Albert Watson Photographs the Dance

By Peggy Roalf   Monday March 14, 2011


Martha Graham, the choreographer whose revolutionary vision and artistic ingenuity has influenced generations of choreographers, dancers, and actors, created a uniquely new form of dance that continues to captivate audiences. Graham took as her master narrative the American experience – from Native Americans to the Puritans to African-Americans at a time when European influences ruled the world of dance. Throughout her long career, beginning in 1929, she engaged prominent composers and artists in collaborations that explored this theme, and in the process changed the look, the sound, and the very nature of dance. Tomorrow the Martha Graham Dance Company opens its 85th season, with performances at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

To mark the occasion, the company commissioned another giant in the arts, photographer Albert Watson, to create a portfolio of images that capture Graham’s vocabulary of dance movement and theater. There is no mistaking the look of a Martha Graham performance, particularly in view of the costumes, some of which were designed by Issye Miyake, Halston and Oscar de la Renta. So last week, I spoke by phone with Mr. Watson, who is widely known for his work in fashion.


Left to right: Mariya Dashkina Maddux, Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa; Miki Orihara, Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa. Katherine Crockett, Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart; Photographs copyright Albert Watson.

Peggy Roalf: Had you photographed dancers prior to this commission?
Albert Watson: I have, and the first time I did dance I had some problems with it. The way to really do it is to have the dancers come out and dance for you to just look at them to understand the sequence, instead of just shooting away and shooting away. Early in my career I photographed the Royal Canadian Ballet and had that experience; while I thought I had 50 great shots, when I started looking at the pictures, I ended up with seven or eight. So I’ve found that the best way for me to get good results is to pinpoint a particular sequence of the dance, and find a particular moment within the sequence that feels very powerful or dramatic. Then you work with the dancer on that particular moment to maximize the image.

PR: How did you organize the shoot? 
AW: We first started shooting in the rehearsal hall, but then, because the ceiling was low, there wasn’t enough flexibility so we rented a studio with a cyclorama, and the dancers came in for a long day’s work.

PR: Do you mean to say that you made all of these photographs in just two sessions?
AW: That’s right. The rehearsal hall session was about a half a day, then the studio, so taken together it amounted to the equivalent of a long day.

PR: Is the speed at which the dancer moves for your photography session the same as it is for the actual performance – or does the dancer sometimes move more slowly, in order to offer the camera an extra split second? Here I’m thinking about the long dresses that seem to have lives of their own!
No not at all. I’ve been a fashion photographer for a long time so consequently understanding how the costumes and the fabrics move would be clearly second nature to me. It’s not automatic, but it helps. With dance, it’s a combination of what the fabrics are doing and what the body is doing underneath the fabrics. One of the most beautiful costumes was a dress done by Issey Miyaki in the pleated fabric. But fashion has to be secondary to the momentum and the movement of the shooting. In addition to photographing the dancers in costume, I brought in some optical fabrics, silk fabrics with stripes that I thought it would be great to have some things for them to interact with. So they held the length of silk and created dance movements around it.

PR: These photographs really do combine the art of the dance, the art of costume and the art of photography. Can you characterize what makes photographing the dance so fascinating?
AW: I like working with dancers. The nice thing about working with dancers is that they’re so professional, you can really work with them because they’re like really good actors only they’re acting with their bodies. And of course they have this amazing sense of timing.

PR: I was wondering, is it easier to shoot dancers using high definition 35mm, or a motor drive, than working in a larger format?
AW: No it’s actually easier. When a dancer goes into a move, let’s say it’s a jump, there’s a certain point where the body does reach a maximum moment of energy – and for a micron of a second it stops. And it’s that moment that you’re looking for, when the torso is maximized, the arm is reaching, and the fingertips are bent. It’s a much better thing for the photographer to look for that moment and capture it, rather than putting a motor drive on a Nikon and running some footage. You’re just grasping at straws for the most part when you use a motor drive or high definition 35mm. You might get something but it wouldn’t be the same philosophy about maximizing the sequence of the dance.

PR: Will you continue working with the company?
AW: We’ll have to see if it continues. I like doing dancers and, you know, the more you do it the better you get.

PR: What are you working on now?
AW: I have a number of shows opening in Europe. In two weeks time there’s a big museum show in Stockholm [Fotografiska Museet, March 25 – June 12]. Then there’s a show in Norway, in Amsterdam, and in Paris, so that’s taking quite a bit of my time.

The Martha Graham Dance Company spring program runs from March 15-20 at the Rose Theater in Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Broadway at 60th Street, NY, NY. For Tickets, 212.721.6500 or the Box Office at Jazz at Lincoln Center, or online