“I’ve spent the last 25 years of my photographic career investigating movement and its expressive potential. My inspiration has always been photography’s ability to stop time and reveal what the naked eye cannot see. My interest in photography is not to capture an image I see or even have in my mind, but to explore the potential of moments I can only begin to imagine. What intrigues me is making images that confound and confuse the viewer, but that the viewer knows, or suspects, really happened. I want my images to defy logic, or as Salvador Dali wrote, I strive to “systematize confusion and discredit reality.” I can’t depict the moments before or after the camera’s click, but I invite the viewer’s consideration of that question.The ostensible subject of my photographs may be motion, but the subtext is Time. A dancer’s movements illustrate the passage of time, giving it a substance, materiality, and space. In my photographs, time is stopped, a split second becomes an eternity, and an ephemeral moment is solid as sculpture. The seemingly impossible configurations of dancers in the air are all taken as single image, in-camera photographs. I never recombine or rearrange the dancers within my images. Their veracity as documents gives the images their mystery; and their surreality comes from the fact that our brains don’t register split seconds of movement.
I prefer to work outside the constraints of choreography, collaborating with dancers on improvised, non-repeatable, often high-risk moments. These moments are not plucked from a continuum, but exist only as isolated instants: they are uniquely photographic events. I see the collaboration as between the dancers and myself, as well as between the two media, dance and photography. There is a dynamic tension between dance and photography. I exploit photography’s ability to fragment time and fracture space, translating 360 degrees into a 2 dimensional image, and depicting moments beneath the threshold of perception.
When Lois first began taking photographs during the late 60s, her dream was to be a photojournalist for National Geographic. After graduating from Brandeis University in 1970, she started working towards this goal, freelancing for Boston’s counter-cultural newspapers, photographing everything from maximum-security prisons to rock concerts. Having never studied photography in a classroom, she taught herself everything she needed to know as she encountered obstacles and opportunities during her assignments.
Being assigned to cover a dance concert was one such obstacle: knowing nothing about the dance world or how to photograph movement, it took Lois a while to master photographing the unpredictable movement and lighting of dancers on a stage. When the time she returned to New York City, though, she had gotten the hang of it. Not only that, but she found herself very intrigued by the subjects themselves. It was a relief to work in an area where she only needed to worry about the visual interest in her photographs, rather than editorial relevancy.
As the modern and postmodern dance world in New York took flight, Lois photographed as many dance rehearsals as she could, developing her technique and reputation, and regularly working for The Village Voice, The New York Times, Dance Magazine, and many others. By 1978, she had grown frustrated with the documentary approach. Rather than trying capture someone else’s art form, Lois wanted to find a visual syntax of her own.
Whenever she could manage it, she invited dancers to join her in experimentation, and in 1980, finally set up her own studio. In this environment, she wasn’t limited to the traditional expectations of the nascent genre of dance photography, and could explore quirky configurations and unusual moments. She spent less time interpreting choreography and more time employing dancers as creative tools for her own artistic vision. Her images expressed the joy and excitement of movement, liberated from the constraints of choreography.
On assignment for the Village Voice in 1982, Lois met David Parsons and Daniel Ezralow, then dancing for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The two were just beginning to discover how their bodies moved when not performing choreography, and Lois found their athleticism and lyrical grace captivating. All three artists set aside their accustomed modes of expression, and the two dancers flung themselves with wild abandon across the square frame of Lois’s borrowed Hasselblad, to startling results.
These images were, by happy accident, precisely the aesthetic muse for which Lois had been searching. The dynamic relationship between the square frame of the photograph and its subject created an exciting dialogue between the two that intensified the energy of the image. Often radically cropping into the dancers’ bodies, the frame created unexpected entrances and exits, inviting the viewer to consider “off screen” space. The white background helped create the illusion of weightlessness within the images, at the same time the four sides of the square frame exerted an equal gravitational pull on the subjects in the picture. Fortuitous cropping of the dancers’ movement and the lens’ radical compression of space led to a new aesthetic, one that accepted fragments of bodies as essential features of compositional structure. Perhaps most importantly, she began to discover transitional moments that most viewers didn’t “see”.
She started to ask the dancers to improvise, and was drawn to those high-risk, non-repeatable moments that could only be seen in a photograph. The results of her early experiments appeared surreal, as though the dancers were glued together and frozen in impossible configurations. Simple questions about the images provoked mystifying answers: “How did the dancers get in that position?” “Where are they coming from and how will they land?” The more incomprehensible the picture looked, the more successful it was in Lois’ eyes.
The fruits of these early collaborations became her first best-selling book, “Breaking Bounds” (Thames & Hudson and Chronicle Books, 1992) was published in English, French and Japanese. Her second monograph, “Airborne” (1998) explores the metaphoric potential of bodies in flight. In this body of work, she uses props, materials and other elements to provoke an ambiguous narrative which transforms the identity of the dancer. The resulting images take on mythological overtones, often transforming the human to animal, the animal to plant, from spirit into matter and matter giving way to spirit.
Her next project brought her career through a full circle, collaborating with the Australian Dance Theatre in “Held,” a dance performance about her photography. During the piece Lois shot the performance from the stage, and her images were transmitted real-time onto two projection screens, showing the audience the dance and its representation virtually simultaneously. From 2003 through 2007, this award-winning dance toured the world, performing in the Sydney Opera House, Sadler’s Wells in London, Theatre de la Ville in Paris and many other prestigious venues.
As she wrote in the program, “Ironically, freezing a split second gives the movement more solidity than it had as a fleeting gesture of dance. We know that nothing in the real world can exist in two dimensions, yet photographs seduce us in believing that it is a valid representation of reality. All these years I’ve been distilling and refining individual moments culled from choreography and improvisational studio sessions. “Held’ takes me back to my roots- ten years in the trenches as a photojournalist shooting dress rehearsals. These performances complete the cycle, like throwing a caught fish back in the ocean and watching it swim.”
In 2006,The Southeast Museum of Photography organized “Resonating Fields”, a touring retrospective of her classic black & white work of the last 35 years. Her latest images in color form the basis of “Celestial Bodies/Infernal Souls”. This new collection sets the lithe and graceful form of the dancers in an unexpected narrative. The dancers, as seen through Lois’ lens, seem to take on an angelic or demonic identity, either flying through the heavens or plunged into the underworld. These poetic figures reveal themselves as creatures playing out a mythic and eternal drama. Her inspiration for these images goes back to her early fascination with reflective materials and their ability to distort reality. Her newest theme is the dialogue between what the camera sees and the mirror presents. Together they offer multiple and even conflicting perspectives nested within the composition.
Throughout this prolific career, Lois has continued to photograph both the world’s most well known dance companies as well as talented emerging artists, while maintaining a thriving commercial photography business, whose international clients have included Disney, Pepsi, AT&T, Sony, Hanes, Raymond Weil and Rolex.
Lois is currently working on two exciting new collaborations: “Projected”, an interdisciplinary performance with the Argentinean choreographer and dancer Dario Vaccaro, and “The 18th Parrallel”, a film exploring the connection between dance and prayer in indigenous cultures around the world with award- winning filmmaker Jodi Kaplan.
All images © Lois Greenfield