When you look at a theater program, the portraits of the dancers usually aren’t much more interesting than a driver’s license photo—a small black and white headshot. RJ wanted to do something better. A classical portrait, that also gives a sense of who the subject is, as a person and as a dancer.
Large companies like the San Francisco Ballet are made up of their principal dancers and the corps de ballet. People who frequent the ballet have their favorite dancers, so when dancers are photographed, the company generally wants to capture not only the dance but also the personality of the dancer.
“I’m always told, I want to see the dancer’s face. Sometimes there’s a beautiful image, but we won’t use it because it doesn’t identify the person,” said RJ.
LINES Ballet, like many of the other modern companies, only has a dozen or so dancers, who generally dance as an ensemble that works together—it’s rare to see only one or two people on the stage at a time—but still, the company wants their dancers to be recognizable.
“We wanted these portraits to be very formal, very classical, which is where the background and the lighting came in. But we also wanted the portraits to identify them as dancers. A big part of being a dancer is the way they move, the way they hold themselves, the way they carry their hands,” RJ explained.
So they decided to bring in the arms and hands, allowing the dancers to work with their hands in a way that is natural—and unique—to each of them.
“It’s not terribly natural for us, but what they do, they do because of years of training that includes how to hold their hands when they’re performing. It is second nature for them, it’s something they don’t think about. And that was part of what I was trying to tap into with this series of images,” he said.
While RJ is well known for his work with high-end automotive photography, he’s been shooting dancers and performance artists for years. RJ has been shooting the advertising and promotional images for LINES Ballet since 2009.
“Of course, dancers are natural subjects because they’re trained to create visual space, but my interest in photographing dance goes back to my background; in a long past life, I was a gymnast in high school. I’ve always been very interested in movement. The sense of precision and accuracy of movement that is involved with dance is very appealing,” said RJ.
Like the rest of the performance community, dance is an ephemeral art. Except through photography or video, it doesn’t have a life beyond the moment it was created the way that a painting or sculpture (or photograph) does.
“I shoot dance because I enjoy it, and it’s a way to give back to my community, to support the artists, the company, and the local arts scene.”
RJ is also interested in the ideas behind dance. Whether they are political, emotional, or social, every piece is always about something.
“There’s a concept that they are trying to portray through movement, and it becomes my job to figure out how to portray that concept in movement in pictures. Photographing dance, on the one hand, is a bit of an intellectual exercise, and on the other, it’s just this beautiful thing, and my challenge is how to capture it.”
RJ’s work with the LINES dancers and other performance artists is both a welcome respite from his commercial work, and also influences his work with cars—and vice versa. Like car photography, with dance, RJ said it’s important to understand the thing you’re shooting; if you don’t understand it, you’ll always miss the picture.
“The precision of lighting it takes to shoot a car, I bring that to shooting dance. And the sense of line and form I get from working with dancers, I take that back to cars. Everything influences everything else. We talked before about how dancers carry themselves; that’s built into the design of a car as well. I don’t want to be so singular in my vision that that’s all I see. The more I study people, the better I am at shooting cars.”