PRINT April 1988


Dance and Photography

Dance and Photography, by William A. Ewing, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987, 240 pp., 233 black-and-white photographs.

“WHAT MAKES A GREAT dance photograph?” begins William Ewing in the foreword to his book, an elegant collection of 233 black and white images, dating from ca. 1849 to 1987, that he presumably imagines as some kind of answer to his question. The resulting compilation has enough visual punch to transcend relegation to the coffee table, and to animate not only the most ardent dance-photography aficionado but the less enthusiastic reader and viewer as well. A parade of well-known images, archival adventures, and other oddities and surprises, along with some valuable information, Dance and Photography provides a great browse for all. And even though shortcomings emerge in the book by the second or third time around, they never deflate the power of the more resonant photographs, which actually seem to grow more alluring with each fresh look.

Besides “modern” and ballet, Ewing has prudently chosen to present other, more vernacular forms of dance, doing so often through candid shots that in fact prove some of the book’s best—Gjon Mili’s Lindy Hop Improv, 1943, for example, the dancers feisty, airborne, caught in jump; or James Van Der Zee’s 1928 photograph of a group of little girls taking a Harlem dance class, one of them exhibiting decided panache as she steps forward with one shoulder slightly raised, sporting a top hat, baton in hands, and a daintily pointed pinky finger; or Bill Brandt’s 1930s view of a young, wonderfully precocious East End girl doing the “Lambeth Walk” for her giggling friends, skirt hiked up, smiling, it would seem, for the camera. In a section entitled “The Independent Eye” are vivacious dancing-in-the-street photographs by Robert Doisneau, John Gutmann, and René Burri: Doisneau has serendipitously discovered a swirling duet on Paris’ otherwise dark and deserted Rue des Canettes, in 1955; Gutmann’s close-up and cropped High Hatters, front men for the Basie orchestra on a 1939 outdoor date in San Francisco, practically strut off the page with the momentum of the picture’s perspective; and Burri’s enigmatic Neapolitan scene, undated, shows a turbaned man clasping the hand and the rear of his taller male partner as they waltz for a group of children, while a few adult onlookers watch from the dark doorway of a sali e tabacchi shop fronted by peeling walls plastered with election posters. Opposite the Gutmann photograph, Gene Kelly levitates across a London zebra crossing in 1955, one hand in his pocket, the other arm swinging across his body with the purposeful rhythm of his stride—a happy-accident sort of shot by a newspaper photographer.

Even when Ewing does turn to more formalized dance, he remains interested in the behind-the-scenes work and “at ease” moments as well. James Abbe’s 1927 shot of Anna Pavlova, in the book’s “Icon and Idol” section, shows her leaning serene and relaxed against a piano, apparently in discussion with the pianist; yet, always the dancer, she stands on point. Martin Munkacsi’s spontaneous Mid-morning coffee-break, Berlin, ca. 1933, catches a dancer who has leapt up to shoulder height against the wall and now is kicking off from it, cup and snack in hands, mirrored by his shadow. Below him on the floor sits another dancer, intent on her own coffee, her indifferent obliviousness to the man buoyant above her suggesting the ordinariness of the extraordinary in dance. Brassaï’s ca. 1936 picture of two ballerinas on a bench at the Paris Opéra is dreamily lit by what might be a stream of sunlight pouring through a studio window, a softness reminiscent of paintings by Degas. One fiddles with her tutu, face tilted slightly downward, muscular legs apart and feet turned out; the other stands slightly bending forward at the waist, lower body slightly taut, face peeking from shadow out toward the camera. Her slippered right foot, meanwhile, glistens in the light, becoming a focal point in the composition. In each of these interludes a sense of intimate relationship among individuals, and between individuals and somewhat private space, has been both revealed and respected by a photographer who has found the dance offstage.

More deliberate, more earthbound images appear in the “Tour-de-force” section, the book’s grand finale. Though some of these seem overdetermined and contrived (Arthur Elgort’s fashion-ad-like image of Willy Frankfurt, 1976, for example), others are more flamboyant, exploding with movement—like Max Waldman’s rehearsal photograph from 1975 or so of a flying Mikhail Baryshnikov, shot at an angle so askew as to both accentuate his leap and confuse the viewer’s sense of balance. This is preceded some pages earlier by Hugo Erfurth’s 1914 portrait of Mary Wigman in Hexentanz I (Witch dance I), her upper body obscurely cloaked, her black-stockinged legs stepping bent-kneed and wide; the photo conveys the personal, defiant, somewhat macabre spirit that often characterized her extremely emotional dance. Less animated but equally compelling is David Buckland’s mysterious image of Siobhan Davies, Sphinx, 1978. The dancer’s sexuality and human form in general are lost at first; a long, sculptural shape close to the floor and parallel with it, her body is a conflation of extensions stretching through a spectrum of grays, punctuated by passages of stark light. As one spends more time with the photo, shadows begin to emerge from the darkened floor, and Davies’ pose clarifies, her body taking on a sleek new line.

Photographs such as these are riveting. When thinking about the book as a whole, though, I question the extent to which Ewing, through his selection of pictures and his introductory foreword and essay, has investigated the intricacies of dance-photography dynamics. Does he consider the evolution and the nature of each language, and of their moments of intersection and of divergence, and in some way clue us into the images’ power, helping us understand our attraction to them, and perhaps opening us up to an esthetic we might previously have dismissed? In Understanding Media (1964) Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the photograph. . . restored gesture to the human technology of recording experience. . . . The age of the photograph has become the age of gesture and mime and dance, as no other age has ever been.” Ewing, however, does not take off from this kind of critical springboard, does not venture into an in-depth consideration of the relationship between dance and photography. His book remains safely on the surface, and somewhat categorical in its approach. The back cover is an ominous sign—“Masterpieces of Dance Photography,” it reads, as if to guarantee a good time for the potential purchaser turning over the pages in the store. (“The idolatry of fixed masterpieces which is one of the aspects of bourgeois conformism. . . ,” wrote Antonin Artaud, “makes us confuse sublimity, ideas, and things with the forms they have taken in time and in our minds—in our snobbish, precious, esthetic mentalities.”)

In his own text Ewing tries to work his way out of this linguistic trapping, substituting for the terms “great” and “masterpiece” the word “extraordinary,” which he sees as “less heated and more flexible.” But this is just playing with vocabulary. And Ewing, in his apparent fervor with regard to these photographs, makes further broad claims that rely on cliché, serving not only to lessen the impact of the images themselves, but ultimately to make the book feel insufficient. To say, for example, that the photographs in the book’s concluding “Tour-de-force” section share “a deep intuitive grasp of the meaning of dance” is pretty feeble—what can “the meaning of dance” be, in any sense other than the vaguest and most subjective? (Earlier, Ewing writes that “dance is the movement of bodies through space and time”; if this blandly unexceptionable statement is in part the “meaning of dance,” it seems especially peculiar that so many of the photographs reserved for the “Tour-de-force” section are more static and posed-looking than numerous images elsewhere.)

It’s not that Ewing doesn’t have ideas about the role of dance photography. He disagrees, for example, with those parties—dancers, critics, and professional dance photographers alike—who are “content with photography’s status as a handmaiden to the dance.” Ewing argues, and I would agree, that a photograph of a dance does not need to be subservient to it, but can exist as both a record and an independent entity; the choices the photographer makes, from a moving field of possibilities, reveal his or her own vision as well as the dancer’s. The “great photograph” premise of Ewing’s book puts him firmly on the side of the photographer as auteur. But though he touches on these issues in his essay, he doesn’t seem to recognize their full complexity. The “art-or-documentation-or-both” question is a critical, frequently debated one in dance photography, a polemical dialogue that Ewing reduces to the level of naive logic, and even vacuity. “But why should a great dancer automatically make a great dance photograph,” he writes, “any more than an exquisite Chanel ensemble automatically makes a great fashion photograph? In fact. . . some dance is simply not photogenic.” The remark reveals a conventional esthetic in regard to both photography and dance. Using what Walter Benjamin called “the resources of [the camera’s] lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions,” the photographer has an enormous opportunity to locate a detail (an edge, a beauty or grotesqueness, a harmony or disjunction) and to focus on it, finesse it, frame it, in a way unavailable to the uncamera’d eye, to which such details generally vanish instantaneously with their appearance. (It’s also true that the photographer can find the “photogenic” in dull work, inflating its interest.) And what does “photogenic” mean, anyway? In terms of this selection, one would guess something along the lines of romanticism and fairly easy pathos. That isn’t to say the book is devoid of spirited images that really sing; as we’ve seen, there are many such. It’s what they suggest as a group that seems soft. Rarely does one feel the sublime or feral grace, the ferociously liberating athleticism, the fragile balances, the awkwardness, the guts, that are also dance.

To explain the criteria of his selection, Ewing might simply have said that the book comprised his favorite images, of the dance and dancers he finds most “photogenic.” Instead, he makes claims for historicism, time-consuming research, and an understanding as to the “meaning of dance.” He admits that “although this book ranges over the history of dance photography. . . I cannot maintain that it is a complete history, for I do not believe that such a history can be written until we have a fuller overview of the field, and know where to look for the contributions of Arthur Kales, Walter E. Owen, Wayne Albee, and a host of other superb practitioners largely unrecognized today.” Though the book covers the history of the field, in other words, it may be lacking in photographs that remain undisclosed; and such photographs, to judge from the examples of Kales, Owen, and Albee, will all be from the past. Yet though Ewing believes that “the pioneering, the ingenious, the accomplished and the fortuitous” can all be “extraordinary,” his book is notably stronger in the latter three qualities than in the first—he has left out crucial, “pioneering” dance sensibilities from both the past (perhaps an image from Les Ballets Russes’ Parade, 1917, or the Swedish Ballet’s Relâche, 1924, could have been included) and, most noticeably, the medium’s recent and ongoing development. This is the most problematic and disappointing aspect of the book. He has excluded, for example, the innovative Judson Dance Theater, ca. 1962–68, the Grand Union, ca. 1970–76, and most of the choreographers associated with these groups—Yvonne Rainer, Valda Setterfield, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Douglas Dunn, and Lucinda Childs, to name some—and has neglected their most recent work as well. Omitting these dancers and choreographers, Ewing omits the wealth of photographers who cover them. Thus we find no photographs by Babette Mangolte, Martha Swope, Johan Elbers, or Paula Court— just a sampling of the many proficient photographers working today who are not represented. Apparently, Ewing does not find “photogenic” the type of dance these individuals often address.

One exception is Trisha Brown’s “equipment dance” entitled Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970, shot by Peter Moore. The photographer’s gaze, from a low vantage up the building’s window-cluttered facade, is picked up by onlookers on the stairs of a fire escape, and then the viewer’s eye continues, tracing a rope, now visible, upwards, finally reaching the distant man walking seven stories down the wall, as comfortably as if it were horizontal. Ewing has also included Jack Mitchell’s 1975 silhouette of a dancer stooping toward the floor, the body folded into an egg shape and backlit to erase all definition of the subject’s features. And yet there can be no doubt that the lanky figure maintaining this idiosyncratic crouched and curled position, like a black cutout against the bright ground, is Merce Cunningham. Unfortunately, this is his only appearance in Ewing’s book. Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp (because, Ewing writes, her choreography “does not slice up easily into coherent split seconds”), and Alwin Nikolais are among the many other choreographers not included. Ewing does use what feels like dozens of generic (although technically adept) photographs by Lois Greenfield of ex-Paul Taylor dancers Daniel Ezralow and David Parsons, whose energy is no doubt invigorating, even if their choreography, to my mind, is not. He seems uninterested, however, in the challenge presented to photographers both past and present by more “difficult” work.

A book like this could have explored numerous approaches to the relationships between choreographers and photographers. Ewing might, for example, have discussed or represented the ways contemporary choreographers play with some of the properties of photography. David Gordon’s Framework, 1984, its props/set consisting primarily of large frames devised by the artist Power Boothe, in part addresses ideas about the ways frames, like the view through a camera, affect our perception of the world we’re moving in. Wim Vandekeybus’ recent What the Body Does Not Remember, 1987, includes a bit where a succession of performers sit on a dancer’s lap, or form various groupings around her (or whoever is in that particular chair), posing in a Kodak-moment-meets-GQ style for an imaginary camera. In Cunningham’s Pictures, 1984, Mark Lancaster’s lighting seems to play the space, now flooding it, now fading away; as if caught by a flash, the dancers freeze in intricate balances and configurations before the light ebbs.

Ewing ignores works like these, but he does include some older images conceived choreographically in terms of photography in his “Collaborations” section. (The several ’80s images by Lois Greenfield also appear here.) One of the most forceful of these is Martha Graham’s and Barbara Morgan’s War Theme, 1941, a dance that Ewing tells us was “designed for the camera alone.” A shaft of white light delineates Graham’s poised body, clothed in reflective black, and rigidly sculpts it so that it reads abstractly. Yet the light’s very deliberate handling in Morgan’s photograph reveals the body at the same time that it transforms it into shape. (A phrase about Gertrude Stein quoted in Graham’s notebooks seems appropriate here: “exquisitely calculated unintelligibility.”) Graham’s dark angularity bounces off the luminous background and the contrast effects the sensation of positive and negative space, suggesting an affinity with the sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, who collaborated with Graham on many pieces. Simultaneously, the light acts to protract her form, casting a shadowy halo around the foot of the long horizontal bar made by a whorl of her dress, and blurring the boundary between body and shadow. In her book Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs (1941), Morgan discusses light as “the most enthralling of all photographic elements. . . . The reaction I get from light is of energy, vibrating, responsive, impersonal, tireless, tapping the inexhaustible dynamics of the universe. . . . Light has a real parallel with dance, being itself a dance of frequencies.” (The Futurist Giacomo Balla realized something like this in 1917 when, commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, he staged Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice [Fireworks] as a “scena plastica,” a dance not of performers but of lights, in a three-dimensional environment of colorful prismatic forms resembling those of his paintings.) War Theme explores the interplay between light and film, gesture and form, in such a way as to reconcile within itself an art of movement and an art of the moment.

Dance and Photography shows Fred Astaire on the front cover, and who isn’t a fan of Astaire—but it’s curious that Henry Holt and Company felt that Americans needed a movie-star dancer to make them buy. In England, where it is published by Thames and Hudson, the book features on its cover one of Greenfield’s photos of Ezralow and Parsons. And the British title, The Fugitive Gesture, comes much closer to describing the feeling of dance as seen through the camera than the banal Dance and Photography. These decisions may have had nothing to do with Ewing, but they are not inconsistent with his taste for the easy. Still, for all the disappointing failings in Ewing’s approach—no gusto for adventure—there’s enough of the “extraordinary” in his book to keep one on one’s toes, so to speak. Dance and Photography is a well-printed book, its duotone reproductions rich in their blacks and subtle in their grays. The juxtapositioning of images is sometimes intelligently nonchronological: one clever spread shows on the left page an anonymous shot from around 1920 of a suave Rudolph Valentino bending Natasha Rambova backward in his arms, and on the right Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1986 photograph of a gentle, naked black man (Thomas) embracing a white woman (Dovanna), her head tilted back, white flowing dress slightly out of focus, swept up by the gesture of her hand. The images—as in the relationship between dance and photography—are strange echoes of each other across time; much is the same, yet everything is different.

Melissa Harris is the assistant editor of Artforum.

All the images accompanying this column are reproduced from Dance and Photography.