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Photographer: Lois Greenfield

Lois Greenfield is a New Yorker who transitioned from photojournalism to fine art photography, focusing on dancers in motion. She describes how she has developed an instinct for capturing the in-between moments that our eyes cannot see.

AIRED: February 02, 2021 | 0:26:18
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[ Camera shutter clicks ]

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

Woman: It's incredibly inspiring. [ Chuckles ]

It's really awesome to watch her make work and capture dancers

in a way that's typically -- it's a little bit different

than how other photographers capture dance.

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[ Camera shutter clicks ]

Woman #2: I think she's just wonderful to work with.

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Man: Want to film my bruise?

Yesterday, 400 falls on my right side.

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[ Camera shutter clicks ]

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

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Woman: And just the shadows are so beautiful.

Greenfield: Okay, well, welcome to New York.

[ Chuckles ]

We're in the heart of Chelsea in New York City,

and you're sitting in my studio,

you're sitting exactly where the dancers stood yesterday

when we took the pictures.

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

So you're literally on the set.

I was born in New York City,

and my father was an immigrant from Russia

around the turn of the century.

He was kind of an older father at the time.

And my mother has also a Russian --

had a Russian background.

And it was just a very normal, normal life.

My father was a lawyer, actually.

He was a corporate lawyer for MGM movies,

and my mother was a housewife.

I think she would have preferred to work,

but my father in those days thought a woman shouldn't work

if she doesn't have to work.

So...I'm working.

[ Chuckles ]

So I was about 14, and I did a work project

on an Apache Indian reservation in the southwest, in Arizona,

and I brought a little Brownie camera with me

and I discovered that I really liked

taking pictures of the people I was working with.

I got a slightly more advanced camera,

and by the time I was in college,

I was already taking pictures for newspapers in Boston,

and that's what I thought I wanted to do,

was to be a photojournalist

or ideally with National Geographic magazine.

And instead, I kind of sublimated that interest

into doing travel articles and travel photography,

going to Africa and Asia and South America.

And it was just by chance that I fell into dance

because I wasn't a dancer,

and I didn't have a passion for looking at dance.

But it was something that caught my eye and caught my interest

as a nice subject matter that I could explore.

And so other kinds of photography

more or less fell away.

[ Woman chuckles ]

[ Speaks indistinctly ]

After I started photographing dance forThe Village Voice

andThe New York Times and other places, I got frustrated.

I didn't want to take a document of a moment

that happened on the stage that the audience could see.

My allegiance has always been to photography,

not the subject matter.

So I wanted to make a merger of the two art forms.

Dance is an art form and photography

is an art form, as well.

So how do I put them together?

So I decided to take the dancers out of the theater,

invite them to a studio, and experiment --

experiment with a time base, experiment with their movement,

having them repeat things,

catching moments that you really can't see with your eye,

and you can -- they only exist as a photograph.

[ Chuckles ]

-Yes! -Let's keep doing it.

This is perfect, Lucia.

This is so nice. Look at that.

I could, like, come more,

'cause it kind of like I'm just doing it behind there.

Dancers often didn't recognize

the moments I shot from their dance

because they're looking at crescendo moments,

and I was taking transitional moments.

And that began my style of trying to get moments

that express something that's not really a pose

and then stopping it at a .002 of a second or so.

Because if you have someone really twirling

or jumping or doing kamikaze motions in the air

and your camera can't capture that split second,

you don't have it.

But I started shooting with this very thin time base

so that the pictures, it looks like the dancers

are holding their contorted positions in the air

while I take the picture, but, of course, they can't.

It's happening so fast that you or I couldn't see it.

So I just developed this instinct of photographing things

that I imagined would result in a good moment.

It is like me embodying time in some way.

[ Camera shutter clicking ]

I was assigned by The Village Voice

in 1980, '82, something like that,

to photograph certain dancers

and they said, "These are the best dancers of the year.

We're going to send them to your studio one at a time,

and you're going to photograph them however you want to."

So I worked with David Parsons, who now has his own --

He had been with Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Now he has his own company for over 20 years.

And I said, "I just -- I don't want you

to perform Paul Taylor's choreography.

I just want, you know, you to jump around

and see whatever you want to do."

I don't know how I expressed it,

but I certainly didn't give any direction.

But I had my studio lights.

I had a cyclorama for them to dance on --

for him to dance on or other people,

and we put music on.

And I said, "And I don't want you in leotards,

and I don't want you in a dance belt.

I want you just in normal street clothes.

I don't want you to look like a dancer and you're not dancing.

So Dave Parsons was a fabulous contemporary dancer.

Now, of course,

he's a choreographer with his own company,

was also a gymnast or an acrobat.

And so he could throw himself up in the air

in all kinds of positions.

I shot many companies -- Bill T. Jones Company,

there was Danny Ezralow,

there was all kinds of local -- Trisha Brown,

Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham.

So I really shot a wide range of companies.

-Move a little more front toe. -Okay.

Greenfield: Because I love movement,

I was attracted to Jacques Henri Lartigue's work,

and I wrote him a letter. I was actually writing

about photography forThe Village Voice

as well as photographing. So I wrote him a letter.

I still have his answer today in a little airgram,

saying I could --

I was going to Paris anyway.

I could interview him.

And I can't say he influenced the work I do

except that there was a spontaneity in his work

and a lot of people were moving.

And when you interview a photographer and talk to them

and you get inside their head and what motivates them,

that is inspirational.

As much as when you look at the picture.

And he thought of himself as a painter more.

The photographs were more like a hobby.

And I remember he said, "Here are some slides of my work.

Can you take them to some galleries?"

And I said, "But your photographs

are so famous and so fabulous."

He says, "Yes, but I'm a painter," and, you know...

But two photographers who were most influential to me.

One is, was Max Waldman, and he took theatrical pictures,

but he took the very dark and grainy black pictures.

So he would literally have ballet dancers

or theatrical companies come to his studio,

and the resulting picture was so grainy and foggy

that the movement in it

looked like people were pushing through a fog in a haze

and they had to fight their background.

The other photographer is Duane Michals,

who was very influential because when I heard him speak

back when I was in college,

he said, you know, back then Minor White and his own system,

everyone was measuring tones and shooting stuff,

you know, nature pictures perfectly for millions

of black-and-white tones.

And he says, "If all your life means to you

is water running over rocks, then photograph it."

But as for him, he prefers to photograph

something that would not have existed if he didn't set it up.

And that was the idea, really, that -- that led

to my own explorations in dance photography,

because if I didn't photograph all the moments

in all these books,

the moments only exist because I photographed them.

The moments did not preexist my photography,

and the moments created as pictures are

the result of this collaboration I have with the dancers.

So that was the kernel idea that inspired me.

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I think it was never anything I was conscious of.

My interest in Renaissance art or baroque art,

but I think the imagery I ended up creating, I thought,

"Hey, this would look good on a baroque church ceiling."

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I see them as sculptures, too,

and I see more the relationship between

what I call a sculptural moment that I may shoot

and then a Bernini sculpture, and with a lot of sculptures,

you can walk around the sculpture

and see all kinds of -- well, not everyone,

but someone like Bernini, you can walk around

and see maybe four or five different compositions

within that one sculpture of often,

you know, Greek mythological figures.

And that inspired me to also walk around my dancers

or have the dancers walk around

so it's not just a frontal perspective.

It's more like a sculptural three-dimensional,

which I also like to light in a sculptural way

where it's coming from the side

and it's creating highlights and shadows.

There's nothing flat about it.

And I just found myself drawn to either moments

that look mythological or they look like sculptures

and even the dancers, one of them said once, you know,

"I feel like I'm sculpting myself in the air,"

because he had to count to three and jump

and make a make a shape

that, again, is not part of choreography.

It's just a single split second in time

that he sculpts himself into -- into a picture.

And I think there's a three-dimensionality

in the sculpture.

Anyway, I found myself, for whatever reason,

attracted to biblical themes.

Not that I tried to create pictures that look biblical,

but it often looks like people are fleeing a storm

or Adam and Eve are fleeing.

Whoa.

Oh.

Okay, so she land there more?

You want me forward more?

So I don't really like to give a dancer instructions,

but when they're doing what they're doing,

I then kind of get involved, you know,

with how they're doing it, mainly their expressions

and their gestures and their movements.

And I always bring them over to collaborate

because I feel if I over-direct someone,

I'm going to get a catalog of pictures that are all the same

and it's just having different dancers.

But I like to work with dancers

who bring their own unusual sensibility and talent.

And then I have a wide range of different pictures.

So I don't want them to give me what they think I want

and I don't want to tell them

because I want what comes from them.

[ Indistinct talking ]

So you're going this way? -Yes.

Greenfield: You are fine, and she's coming to the cameras.

She should be going that way.

Greenfield: When people come, I say,

"I don't want Martha Graham choreography.

I don't want Alvin Ailey choreography.

I want how your body is going to express things."

And the dancers rarely get a chance

to explore their own expression.

If they're in a dance company,

they have to perform the same Alvin Ailey dance,

you know, week after week, month after month.

And their bodies learn that and know that.

And for them, it's like,

"Wow, I don't have to follow the choreography.

I can just explore whatever I want to do for Lois' camera.

So it's an interesting moment for all of us.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

It's an encounter between you and this dancer.

The imagery I'm creating is about movements

that seem to be happening before the viewer's eyes,

not so much steeled moments,

but moments that you're privileged to see.

So that's what I feel when I look at them,

that I'm entering the dancer's space,

which is different than holding a picture of something

that's in a container.

So for these, there's so much movement for me in this series,

and the fact that you can just stand in front of it

and analyze all the details.

When pictures are smaller,

you don't see the things in the fabric,

the lace, or the expression or the hair,

and this is more explosive.

It just magnifies details

and you can feel textures and patterns and colors.

Clients from all over the world started to contact me

because my books were out, they saw the pictures, and they

saw the metaphoric potential in some of these pictures,

something could look like excellence.

it could look like struggle,

it could look like power, it could --

you know, so they would commission me

to take a lot of the themes that I was photographing,

and then they put their clothes on

or their -- they put their -- it's liquor,

they put their liquor on -- on the picture,

or they come up with a tag line

that makes the whole thing look very metaphorical and poetic.

But what's great was it was literally the art

that I was going to make.

It wasn't that I had to adapt to their product.

They liked the look and saw the potential.

And the most well-known client was Raymond Weil Watches,

and they had a campaign called "Precision Moments."

And if you look at my work, it all is very precise.

Dancers in different -- like, just the perfect moment.

But the great thing was that I got to create new moments

where the dancers are in these configurations

and yet they're perfect and they're making rotations

and they look like, watch parts in there.

It's hard to really describe it, but...

So that's actually been a lot of fun

Can it wrap around your shoulders?

'cause I feel like it'd be so beautiful to...

Here are a few of my books.

This was the first one, "Breaking Bounds,"

that we discussed before, all black and white,

and my first experiences taking photographs in a studio

instead of at city center

or a theater during a performance.

Well, these are two fun ones

with David Parsons and Danny Ezralow,

with whom I collaborated extensively in those years,

just kind of fooling around for the camera.

I mean, if you looked at the contact sheets

of these pictures, you wouldn't see him

doing this 10 times or 12 times.

We had 12 images on every roll.

This book from 1992 was really pre-Photoshop anyway.

When people say, "Well, Lois, then how did you do this

if you didn't cut and paste it?"

So let's move to another.

What I love about this is that it's perfectly contained

within this blackboard of a negative.

And somehow the more you compress something,

the more dynamic it comes.

If it had all the space in the world to float,

it wouldn't have the dynamic quality of being contained.

The other funny thing about the picture is

we were trying to get people

all jumping up in the air more or less like this,

and one of the dancers was a little earlier or later

than everyone else,

and it proved to be a more interesting composition.

This is one of my most popular pictures.

It was an improv with the dancer and a baby

who belonged to someone I was sharing the studio with.

And it's -- you know, you can't tell a baby, "Smile like this."

It's definitely one of a kind. I mean, you can't --

you don't get a second chance with that kind of shot.

And it's very heartwarming, which is nice.

I never name the pictures.

I name them literally the name of the dancer and the date.

So if I were to name them with a story, it would influence

the way you look at a picture and how you judged it.

And I don't want you to have any fixed story in your mind.

So I really have been obsessed with mirrors for --

back from when I was a travel photographer and all.

It's the connection between control and lack of control.

You know, you can't tell the mirror, "Do it again,"

and you can tell them to get a different perspective.

So I like that fact that part of this highly controlled

image-making session is completely out of my control.

And, of course, things that are flying around

are my absolute favorite things.

Most of the work in these books

is not commissioned by a dance company,

but this one was, and the dance that was performed

had all these shredded Taiwanese newspapers in a batting cage

surrounded by maybe 5 or 10 fans on each side.

So we just set this up and had some fans.

And as the dancer was moving, all of a sudden

the wind plastered these shreds on his face,

and I kept saying, "Don't move, don't move."

So sometimes I get obsessed with certain kinds of simple props,

like simple twine string,

and here the dancer is hinging back

and I have two assistants on each side waving them.

They're attached to a little cup.

And because my lighting is so narrow,

the overhead light that I'm using in this one-to-one series,

there's a drop off on each side,

so it makes it even more magical that something --

you don't see the beginning and end,

you just see something coming and going.

And, um...

[ Speaks indistinctly ]

I love when people are up in the air,

and it seems as though they're buffeted

by invisible forces of wind.

I mean, she's up and doing a barrel roll

and moving her costume.

But one thing I like about the white background is it

is like an invisible atmosphere that has a dramatic relationship

with the dancer if they're doing movement.

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So I collect all my props from different places,

and sometimes it's just from, like, a store

where you sell packing supplies or I go to the flower market

and I pick up not really live flowers,

but fake flowers that people put out.

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So a lot of my props I garbage-pick,

and these were tubes that were thrown out.

They were the cores of fabric rolls

and they were just put out for the garbage men.

And I scooped them all up so that we could set up

this forest of tubes for the dancer to jump in.

The idea I had for this picture --

and I say I rarely have ideas

that are specific -- is to create a picture.

It looks like the viewer is imagining this figure

as the sand falling in an hourglass.

So when you turn an hourglass upside down and the sand falls,

it's making this human shape.

So we did this many, many, many times

and we dropped the the flour and the sugar and the powder

through a FedEx Tube. And he wasn't really a dancer,

but a site-specific performance artist.

And so he just did this same jump many, many times.

And all the rolls of film, it was hard to get one

where you had not just a mass of flour,

but definition of his face and swirls and hand gestures

and and the powder coming off his fingers.

And people find it multi-referential.

They say, "Oh, it's like Pompeii or it's like Auschwitz."

In my mind, it's the hourglass

and I'm just imagining this figure

and I imagine that the moment

after I took the picture, he's just a heap of sand.

But no one is going to see this picture the way I see it.

♪♪

That looks good.

The dancers have to really hide the effort.

I can't work with dancers who look like they're working hard.

You know, they're very muscular and they're sweating

and this is a great accomplishment.

No, everyone has to look like an angel,

that it's easy that they're floating.

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

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-Ready? -Yes.

-Here? -That looks good.

Greenfield: I'm not looking for clarity.

I'm looking for some enigmatic moment

that the viewer feels there is a purpose to what they're doing,

but I don't know what it is

and I don't have to know what it is.

I'm in the presence of this mystery

unfolding in front of my eyes.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

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[ Camera shutter clicks ]

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