An Exhibition of Dance Images

Posted on
byCassie Cheng

59 photos, 1 installation
Requirements: 44 running meters

For Martha Graham, grande dame of American modern dance, dance can only be collected in other media. Alongside film and video, dance photography is the most important means of recording it. Its images are frozen movement, sculptures of human posture and light. Like theatre photography, it uses stage lighting. Like photojournalism, it concentrates on the motionless moment within a movement. It also has many features in common with fashion photography.

A history of German dance photography

When the technique of dance photography was developed, expressive dance dominated stages and discussions in Germany. Beyond classical ballet and in direct proximity to the reform movement of Jugendstil and Early Modernism, expressive dance featured expressive poses, increasing nakedness and sporting leaps. Great portrait artists such as Hugo Erfurth and Erna Lendvai-Dircksen devoted series of pictures to famous dancers Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca, among others.

In the 1920’s, dance photography was an integral part of photographic Modernism, from the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann to Bauhaus, which had its own ballet, to the young fashion photographers Nina and Carry Hess, Yva and Sasha Stone and the Binder Atelier in Berlin, which used dance images in designing the title pages of the big magazines. The first specialists, Charlotte Rudolph and Hans Robertson, established themselves at the end of the 1920’s, and their dance pictures are to be found in all dancers’ bequests.

Good dance photographs

Good dance photographs bring out dancers’ characteristic style. They capture the key moment of a figure or a jump, composing bodies in light and shade. In the 1960’s, the classic, very sharp black-and-white photography of the middle generation of dance photographers, such as Siegfried Enkelmann and Joachim Giesel, gave way to experiments in colour with light and blurred moving forms, for example in the work of Walter Boje and Dieter Blum. Recent years have seen a return to more austere poses under calculated light; dance photography, too, is subject to fashions and changes.

A travelling exhibition

One of the most important collections of dance photography is the Tanzarchiv (German Dance Archive) in Cologne, which is run by the SK Culture Foundation. Its main stock comprises dancers’ bequests and collections, but increasingly, there are also large collections of works by famous photographers. Movement Frozen In Time: A Collection of Dance Images is a travelling exhibition organised by the Tanzarchiv and Goethe-Institut. Rather than just present the history of dance photography, it focuses instead on the more modern trend towards the visualization of dance and movement. It goes without saying that the first among equals of the people taking part is of course the photographer Gert Weigelt (* 1943), who has become the undisputed doyen of German dance photography.

Young dance photography

The recent dance photography scene is not very large, but it is very varied. Many middle-generation dance photographers, such as Matthias Zoelle and Georg Schreiber, have settled in the Ruhr area, because modern dance is heavily promoted there. In their pictures, they once again concentrate more strongly on the choreography and the ensemble than on the individual pose – a general trend in modern dance. For these photographers, the difference between colour and black and white is less significant; they focus on the staging, putting dance photography at the service of dance once more.

Younger generation photographers who are being presented in the Tanzarchiv’s travelling exhibition hail in fact from a different realm of fine arts – the domain of installation and performance; a realm however in which graphic artists usually feel more at home than dance specialists. The one thing they all have in common is the way they see the individual dancers, their bodies and the details. This not only applies to the elaborate images of Gert Weigelt, but also to the work of Agnès Noltenius (* 1961) and Dominik Mentzos (* 1964).

Andrea Esswein (* 1969), Vanessa Ossa (* 1981) and Bettina Stöß (* 1971) are so young that they have already been able to re-integrate the history of dance photography into the way they see things. Their particular perspective often makes use of a lighting angle, a sequence, a composition that reminds us of earlier series done by the old masters of the trade. Bernd Uhlig (* 1951) invokes old photographic techniques to create his gently distorted images of movement, whereas Joerg Reichardt (* 1957) falls back on the old ability of photography to actually “freeze” movement. They all demonstrate just how much both dance and photography have changed over the last ten years. It goes without saying that these two German scenes are going to produce both interesting choreographies as well as interesting photos.


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