Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Surprise Snowstorm in Seattle for Dancers Among Us

As the deadline approaches to deliver all my Dancers Among Us photos to Workman Publishing, my time in each city has become absurdly brief. Last week I had just one full day of shooting in Seattle and Aspen, and only a few hours in Greeley and Denver.

The lack of time was all the more daunting given the quality and quantity of my volunteers.

In Seattle, I had ten dancers from the prestigious Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB). We shot seven photos in thirteen frantic hours. It was a wildly successful day- one of the most productive cities.

I saved one location- and one PNB dancer- for the next day. Georgetown is a gritty industrial town on the outskirts of Seattle, and Ezra Thomson is a gritty kind of guy. It seemed like the perfect match.

I woke up to a light dusting of snow. I knew it was coming because everyone had been talking about it. Snow in Seattle is a very rare occurrence- a half-inch and the city shuts down. This mild smattering was certain not to stick.

And then the Heavens opened up.

I was in a full-scale snowstorm as I drove to Georgetown. By the time I arrived, we had very little time to shoot- I was due at the airport in an hour. As always, I was relying on serendipity to guide me. We drove through the downpour looking for a location. I thought I was looking for factories or graffiti or abandoned train tracks, but then we stumbled upon a junkyard under the freeway- it was love at first sight.

We had fifteen minutes to shoot. I asked Ezra to light a cigarette and to physicalize heavy desperation. The snow would be crushing him, a man lost and alone, caught in nature’s wrath.

It was almost impossible to shoot. My camera was soaked and fogging up. I couldn’t see anything. I set the auto-focus on Ezra and shouted directions. The focus kept locking on the snow rather than Ezra. He was slipping in the snow, literally beaten up by the storm. I grabbed a beer can from the street and gave it to him. I kept shooting until my fingers were frozen.

Three-hundred-and-thirty images I hadn’t reviewed.

I had no idea how the shots looked. I raced to the airport, disappointed by the outcome. I felt it had been too rushed, and that I hadn’t given him enough direction. The location and snow had been a gift, and I hadn’t capitalized on it. I was devastated.

On the airplane I turned on my computer, and I was blown away. Ezra had been magnificent. I hadn’t seen the beauty of his movement.

My favorite image came after I gave Ezra the beer and changed the composition to incorporate the freeway. He struck a beautiful, heartbreaking pose that said everything I had hoped to convey.

Thank you yet again, Serendipity, for always showing up in the perfect moments for Dancers Among Us. Next time though, you don't have to bring the full force of Mother Nature along with you.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mega-Star Alex Wong Trashes Dancers Among Us

I was in Miami in November shooting Dancers Among Us when I saw this tweet-

"@jordanmatter: Love your photography and would love to shoot with you one day!" from a @AlexdWong

I continued shooting. Ten minutes later I received this email from Samantha Siegel, my social media consultant-

"I see that Alex Wong has reached out to you about shooting for Dancers Among Us-- do EVERYTHING in your power to make that happen!"

Then I started seeing passionate tweets from complete strangers commenting on the possible collaboration, urging it to happen.

I turned to the dancer I was photographing. "Who is Alex Wong?"

She looked at me like I had just said, "Who's this Obama guy I keep hearing about?"

"Alex is incredible. He was going to win So You Think You Can Dance until he tore his Achilles tendon before the final round. It was devastating. He's a huge star."

I really need to watch more television.

Once I started researching Alex, I got very excited. He's a tremendously athletic and beautiful dancer, with stunning lines and jumps to the sky. His background with ABT and Miami City Ballet gives him an artistry along with commercial dance.

I also learned that he had torn his other Achilles, and was in recovery. So what could he actually do? Guess I'd find out.

For some reason, the image of a streetlight at night kept popping into my head whenever I thought about shooting Alex. I couldn't shake it. We planned to meet one evening around Christmas in the West Village. I walked around looking for the right streetlight when I stumbled upon Minetta Lane, and here's what I discovered-

It had been raining, which added a nice reflection on the street and misty quality to the atmosphere. Alex started warming up. "I'm at about 50% recovery. I can jump, but I'll take it easy." And he proceeded to do a practice jump-

I need to do another shoot him again and see what 100% looks like.

I asked Alex to put on a shirt, grab a trash bag and throw it into the pile at the height of his jump. I'll call the photo, "Trash Night"-

CRASH!! The bag was filled with bottles. Maybe I should call it, "Recycling Night" instead. We grabbed another bag.

I loved the pose, of course, but I wasn't crazy about the composition. I needed to incorporate the alley more. He looked a little closed in.

We tried a few more throws.


"What the hell are you doin' down there?!?" came a mysterious and angry voice from a window.

"We're doing a photograph, sir. We're almost finished." I replied, trying to sound casual.

"Do you have a permit?"

"Of course." I lied.

"I hope so, because I'm callin' the police!"

This put a little cramp in my creative process. I liked the shots we had taken, but there was something missing. I didn't want to get arrested trying to figure it out, but I didn't want to leave either. Neither did Alex.

Then it hit us like a ton of bricks. Why had I asked him to put a shirt on?

"Can you take off your shirt and change your pants to add contrast? I'm going to switch to a wider lens so we see more of the environment. Plus I have to incorporate that streetlight, and get more blue reflection on the ground."

Three more jumps. CRASH!!! CRASH!!! CRASH!!!

I could just feel the guy in the window fuming (with good reason- it was after 10pm). We looked at the shot together and agreed that it couldn't get any better. We loved it- the pose, the colors, the streetlight, the reflections... THE BODY! We escaped before the police could add more blue light to the scene. A Dancers Among Us success.

I like this mega-star thing and I'm ready to do some more. Mr. Baryshnikov, are you available next week?


Postscript: Do you think I'm crazy enough to let Alex Wong leave with just one photo? Of course not. We went to his apartment (location undisclosed), and created one of my very favorite shots of the entire series. But you'll have to wait until 2013 to see it. Workman Publishing has asked me to keep it under wraps until the book is released. Believe me, it alone is worth the purchase price!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Photograph the World Never Saw... Until Now

As I was taking this photograph of Parisa Khobdeh, I knew immediately it would be the cover shot for the Paul Taylor Dance Company's (PTDC) 2012 Moving! campaign.

In my blog, "When Life Gives You Lemons..", I documented the drama that led to creating this image. It was exhilarating, the culmination of a long history of collaborating with Parisa that started almost three years ago, on my first day of shooting Dancers Among Us.

"I've got this idea for dancers in everyday situations." I explained in our first phone conversation. I didn't have to say anything else.

"Fun. Meet me at Grumpy's, my favorite coffee bar. Let's do a coffee drinking photo."

She embraced the collaborative process so completely that I almost didn't have to collaborate.

"I'm going to a Yankee game. Meet me there. I'll do a jump in the crowd."

"I want to do a photo where I'm floating away holding balloons. I'll bring the balloons!"

It was fitting that Parisa ended up with the campaign's cover shot. The image would be displayed on a huge banner. Like a siren floating above Lincoln Center, Parisa would coax throngs of patrons into the David H. Koch Theater. PTDC would immediately sell-out their season, and I would be celebrated across the globe as the greatest living dance photographer...

"We're not using it. Can you shoot Parisa again?" Executive Director John Tomlinson asked me bluntly.


"It doesn't match the 'Moving' theme. She's not going anywhere."


"I want her jumping out of a bus, on her way to the show."


"We need it for the cover of the brochure."

"The cover? Why didn't you say so? The bus is a great idea!"

Indeed, it was.

I can't argue with John- the shot works beautifully for the campaign. However, I still love the first photo, and I really wish I could put it on a cover as well.

Wait a minute...