The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 14, No. 1

Notes on Design

by Mikhail Baryshnikov

About thirty years ago, a friend advised me to take my Nikon camera and a bunch of 35mm black-and-white film on tour. I couldn’t spell then, and I can’t spell now, so photography was my way of documenting my experiences. For most of those thirty years it was just a leisure activity: I took typical travel photographs—landscapes, street scenes—and terrorized my family and friends with portraits.
     I never liked dance photography, per se; I thought it was a dead art, that it could not do justice to movement. Then, quite recently, I looked at a couple of older books—notably, Alexey Brodovitch’s 1945 Ballet and Paul Himmel’s 1954 Ballet in Action—along with work by Ilse Bing and the great Irving Penn, and discovered that by abandoning the crystalline image in favor of blurred edges I could approximate the excitement of dance in performance. With a digital camera I started to explore the possibilities of photographing motion.
     I began my experimentation by photographing social dance in the Dominican Republic. I love the Dominican people and their culture—their daily routine of engaging in music and dance. It’s a national preoccupation. And I found that I enjoyed the speed and ease of working digitally. To create the effect I was trying to achieve, on a base level, I would stop down the aperture, slow the shutter speed, and rotate and move the camera with the movement of the dancers, like an underwater photographer following a fish. The greatest challenge was to get close enough to the dancers—whether on the street or in a dance hall.
     Around the same time, I asked Merce Cunningham if I could photograph his dance company in rehearsals, in homage to him and in an attempt to decode his choreographic intentions. He agreed. Standing onstage I would pan my camera across the dancers, and if I saw a composition that pleased me, I would try to anticipate the next movement in my own little dance with the camera.
     Merce’s work lends itself beautifully to the lens. He used space unlike any other choreographer in the world, creating a scene with a great depth of field, then varying the lighting of and the types of movement across that field. The dancers are the perfect instruments of his vision. Watching his work through a camera lens is a lesson in the extremes and restraints of a dancer’s body. The company’s astonishing stamina is in high relief when photographed, but it’s the individual traits of the performers that burst into the shot with surprising power. To a dancer, such nakedness is revelatory.
     The works of Francis Bacon and Picasso are primary inspirations for my photography. I’m trying to deconstruct the body as they did, as a post factum of its movement. The stranger the results, the more interesting they are to me. Dance onstage is seamless in the moment. With my camera I want to capture that half-step and compress time to keep people guessing about the movement, to create a dialog between the viewer and the subject.
     It was fascinating to sit with Merce and watch him rediscover his work through still photography. There was the spark of a very young man as he pointed excitedly to an image and remarked, “Oh, I was trying to do this, and there it is!” He saw the solid bones of his choreography amid a flurry of swooping, lunging abstracts and faces flickering in pentimento.
     For my next project, which I’m tentatively calling Danse Macabre, I’m photographing varied forms of dance, from hula, flamenco, and tango to classical to hip-hop. It’s said that to understand a people you don’t need to speak their language, you just listen to their music and watch them move.

To view Mikhail Baryshnikov's design of the Spring 2010 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.