“What Makes a Great Dance Photograph?”

These excerpts speak straight to my heart — or mind. If you don’t read the whole (admittedly lengthy) post, be sure to give the last three paragraphs (in black) a read.

From the foreword to Ewing 1987: The Fugitive Gesture:

“What makes a great dance photograph? To the balletomane, a great photograph shows a celebrated ballerina, in classic tutu, performing a flawless arabesque or in seemingly effortless flight, wearing an expression of otherworldly serenity; or, if a male dancer, in muscle-revealing tights and incredible elévation, the very essence of virility. ‘Such a picture’, writes dance photographer Anthony Crickmay, ‘is popular with editors and will . . . always find a public.’

When I began my search for the photographs in this book these were the pictures that balletomanes, dancers and professional dance photographers showed me with enthusiasm. I was more often than not disappointed. [… W]hy should a great dancer automatically make a great dance photograph any more than an exquisite Chanel ensemble automatically makes a great fashion photograph?


I could sympathize, of course. The dancer’s art is fugitive, leaving nothing of permanence except these fragments, a few hundredths of a second to represent an entire career. Can we blame a dancer for making great demands of them? Even fame cannot confer immortality; as great a name as George Balanchine recognized that photographs were all that would remain of his art in a hundred years.


But when it came to the expressive aspirations of photographers, [Edwin] Denby had nothing but scorn:

‘A dancer on stage doesn’t look strained and she isn’t a dry, amoeba-shaped blob, a configuration of swirls of cloth and rigid muscles and swollen veins fixed forever in a small square of nothing, like a specimen on a slide. The dancer isolated in the camera field seems to be hanging in a void, in a nowhere.’

And as for depicting movement, there was no sense even trying, for ‘the more painstaking {the movement}, the more pointless the effect. You don’t see the change in the movement, so you don’t see the rhythm, which is dancing.’

It would appear that critics are quite content with photography’s status as handmaiden to the dance. […]

I believe dance photography to be more than opera glasses, more than a supply of icons, more than a diminished reflection of the dance. At its best it takes on an artistic life of its own; its four sides frame a tiny theatre, it is an independent medium subject to its own laws. Photography may serve the dance without being subservient. Thinking about this independence, I realized that dance photography, no less than dance, can be regarded as a language, with a vocabulary, grammar and syntax. What is more, a true appreciation is only possible within these terms. The iconic and documentary are among these terms, or functions, but by no means exhaust the expressive potential of the language. […]

And so we return to our initial question: what is a great dance photograph? It seems to me that ultimately a dance photograph must be judged with the same standards as any photograph; that is, no special allowance can be made, no handicap given, for subject matter.


At some point well into my research I realized that the most dynamic pictures were generally created at the extremes of a continuum: either they were made in intense and sustained collaboration with a dancer or choreographer, or they were made without the dancer’s awareness. But the in-and-out service of the commercial studio photographer was unlikely to produce extraordinary results. As for in-performance pictures and those which resulted from ‘photo calls’, they were even less likely to result in impressive pictures. It is more likely to have been the fiercely independent spirits that have produced the most noteworthy work.” (p. 9–11)


One response to ““What Makes a Great Dance Photograph?”

  1. I have stumbled upon this post, and I am indeed glad I have. I also stumbled upon ballet photography, or photography ballet through a series of my photographs being the inspiration and an integral part of an original ballet Orchis. Through my association with the Festival Ballet Providence, I have taken photographs just as I would take photographs of any subject: Photographs not dance, not painting. Only to find that a finger was not lifted enough, or it was not frozen in time or frozen in amber. I tried to understand their needs and did my level best to fulfill them, and to a large extent I succeeded I think. However, the photographs that show the fluidity of motion, or the grace of lines their extremities draw, compressed time in one frame did not please the dancers. I have been arguing the same points you have made with greater depth and eloquence. I have just ordered a copy of The Fugitive Gesture, thank you.

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