The exhibition is available beginning in September 2016 and will travel for three years.
For more than forty years, Lois Greenfield has been without question the finest and most prolific photographer associated with the field of contemporary dance. Yet this highly-acclaimed image-maker is no conventional ‘dance photographer’. Her real concern is not the dance, but the human body in motion, and how the body can uniquely render it.
This paradox is not difficult to resolve: if one is going to work with the body in motion, then one would naturally wish to work with bodies that know how to move. Dancers have strength, agility and discipline, not to mention expressivity. Despite the illusion of infinite space in the photographs, the actual space in which the dancers perform is very small, some seven metres across. Greenfield has explained how she: “… can mark a spot on the floor, or indicate a specific height I want them to reach, and a highly-trained dancer can start from across the studio floor and hit those targets with precision.” On occasion the photographer has worked with gymnasts and athletes, but these professionals do not have the same range of expressive gestures, nor the experience of performing, in this case for the camera.
Greenfield has worked with the most talented dancers of her time to create imagery of great originality. She works primarily in her New York studio, where she can exert absolute control over lighting, background and props, and direct the dancers during long working sessions when specific phrases of movement can be performed again and again with extremely subtle variations. This process is highly collaborative and experimental. Greenfield has famously said that she tells the dancers “to leave their choreography at the door”, meaning that she insists they put aside the conventions of performance in favour of improvisation. This often pushes the performers to their limits, stimulating them to come up with highly innovative and non-repeatable moves. Indeed, Greenfield’s intensely collaborative approach has inspired some choreographers to see movement in a fresh way. Shortly after working with Greenfield in the early 1980s, the dancer and choreographer Dave Parsons created Caught. This signature dance used Greenfield’s strobe lights to create the illusion of stilled images as Parsons flew through the air. ‘Caught’ has been performed by the Parsons Dance Company all over the world, a fitting tribute to a fruitful long-term collaboration between dancer and photographer.
Rather than capturing peak moments of a dance (the conventional goal of dance photography), or merely depicting striking arrangements of flying limbs, or celebrating a dancer’s technical virtuosity, Greenfield instead seeks unusual, enigmatic moments which perturb our reading of the image: Can a body really be doing what I think it’s doing? Where did he come from? Where is he going? Is he rising? Is she falling? Are they about to collide, or are they flying apart?
Greenfield has been inspired by diverse influences: the stop-action experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey and Harold Edgerton; the dance studies of Barbara Morgan and Max Waldman; Cartier-Bresson’s concept of ‘the decisive moment’; Duane Michals’ emphasis on creating a moment that only exists as a photograph; Surrealism; Futurism, and even painting and sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, with its biblical and mythological themes. Like her illustrious predecessors in the photography world, Greenfield is fascinated by the camera’s unique capacity to capture patterns of movement that escape the human eye, just as X-Rays show us realities about the workings of the body beyond our capacities of direct observation. What she produces might be described as a photographic frieze.
She has carved out a unique terrain for herself, in effect fusing two art forms into a hybrid with its own special characteristics. What she shows us in her photographs is not a sampling of something which could be seen on stage, or for that matter, in the studio. In the first place, the gestures and movements were never meant to be performed on stage, though of course they are very similar. More importantly, the pattern of movement is happening too fast for the human eye. Greenfield makes visible a reality that is in a sense subliminal. She reveals. She is only able to achieve such spectacular results (without, it must be said, the use of Photoshop), due to years of experience and a keen intuition; she has learned to sense when a dynamic pattern is building, then coalescing. Her photographs are therefore original artworks to be appreciated on their own terms. As such, her work contributes to the rich tradition of still photography dealing with the paradox of a world in motion that began in the early decades of photography’s history.
Moreover, though Greenfield’s key interest is the exploration of motion with all its expressive potential, the fact remains that no other photographer of our time has worked with so many dancers and dance companies the world over: hundreds of American, European and Asian companies, and many hundreds of dancers. Notwithstanding her principle interest in movement, therefore, her archive constitutes one of the most valuable collections of dance imagery of the last forty years. And while the moves of the dancers are exclusively for her camera, the fact remains that the spirit of the companies and their performers shines through clearly in the pictures. Almost incidentally, Greenfield has left us with a brilliant portrait of the world of dance over almost five decades.
A comprehensive catalogue will be published by Thames & Hudson in association with FEP.