The Image and the Lens
It isn’t always easy to get arms and legs positioned in a group photograph that works to everybody’s advantage. There is always one person who blinks, twitches and bends a leg or arm in a way that overshadows everybody else’s perfect pose. The more dancers there are in a shot, the more chances of Murphy’s Law. Adding to this I learned that nothing works out exactly the way we see it in our minds eye and with group photography you have a lot of minds with different ideas grouped together. And as I found out sometimes the truth is a little too accurate with the camera.
Ideas can come to any of us at the oddest of moments especially when we are doing something that is mundane or monotonous. For instance I was actually in the shower when the idea came to me to do a group photography class with some of my students who I teach privately. I thought it would be a good addition to their lessons and also be fun at the same time. Learning how to pose in front of the lens is an important element for any professional dancer to learn especially for those preparing and working on their portfolios. So I got out of the shower and decided to call a photographer friend of mine that I have worked with for the past five years by the name of Pat Berrett. He thought it sounded like an interesting project so we set a date for the group photo shoot and thus our journey began.
I was looking at my Kachina dolls and out of the blue the theme of the photo shoot emerged. I thought it would be interesting to do eye make up like the Native Americans do for certain ceremonial dances. Feathers came next adding to this unconventional mix of New Mexico flair. Finally we added gypsy skirts to this idea with corsets and hip scarves. I knew it was quite the mix of cultures but that is what New Mexico is all about. So the six of us started working towards creating a melting pot of multi cultures mixed with bling, color and a little whimsy thrown in for ambiance. By the time the big day had arrived everyone had invested time and money in creating their own impression of New Mexico. There was a multitude of colors that represented our skies, sunsets, landscape and people. It was beyond what I imagined so I knew the photos would be spectacular or so I thought.
The day of the photo shoot I woke up feeling like something wasn’t quite right. Call it woman’s intuition or a hunch but I knew the photo shoot was going to have it’s problems before I ever got out of bed. My make up started off the morning by looking like a combination of Frankenstein’s bride and Bridezilla. It wouldn’t work no matter what I did. Add the feathers that I attached to my eyelashes and there standing before me was my impression of an owl. By the time I was done, my face looked like it belonged on a Picasso painting.
One of my students was thirty minutes late coming to my house which made me pace. By the time she arrived I was ready to jump out of my Picasso painting impersonation and dive back into bed. A feathered eyelash malfunction made her late. This is understandable especially if you don’t use fake eyelashes very often with feathers.
As we drove to the Santa Fe location from Albuquerque I noticed that my anxious feeling was coming back with a vengeance. I squashed it like a bug and kept on driving trying to focus on having a good photo shoot. As we approached the parking lot, I saw the girls for the first time and was delighted and amazed at the color emanating from their painted faces and exploding off their colorful corsets and hip scarves. New Mexico was alive and well with each and every one of them. People gathered around and watched us prepare for our photo shoot. We were lucky because Project Tibet allowed us to be photographed not only on location but also with their jewelry. We had Joolz to thank for this since she new the family well and had dated one of the sons. As we all walked in together I noticed that Pat was just starting to set up for the indoor shots first. This gave us time to select our jewelry, readjust feathers, corsets and the occasional bindi glitch. Little did I know that Pat was already having an off morning like myself. He thought he had left his camera back home and had to go and rent another one only to find that his camera had been in his car all along. Adding to this I decided to film the photo shoot for my archives thinking that it wouldn’t be a problem. He made it clear that he did not want to be filmed at all, period. Long story short, I have on film moments where we are bickering at each other in front of the girls. Needless to say I was shocked at the fact that it was all caught on film. My daughter stood behind the camera and when I said catch everything needless to say she did!
Our first group shot was on rugs piled up two feet high with colorful walls and hand carved furniture. As Pat had us all positioned on the pile of large rugs I noticed that he didn’t want me to arrange the girls body positions including arms and legs. We had talked about this before the photo shoot date but for some reason unbeknownst to me he changed his mind and to keep the peace I let it slide. Weeks later he told me he felt that it would have been too hard on me to position them and then get myself back into form. I think we both realized that I was the missing link the girls needed. Needless to say I had one student with her hand in front of my face in a few of the shots. I looked stressed and unfocused due to worry, slight irritation with the body positioning of not just myself but everybody. Some of the girl’s positions made them look like mannequins with awkwardly positioned legs and stiff arms. There were just too many of us and I knew I should have stuck to my guns and positioned everyone. I had a suspicion that the shots he was taking wouldn’t work and unfortunately the photos proved me right. Looking back I feel like that first group of photos was like herding cats for Pat. He had to deal with various conversations going on at once, nervous giggles and the occasional direction challenged student.
We went to an outdoor patio next and it became clear that my vision was not in sync with Pats vision. I wanted vogue shots with extreme body positioning and he had us standing in various positions with our arms up or angled. Unfortunately we were positioned in ways that showcased how off our arms were from each other. For the photos to work we needed me to position everyone with a choreographer’s eye. So with this experience I learned that dancers know positioning and photographers know when a shot is just right. Even though I have been fortunate to work with Pat I realized that there are always lessons to learn even if you have been collaborating with someone for years. Needless to say we didn’t get the group shots I had hoped for. Sometimes good ideas need to be thought out in ways that can make them come alive. In this instance as great a photographer as Pat is, we couldn’t make it work. My students were disappointed but they all said they had fun. Knowing this I knew I couldn’t let it rest but as far as my students were concerned they all thought this would be the end of it.
Most artists I have found will keep an idea alive and be tenacious about getting it accomplished. This is what makes us different from the rest of society. We march on until we get the results we want.
I thought we should do it again but change up the surroundings and keep it in Albuquerque. With the changes I wanted to make, my dear friends Mike and Tish Miller came to mind. Mike was the photographer who had taken the photographs at the wolf sanctuary and his wife Tish is an artist with many talents including fine jewelry. So they agreed to come into the project and see what they could do. Mike found a wonderful warehouse owned by independent film producer, Paul Porter. Mike is an independent film producer himself so the fact that he had an in with the film community was definitely a plus.
Unfortunately not all my students could make this photo shoot because of conflicting schedules but the rest who could, worked on changing up costuming and prepared for another chance to be photographed. Mike also arranged for a make up artist to be on location the day of the shoot for a few hours which definitely helped with any makeup malfunctions. To say we were excited to model Tishes jewelry was an understatement. There are no words to describe her intricate and meticulous works of art. Each piece is one of a kind. There was no doubt in my mind that this photo shoot definitely could work!
The morning of the photo shoot I felt excited and relaxed. It started off without any make up glitches or delays. I was so relieved not to be impersonating any paintings or animals. We worked from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. Considering it was indoors for the duration of the photo shoot we were able to experiment and create different scenarios to get different types of photos. I was able to position arms and legs and work with Mike and Tish in making memorable shots. The learning aspect of any photo shoot helps to create dancers who understand the camera. It’s not always easy to be real in front of a camera. A pose has to be believable for the viewers just as much as it does for the artist. So my students learned that if they didn’t believe in themselves it would immediately come across that way onto the photograph because the camera does not lie. They also learned that in creating good photographs, there is a lot of hard work that goes into making them happen.
Both photo shoots were hard work but in different ways. The first photo shoot was raw for most of them so they had no emotion. They held positions that didn’t work because they were holding them at awkward angles. They didn’t know how to pose in a relaxed manner so Pat had to coax them into positions as he was photographing them. In the second photo shoot sometimes they had to hold a position that was painful to the point of arms or legs going numb. Other times they had to go within themselves to pull out the dancer hiding away that was too shy to come out.
At the end of the first photo shoot everyone was tired from standing and anticipating each shot. Everyone was going on pure adrenalin so a sense of relief could be felt throughout the group at days end. By the end of the second photo shoot everyone was tired but it was the kind of tired that felt amazing like we had really accomplished something. My lesson learned was that the smaller group was able to pull off the various scenes a little easier then the bigger group. In the end I realized that both photo shoots were excellent lessons for my students. For future reference I will make sure that I put my students in smaller groups and play up on this advantage.
With both experiences under their belts I feel like my students learned how both photographers worked and connected with them. Both Pat and Mike have unique skills that have always added a bit of panache to any of the projects I have done with them.
It was a wonderful feeling to finally accomplish what was in my minds eye from the beginning. I believe the first photo shoot made the second one work. And to tell you the truth it was more then I had hoped for. What we really did was create something that for those brief moments in time was pure magic. But it was all caught on film and the best part of all is that my students will have more then just photos for their portfolios. Thanks to Pat Berrett and Michael L. Miller they will have important lessons learned that they will take with them and implement into their next photo shoot journey.
“You know what a camera is? A mirror with memory.” Unknown
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