I thought Evgeniya should be watering the plants, and I knocked on the front door of a pretty yellow house. I asked the owner t0 borrow his hose, and explained the concept for the book. Incredibly, he had already heard of Dancers Among Us. That never fails to thrill me.

I asked Evgeniya to balance on a slippery pole, lift her leg effortlessly and spray the hose- an almost impossible task.

Looked good to me! We packed up and started walking towards the car. Then my jaw dropped open and I stopped in my tracks. A man dressed in period garb was giving a tour of the street. We ran back to the location, set up the shot again and hoped he'd enter the frame.

He did much more than that!

It is often said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."

Who am I to argue with Louis Pasteur? However, I have a slightly different interpretation.

"Chance favors an open mind."

A special shout out to:

Local photographers Thomas V. Hartman (above photo) and Patrick Cliett for guiding me around the city and suggesting great locations; dancer Jennifer Jones for making a day trip from NYC and conceiving several of the poses; Samantha Siegel, Bill Thomas and PhiladelphiaDANCE for finding me amazing artists; Katie Yohe for her fantastic ideas; and the many dancers who volunteered their time and talent to make this day possible.

Thank you!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Dancers Among Us Photograph I Feared Taking, and the Pain that Followed

"Your images are so happy, but life isn't always joyful. We need photos that show people's struggles and hardships as well."

I was speaking with Susan Bolotin, editor-in-chief at Workman Publishing, and the rest of the design team. We were discussing the photos I should attempt in Chicago. I understood exactly what she meant, but I didn't want to hear it.

I knew what I had to do. I had to say goodbye to my mother.

Four months ago, my mother died suddenly. Just as suddenly, my career exploded. Since she died, I was filmed for a television feature that aired throughout Europe; I shot the 2012 promotional campaign for the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the 2012 calendar for the Olympic Women's Crew Team; I agreed to a book deal with Workman, and brought Dancers Among Us to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, Stanford, Princeton, Boston, Indiana, Westchester and Baltimore. I shot over 150 headshots and comp cards.

It was a busy summer. I never gave myself a moment to grieve. I just put my head down and hit the accelerator.

"Maybe a graveyard. There's usually a beautiful one in every city...." Now everyone at the table was discussing the merits of a mourning photo. I smiled and nodded my head. Inside I was filled with dread.

When I arrived in Chicago, I asked the innkeeper for some good locations to shoot. He gave me one- Graceland Cemetery.


I met dancer Chloe Crade at Graceland on a sunny afternoon. I asked her to bring flowers. We sat on the expansive grounds and discussed loss. A friend of hers had recently died, and she was feeling raw and vulnerable as well. We wanted to honor our memories with dignity- to create a simple image with resonance.

As I photographed Chloe draped across a gravestone, I felt exhilarated by the creative process- photography has been my protective blanket. When I looked at the image later that evening, alone and undistracted in my hotel room, I broke down and cried uncontrollably.

This photograph is the beginning, not the end, of my grieving process.

Today is my birthday, and Saturday I will be shooting Dancers Among Us in Philadelphia, where my mother spent many years of her life. The confluence of these two events will likely be another step in this process of grieving, and I approach it with similar apprehension.

I'm not ready to say goodbye.