PhotoTalk: Amitava Sarkar on Dance Photography

Photography by Amitava Sarkar

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Joyce Hu of J & L Dance Company

First off, Congratulations on the cover of Dance Studio Life
(formerly Goldrush). How does it feel to have your name in lights
(so to speak)?


AS: Thank you. The cover came about primarily due to your interest
in my opinions for the article. I appreciate your help in opening this door.
It is my first cover, and a milestone. My excitement over seeing my
images,
in use has tempered, but affirmations are still nice.

I love the photograph selected for the cover. The dancer seems
to be taking the viewer into her swirling action.
Do you remember taking that photograph?
Where you thinking of capturing anything in
particular?

AS: I remember the performance, as I do most of the
performances I photograph. It was the 2005 Tapestry of Dance,
put on by Dance Source Houston, and captured live at the Miller
Theater. The piece, titled
Butterfly Dance,
used fabric as the prop and costume. Kris Phelps
lit it beautifully. I just remember being hypnotized by the whirling,
and the way the fabric wrapped around her. I am very used to
photographing the full
body of the performer, but I realized that a
close-up was more grabbing. Later, I discovered that Loie Fuller
used a similar effect in Fire Dance, in 1900. Here is a moment
from the recreation by Jessica Lindberg.

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Jessica Lindberg

There's a paradox in dance and photography. Dance is about
movement and photography—at times—attempts to capture a
single moment. In fact, sometimes a photo shows us something
we were not able to see. It's like the secret hidden in a dance.
Care to comment?


AS: An interesting question. My impression is that all
forms of art have “something we are not able to see,”
but touches us in some way. There are two ways to
interpret the question. A photo can show perfection of a
moment, which can be fleeting (or missed) when seen
in a performance. It can also help one linger in a
dramatic/emotional moment in a manner not possible
in a live show. On the third level (the secret one),
a photograph can provide insight (thus the name of my business)
beyond what is shown in the photo, to reveal the idea of the
choreographer. In dance photographs, such moments are quite rare.


I wrote the Goldrush piece because I was tired of
the "not good enough art" situation in dance writing.
Without decent photos I don't have a story. If you
had to give one piece of advice to dance companies or
dance studios about getting good art what would you say?


AS: The answer is 42. Seriously, here is no simple answer.
You have already mentioned the primary point in
your article. Assess whose attention you are trying
to get, and why. Plan the process of acquiring images that

meet those criteria.

Very funny on the 42. I'm a Douglas Adams fan myself.
How did you go from being an engineer to being a
dance photographer?

AS: I was a Software Systems Architect for eighteen years and
always interested in photography. I have a strong connection with
the performing arts since childhood. I finally brought myself a consumer
Sony camera in
2002. A friend, Toni Tucci, the lighting designer for Ballet Austin,
invited me to photograph the premiere of Stephen Mill's Taming of the Shrew
(commissioned by the Lincoln Center). This was the first time I
photographed
ballet. Not being familiar with the aesthetics of ballet, most photos had the legs
cut off. But I was hooked to the experience. I began to work on my skills and
to understand dance better. By 2003 I changed my
career to clinical
massage and photography.


Do you ever find that your engineering background factors into
your work. I see it in that you seem to understand
how a dance
form operates and then form your artistic values from that. Am I close?


AS: The engineering background helped more with the technical aspects
of photography (the math, and science), but not so much on the aesthetics/art.
One skill I did use a great deal in my IT work was pattern recognition,
which I use in understanding/appreciating choreography and movement.
I think that helps me a great deal, both in the appreciation of the arts
and in photographing them. Of course, I draw upon my sense of aesthetics
from being a student of North Indian Classical music for several decades on the Sitar.


What's your mindset when you are working? Does it change depending
on the piece you are photographing?

AS: The start of a performance has me on the edge, both with excitement of the
experience to come, and also a bit of nervousness as to what difficulties I may
have to overcome. During a performance, my mindset is in
constant flux, alternating
between how to technically (exposure, effect) get the best photograph, enjoying the
performance, and hunting for interesting patterns and movement. It also changes
depending on the genre/style of dance, the venue, production value, and how the
piece connects with me.


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Brian Brooks Moving Company in Pinata

When I look at this photo of Brian Brooks Pinata I wonder how you caught
such a moment. I remember wondering just how he created such a moment.
It's curious to me that you caught a moment that caught me.

AS: This image is from the Brian Brooks Moving Company. I was fortunate to
see his work in Austin. His vocabulary and choreography is very demanding of
dancers. I enjoyed Brian’s imaginative approach to movement and spacing.
his photo is from a movement when the dancer used her abs and back/feet
on the ground, when it was repeated. Since the images did not look interesting
taken from above, I placed the camera on the gray marley and took the shot from
the floor. He has used this image a lot in his marketing/publicity
.

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Jane Weiner of Hope Stone Dance in Night Moves choreographed by Mark
Dendy with Larry Keigwin.

There's something about Jane Weiner in this picture which
captures the tone of the entire piece. Do you agree?

AS: This was the first time I photographed Jane and her company.
This particular piece is difficult to document. Its appeal is more in
the movement than still moments. Many times I capture moments
that I just have a feel will be good moments. There is no rationale.
I can consciously perceive as to why I reach that decision. Sometimes
these feelings pay off. I have to be honest, I do not remember this
specific moment. I just am drawn by the intensity on her face.


What kind of dance is most challenging to photograph?

AS: Group choreography (low yield due to coordination), modern/contemporary
works (due to unusual vocabulary/spacing/movement), and forms of dances
I am not familiar with.


Do you think you will branch out to theater and opera some day?

AS: I have been photographing plays, opera, and musicals for the past
two years. Lately I have been documenting more live music, as well.
I find all forms of performance arts fascinating. These days I avoid
attending performances I cannot photograph, as I tend to be distracted
by the thought “oh that would have made a great photo”, over and over.
I am a little behind in posting images of my theatrical work, but most
of the work can be seen at

http://insightphotography.smugmug.com/Theater ,
http://insightphotography.smugmug.com/Music, and
http://insightphotography.smugmug.com/Events.

How can young companies with a small budget make the most of a shoot?

AS: It depends if it is class, stage, or studio photography. Find a photographer
whose skills fits the situation (and provides the best value). Staged shots can
be captured by almost any good photographer quite inexpensively. However,
plan the poses and rehearse them, to speed up the photography session. Make
sure that the eyes and expressions vibrate with the mood of the pose/moment.
Have a few people who have no stake in the
images (who understand dance), review
them (without your opinion) and see if they are attracted to the same
images that you think will work.


I think one of the great things dance has going for it is the possibility
of wonderful photographs. We are such
visual people these days and
rely so much on photographs for information. How do you think good photography

can help bring an audience?

AS: The right photographs reflects the company's image, the quality of the production,
the ideas expressed by the choreographer, and the talent of the dancers. It should draw
the viewer and make them excited, curious, and evoke the desire to see more (or wish they seen the performance).


What can we do to get the media to be better at listing photo credits?

AS: This is a tough one. Unfortunately I am not sure what their processes
are, to make suggestions. However, I wish credits would include the name
of the piece, the dancers, the choreographer, costume/set designer,
and
lightning designer. I know it seems like a lot, but a theatrical photograph
reflects the work of all those people. The photographer comes in the end
of the process. Starting in the next season, I plan to include the credits with
the photograph, in the border. So the information will definitely get to the media..
It can still get lost the in publication process, but at least the images
nd credit will flow together.


What's your dream dance photo job?

AS: Photographing dance festivals/galas and performing arts
festivals/events the country in the summer, and the seasons for dance
companies/institutions whose aesthetics I enjoy.


Thanks for what you do and the careful attention you give to the dancers
on stage. Dance writers, this one in particular, would be up a creek (and
probably writing about cars) without you.


Learn more at
http://insightphotography.smugmug.com/Dance.
http://www.photographyinsight.com/

Read Packing a Punch with Photos in Dance Studio Life Magazine
http://www.rheegold.com/1-1-06/1-1-07/March_07/Packing%20A%20Punch%20with%20

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