Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dancers Among Us Feasts on Mardi Gras Madness in New Orleans

I traveled to New Orleans last weekend to record the Mardi Gras celebration for Dancers Among Us. As I arrived at my hotel Friday night, I was met by seventeen-year-old dancer Rebecca Wilfer and her family. They drove ten hours to be a part of the series. Rebecca came prepared, fully decked out in colorful Mardi Gras regalia.

The first parade of the holiday was passing near my hotel, so it seemed like an obvious place to start. The streets were packed, and I was worried Rebecca would disappear in the crowd. I realized that she could stand above the crowd on a newspaper rack and be illuminated by a streetlight.

Perfect! We rehearsed some poses and waited for the floats to pass by.

As the parade drew closer, an unwanted visitor parked his horse right next to us.

Police officers usually concern me, but in this case I wasn't very worried. A city that encourages overt nudity, drunkenness and debauchery couldn't possibly have an issue with a simple back bend on a newspaper rack.

The parade arrived. We waited for a large float, then Rebecca climbed up and hit her pose. The stands were wobbly but she maintained her composure. I took ten photos.

Suddenly I heard a horse's hooves moving quickly toward me. "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING? GET DOWN RIGHT NOW!"

I guess we discovered the only punishable offense in New Orleans.

Undaunted, we moved on. We chased the parade from behind and looked for a new location. We found it when I saw a huge "Mardi Gras" sign in the distance. We tried again, this time uninterrupted.

After the parade ended, we decided to try our luck on the famous Bourbon Street. Rebecca changed into a bright red dress, and we descended into the madness. I found a perfect sign, with a view of City Hall in the background.

In the midst of this chaos, we took a fantastic photo that perfectly captures the raw beauty and reckless abandon of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Unfortunately, I can't show you the final image until the book is released.

We agreed to meet the next morning at the same location for one more photo.

"Mardi Gras, The Morning After"

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dancers Among Us Stranded on Aspen Mountain

I flew to Aspen to photograph the prestigious Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for Dancers Among Us. Eleven of their company members had volunteered to work with me. I had just over one day to take advantage of this amazing opportunity. Needless to say, the schedule was very tight.

I arrived the evening before without a plan, relying on serendipity to guide me. Fortunately, ASFB had generously put me up at the Hotel Joseph, one of the most famous hotels in Aspen. The next morning I discovered why- I awoke to a spectacular view of Aspen Mountain. I had my first location!

“That will be one-hundred-and-five dollars, please.”

I was buying three tickets to the top of the mountain. ASFB principles Katie Dehler and Samantha Campanile were along for the adventure. We had two hours in the schedule, and the ride on the gondola was thirty minutes in each direction. I had an hour to take a $105 photograph.

As we arrived at the top of the mountain, I thought, “Now what?” It was windy, freezing and barren. We didn’t bring any ski equipment (surprisingly the ballerinas didn’t want to risk their careers by skiing for my photo). What scenario could I possibly create?

Once again, serendipity stepped in.

“Would you like your photo taken?” A mountaintop photographer was offering his services.

“No, but I’d like to photograph you photographing these dancers.” We struck a deal. Now it had to be a $125 photo.

We stepped into the lodge to warm up. I asked Katie and Samantha to put on pointe shoes. To the delight of everyone, they practiced some poses.

We went outside into the freezing wind. They were not happy.

But they soldiered on.

I liked it, but I wasn’t thrilled. I wanted them to be more in sync, like a duet. An element of danger would also be exciting- we were on the top of a mountain, after all. I abandoned my photographer idea (and my $20), climbed down a steep decline and asked them to look over the edge and brave the freezing wind yet again.

Twenty excruciating minutes later, I had my $125 shot. I also had two frozen ballerinas. We rushed towards the gondola, just in time to meet the next crop of dancers.

“Sorry, the gondola is closed. The winds are too strong. You’ll have to wait. I don’t know how long.”

What a bummer! Everyone was waiting down at the base, and I was stranded on the top of the mountain with two ballerinas.

Wait a minute, that doesn’t really sound so awful. We made the best of it- we drank hot chocolate and snuggled by the fire (I may be exaggerating just a little).

Katie even agreed to pose for one more photo.

Finally we made it down to the base, met up with the rest of the dancers and had a magical evening of shooting. But nothing compares to ballerinas on a mountaintop.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I've Been Keeping Secrets... Lots of Them

A relationship is built on trust, so I have to be honest and admit that I've been keeping secrets from you. As I've traveled around the country, I've become increasingly deceptive- what started as a small secret in Chicago grew into full-fledged deception by Atlanta. I feel awful about it, but I can't stop. This weekend I will be in New Orleans and Houston, and I just know the betrayal will continue.

So it's time to stop pretending and just admit my duplicity. As I publicly celebrate my travels around the country for Dancers Among Us, privately I've been- God, I hate to admit this- holding back most of the photos.

Wow, it feels great to admit the truth. What a relief!

Really, it's not my fault. I want to commit to you, and I'm dying to share everything with you, but I just can't. My publishers at Workman won't let me! They want to make sure there's a significant number of new images featured in the book. I've begged and pleaded and thrown tantrums my two-year-old daughter would envy, but to no avail. They stand firm!

On a certain level, you must have known. Did you really think I only took two photos in Miami? One in Seattle? None in Denver, Aspen and DC?

On the contrary, the past few months have been the most productive to date. I've had countless adventures- I trespassed at a slaughterhouse in Greeley, riled-up a Catholic school class in Edmonds, crashed a marijuana facility in Denver, got stranded on a mountain in Aspen, experimented with perchloric acid in a world-renowned laboratory in Palisades, shot in a rainstorm on the beach in Sarasota and a snowstorm on the streets of Seattle, and on and on... I've continued shooting in NYC as well, yet I haven't even mentioned it. I've sworn all the dancers to secrecy, and very few people have seen the new photos.

Over fifty of my favorite photos are languishing on my hard drive, waiting to be loved. Be patient, I tell them. Stay strong. Your time will come.

Or maybe I'm talking to myself.

(sharing with the dancers, but not the world)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Dancers Among Us Gets a Celebrity Endorsement

In December, I wrote an open letter to a Tony-winning Broadway legend, imploring her to participate in my book. It was titled, "Bebe Neuwirth, I Want YOU for Dancers Among Us!" It was a long shot, but you never know until you ask, right? Stranger things have happened. After a few days with no response, I let go of my fantasy. The Internet is just an empty echo chamber, I thought.

Six weeks later, an email shook my world.

"I just saw your blog request. I looked at the slideshow of your book's shots, and I'm completely charmed, moved, delighted and willing!"

Signed simply, "Bebe".

At this point, my life became totally surreal. Later that same day, I met Bebe at Prodigy Coffee, her husband's awesome new coffee shop in the west village. They were raving to me about ME. I was dumbstruck.

The Dancers Among Us collaboration happened immediately. After two hours of kicking around ideas, we settled on an idea I never would have anticipated. The location would be Equine Advocates, an amazing horse sanctuary Bebe works with in Chatham, NY.

I was leaving for a West Coast trip, and scheduled the shoot for the day I returned. I flew in late Friday night and arrived home at 2am. By 5am it had begun to snow, and by 7am it was a snowstorm. At 9am I was on the road to Chatham. As a testament to Bebe's commitment, she didn't cancel, despite the doom and gloom forecast.

After a treacherous trip, we both arrived around the same time. The 140 acre facility was breathtaking. Co-founders Susan and Karen Wagner generously opened their home to us, which was much appreciated given the twenty-degree temperature.

We went down to the stables. The stalls, as well as the rescued horses, turned out to be quite photogenic.

Bebe agreed to a photograph mucking out a horse's stall, which shows her terrific sense of humor (no surprise there). She's had two hip replacements, and the temperature was too frigid for her body to stay warm. I didn't want her to try anything extreme- the conditions were an injury waiting to happen. I gave her a pitchfork and asked her to do some Fosse moves while raking the hay. She played around as I hoped for a horse to arrive.

Finally a horse, lured by the soothing voice of Bebe's husband, Chris, came into view. The horse turned for a moment to look at Bebe, and she hit a couple of very fun, very Fosse poses while looking right back at him.

We rushed inside to warm up. Bebe's hands were frozen, but I was thrilled. I had gotten exactly what I wanted- a unique, whimsical image featuring Bebe in an unexpected environment, showcasing the dance style that made her a Broadway star. And whenever I'm completely satisfied, there's only one thing to say.

"Can we do another photo?"

Amazingly, Bebe agreed. I walked around the property, scouting a new location. I came upon this gem.

I ran back to the house and gathered the troops. Within twenty minutes had shot one of my very favorite images of the entire series- a photograph so beautiful it blows my mind. I absolutely cannot wait to share it with you...

In the spring of 2013, when the Dancers Among Us book is released! It's worth the wait.

Thank you Bebe.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Collapsing Under the Strain, Dancers Among Us Stalls at the Airport

I met with Workman Publishing for the first time in early June, 2011. They invited me in to discuss a possible Dancers Among Us calendar. A book deal wasn't mentioned when setting up the meeting.

I brought it up anyway.

They were intrigued, but they had reservations about the use of New York City exclusively as a backdrop. I had been shooting Dancers Among Us for two years, and I never considered moving outside the Big Apple. Of course, I dug in my heels and stood by that creative decision.

"Well, I have plans to travel around America this summer, shooting from coast to coast."

I didn't mention my plans were about five-seconds old.

"Oh, that's interesting." Editor-in-chief Susan Bolotin's interest seemed piqued. "Where?"

"Oh, you know... Like, uh... San Francisco, Chicago, Philly... uh, Colorado..." My voice trailed off. Is there even dance in Colorado, I wondered.

"Well, email us some photos from the road. I'm curious to see if the concept works outside of NYC."

And thus began the madness. In the past seven months, I've shot in hundreds of new locations, making sixteen separate trips around the country. I kept an active schedule in NYC as well, shooting almost four-hundred actor headshots and comp cards in that time, as well as the Women's US Olympic Rowing 2012 Calendar, the 2012 Paul Taylor Moving! campaign, and my first book cover.

Saturday it all caught up with me. I was on my way to Newark Airport for an early flight to Nashville, TN. Seven dancers from Nashville Ballet we waiting for me, along with several other talented local dancers.

I had already changed my flight from the night before. My family had been scheduled to join me in Nashville, and we were all going to fly out Friday night. But they were all suffering from the same flu-like symptoms I'd been working through for the past week. I would go alone.

As I pulled into the airport, the absurdity of what I was about to do became glaringly obvious. Aching, feverish and exhausted, I was abandoning any hope of rest and recovery, fueled by a blind urgency to fulfill the promise I made to Workman (and myself)- "Travel America from coast to coast."

America is too big, I finally realized. I can't get everywhere. Painful as it was to acknowledge that reality, it was also a relief. I turned the car around and went home to care for myself and my family.

The rest of my weekend looked something like this-

Kara Lozanovski, Chicago

Now that I'm rested and have a new perspective, I realize that I can indeed do it all...

I just may need ten sequels.