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Issue 23. Time and Photography / La Photographie et le temps

Motion! On how to deal with the paradox in dance photography

Author: Maarten Vanvolsem
Published: November 2008

Abstract (E): The paradox of dance photography - how to make something move in a still image - does not seem to have a solution, unless one discards the traditional central shutter/snapshot photography. With strip photography we are able to focus on the choreography, the transitions, rather than freezing dancers in midair.

Abstract (F): A première vue, photographier la danse est un paradoxe dont on ne sort jamais: comment rendre le mouvement à l'aide d'une image fixe? Le seul moyen de résoudre ce dilemme est de renoncer à la photographie de l'instantané, basée sur le principe de l'obturateur. Le propos de cet article est de montrer que la photographie "séquentielle" présentée en ces pages permet de mettre l'accent sur l'élément chorégraphique et de montrer les transitions d'un état de danse à l'autre au lieu de figer les danseurs dans des poses plus ou moins bougées.

keywords: Strip-photography, slit scan Photography, dance, photography and time.

To cite this article:

Vanvolsem, M., Motion! On how to deal with the paradox in dance photography. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 23 (2008).


When Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) succeeded in photographing a galloping horse in 1877, he provided visual proof of the unsupported transit and in doing so he broke photography’s metaphorical sound barrier. Improvements in film sensitivity and the use of an electrically controlled shutter enabled him to achieve exposure times that captured the horse’s movements as still images. Thirty years later, in 1908, A. M. Worthington (1852-1916) reached ‘mach 2’ with his instantaneous photographs of splashes; he reduced exposure times to even smaller fractions of a second. Like his more renowned successor, Harold E. Edgerton (1903-1990), Worthington used exposure times of about three microseconds (and less) to depict the spattering drops. These three men can be seen as pioneers of one of the powers of the photographic medium: capturing the instant or fixing movement in intermediate fractions. In addition, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) taught us that much of the strength of this captured moment lies in the right choice and timing. He tells us that this moment décisif is “[when all] the elements in motion are in balance” (Cartier-Bresson, p. 33). The photographer should capture this balance exactly.


We often see the search for, and recording of, this right moment in photographic images of dancers. The best-known examples are probably Lois Greenfield’s Explosion shots (1993), which were used for the Raymond Weil Watches 1994  worldwide advertisements. Here, and in other pictures by Greenfield, compositions of dancers hover in the air in poses that are impossible to sustain. This is the ultimate photography of the instant. But is it also the ultimate dance photography?


As a photographer I’ve often wondered why there is such a big emphasis on photography’s instantaneity. A whole set of non central shutter techniques are used for scientific and other photographic purposes. With these in mind, I started making images that did more than freeze or capture the instant. Especially in dance photography there seems to be a need to grope the borders of the medium and use its time based possibilities.



Dance and photography


According to Rudolf Laban one of the essential features of dance is “its flow of movement” (Laban, p. 4). William A. Ewing writes: “dance is the controlled passage of bodies through time and space” (Greenfield, 1992, p. 8), and he continues; “the essence of dance – and our comprehension of it – stems from the seamless interconnectedness of its movements and gestures” (Greenfield, 1992, p. 8). Laban adds to this, that “the shape of dance movements are visual patterns, which have in their flux and flow a visible rhythm” (Laban, p. 10).


The contrast with a photography that freezes time couldn’t be more pronounced. No wonder the history of dance photography is without big names or important leaps forward. Except for a few Pictorialist photographers, like Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) and Robert Demachy (1859-1936), one can scarcely produce the name of a photographer renowned for their dance photography. With this in mind and the experience of continually seeing the same sort of images that are “icons, little two-dimensional shrines at which to worship not the art, but the cult, of the dance” (Ewing, p. 9), William A. Ewing concludes that although “the photography of dance goes back more than one hundred years, yet for all its transcendent moments, there is some question as to whether it truly constitutes a tradition” (Greenfield, 1998, p. 10).


One of the reasons seems to be photography’s focus on the performers rather than on the performance. In an attempt to overcome the paradox – how to make something move in a still image – photographers turned their attention to the stars themselves. For instance in photographing portraits or  striking leaps, the overall design, the choreography, is forgotten. Many of Annie Leibovitz’s images of Mikhail Baryshnikov, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer from 1990, and Martin Schoeller’s images of Karole Armitage can be classified in this field of portraits and leaps. However, you cannot accuse a photographer like Lois Greenfield of forgetting the choreography. In her attempt to counter the paradox she recreates a certain sensitivity of the choreography in her studio with the dancers in front of her camera. The compositions Greenfield created may well be remote from the original choreography of the dance depicted but in recreating a new one, which will only exist in front of the camera lens, Greenfield tries to summarize the whole dance in one picture. She insists there is no digital altering of the image and in doing so Lois Greenfield reconfirms photography’s longing for the moment and the freezing of time. The rhythm of the original dance is translated in the composition and a certain feeling of speed is depicted in the balance of the dancers. Often the movement of the dancers is suggested in the composition, not only in its instability – frozen in midair – but also because different dancers seem to be part of one and the same movement. Danièle Méaux calls this: “l’effet Marey” (Méaux, p. 123), as they show us, in an almost Marey like chrono-photographic style, different stages of one movement. It is Etienne-Jules Marey’s (1830-1904) Chronophotographie sur plaque fixe that is referred to here. In Le Mouvement (1894) Marey describes the technique as a method to “d’ une part, représenter les différents lieux de l’espace parcourus par le mobile, c’est-a-dire sa trajectoire, et d’autre part, exprimer la position de ce mobile sur cette trajectoire à des instants déterminés” (p. 71). The results are multi-exposure images of an object, an animal or a person in which different phases of one and the same movement are apparent in a single image. This way of representing movement that was used by Marey as a scientific method influenced artists representing movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Among others, František Kupka (1871-1957) (Les cavaliers, 1901-1902, Woman Picking Flowers, 1909) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) (Sad Young Man on a Train, 1911, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912) are two fine examples of how this representation technique was reflected in paintings. But Méaux shows that this is also possible in a single shot: “lorsque, dans le champ, plusieurs personages ressemblants sont impliqués dans un même process et se situent à différents stades de réalisation de ce process, ils sont facilement assimilés par le lecteur à une sorte d’acteur constant et renvoient aux différentes phases de l’action” (Méaux, p. 123).


Movements in the images of Lois Greenfield are often insinuated with the Marey effect. In Andrea Weber, Chris Harrison, Andrew Pacho, Harrison Beal – an image taken in 1993 (Greenfield, 1998, p. 53, plate 38) for Raymond Weil Watches – Greenfield produced the visual effect of a pinwheel. Andrea Weber and her three colleagues from the Antigravity Dance Company NYC, perform a kind of back handspring. The image is taken just when the legs of the four dancers are spread out like a fan, as if all legs are part of one and the same movement depicted with one of Edgerton’s stroboscopic lighting installations. Again in the image Rika Okamoto, Kathy Buccellato, Camille M. Brown (1996) (Greenfield, 1998, p. 99, plate 77) Greenfield uses a similar strategy. Here the three dancers are placed from left to right, all facing left. Two hold the same position, knee bent underneath their body, leaning forward and suspended in the air. They are physically ahead of the third dancer, as everything hints at right to left movement, and also ahead in the stage of their movement, knee already bent. The third dancer’s legs are stretched out in a split, as she tries to catch up. Here the frame cuts the dancer so that only the front leg and a part of her trunk are visible. The composition of these three dancers, one after the other bent forward in midair, facing left and coming into the frame from the right, gives the dancers a feeling of movement and direction in the image.


Although we can imagine one movement in different stages, we also see different dancers captured in a split second– frozen in midair – and so all real movement has been distilled out of these pictures. In images like Fillipper Hope, Jack Gallagher, Daniel Ezralow, Ashly Roland (1993) (Greenfield, 1998, p. 54, plate 39) and Nadia Mose, David Brown, Emmanuele Phuon, Christian Canciani (1994) (Greenfield, 1998, p. 98, plate 76) Lois Greenfield’s compositions are well balanced, but without a focused direction or overall movement. The individual dancers all have their own trajectory that only comes into harmony  the instant the picture is taken; the moment décisif. It seems as though everything is built from chaos and will return to chaos after the moment presented in the image. Once more what remains is a still image from which all life seems to have been removed. However vividly you can imagine the scene, as soon as the click has happened Greenfield’s dancers collapse like a house of cards. It is therefore very difficult to represent choreography or an extended movement in this way.





In contrast to the widely known exposure techniques, such as the central shutter, the strip or slit-scan technique presents another opportunity for dealing with this paradox of dance photography. In the first place it visually synthesises different stages of a movement in one dancer, and secondly it gives the opportunity to make images that only focus on movements, changes in speed and rhythms. As a result, in both cases, it is the choreography that will be depicted rather than the dancers. My use of the strip technique is therefore an attempt to answer Pieter T’Jonck’s remark that “Photos of people dancing are equally nonsensical, and not only because they nullify the special effect, but also because they conceal the temporal dimension of dance” (Verbeke, 2007, p.20).


Compared to most photographic exposure techniques, the strip technique differs in its relation to time. Strip images contain a fourth dimension, that of time. The technique is used for, among other things, 360° panorama photography and the photofinish (sports timing equipment), and can best be conceived as a scanning technique. Just one line (plane) of information is recorded. By moving this line (plane in front of the lans) one builds up an area, but at the same time one creates a time-line. In other words, the camera does not expose a single frame in a fraction of a second, but records movements through a narrow slit onto moving film. With regard to any vertical line in the image, the short or long strips of photographic images always show a small section before, during and after. In this sense they are photographic images that cry out for movement. After all, when you look at them and you try to translate the images back into a graspable reality, you have to compose the image again and again using elements left and right of the point you are looking at, points from before and after.


The Diamond-houses (1963-1967) and the Wall-houses (1968-1974) by John Hejduk (1929-2000) are designed around a similar idea. In both series of designs, a central axis (the hypothenusa) and a solid wall take on the role of organising the space. For Hejduk, they represent the present. Hejduk explains: “Life has to do with walls; we’re continuously going in and out, back and forth, and through them. A wall is the quickest, the thinnest, element we’re always transgressing. I see it as the present, … the wall is a moment of passage. The wall heightens the sense of passage, and by the same token, it’s thinness heightens the sense of being just a momentary condition … what I call the moment of the present” (Martin, Smals, p. 41). So for Hejduk, the wall symbolises  the present through which one is constantly breaking. On the one side is the future, on the other, the past. This is also how the photographic images are composed. The narrow slit in front of the film allows the projection of the two dimensional wall onto the film. There is no framing of a split second of time in these images, but a constant repositioning of the wall, the present. If something or someone transgresses this virtual wall in front of the strip-camera, it will be recorded, present in the image. But only the part that really transgresses will be visible. For this reason, that which is contained in the image cannot ever be conceived by the naked eye. These photographic images are a synthesis of the passing of time. They are the choreographic notes of a photographer in motion, who continually seeks the right synchronisation between the surroundings, the camera, the film transport and the movement made. One does not do these photographic images justice if given no more than a glance. They must be read. Only then do their internal variations of speed, rhythm and tempo become clear. They indicate where there is acceleration, where there is a change of direction and where there is a return to the basic tempo. The images do not represent objects or people as such, but movements and things in flux.



Silent Move


When dancers are depicted, the strip images are similar to the Greenfield images in that they focus on the dancers and extract a sense of speed, movement and choreography from one small (in that sense framed) image. As the dynamic exposure technique allows a whole time span to be incorporated within the image, it can also inject this duration as a condensed unity into a single object, the dancer. The resulting images are composed of fragments of movement seamlessly assembled into a single recording. Images like Stephen Lawson’s (°1942) Dancers (1992), or my own Silent move and Contraction of Movement-series (2007), often show different positions of the dancer’s trunk and limbs in an almost undistorted background. When the time span of the exposure is short or the dancer’s movement small, one can use the Marey-effect to communicate a sense of enfolding movements. In contrast to Lois Greenfield’s images, here only one dancer is involved.



Image 1. Maarten Vanvolsem, Contraction of Movement 3 - 2007


In an image like Contraction of Movement 3 (2007) (image 1), a dancer is visible with six hands, three feet and no face. The repetition of hands and feet in this image and the presence of front, side and rear views make the depicted dancer spin, as we read the different views as stages from one and the same movement. The stretched background gives the image an overall right to left linear motion. With the aid of the time-span, necessary to complete the movement, a synthesis of the movement is made invisible to the naked eye. In snapshot photography the unity of space, time and action is unharmed and, in the case of Lois Greenfield’s image, these fruitful moments can possibly be seen with the naked eye. This seems to make the images more legible but, by the same token, preserves them as a possible window on the world. In this sense they are faithful to a filmic moment, and as such the image becomes one of the 24 frames a second and therefore falls apart as a depiction of movement.




Image 2. Maarten Vanvolsem, Silent Move 12 - 2007


When longer time-spans are involved and more elaborated movements are concerned, a certain spatial choreography can be made visible. In Silent Move 12 (2007) (image 2) the rhythm of the dance sequence and the kind of movement is made visible together with change in position. Here also front, side and rear views are combined in a single image, the combination with multiplication of limbs (dancers with more than two arms and legs) also helps to underpin the evolution of a particular movement. This repetition of limbs is reminiscent of Harold Edgerton’s stroboscopic photos (Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft, 1938, and Gussie Moran, 1949) or Giacomo Balla’s (1871-1958) Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio (1912), though they are nevertheless very different. In the stroboscopic pictures we clearly see the succession of separate moments. We can look at them separately. That is impossible in photographic strip images. What we are given is an entire sequence of movement in a unique form. As such, Umberto Boccioni’s (1882-1916) 1913 bronze sculpture Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio is now also realised with a photographic image.



Moving Body


Often images of dancers are taken on stage in the theatres. In images of Herman Sorgeloos (°1952), Fumiyo Ikeda (1986) (Gypens, p. 86) or Marion Valentine (°1939), Le Sacre du Printemps (Brussels, 1984) (Binaghi, p. 43), Pli selon Pli (Paris, 1976) (Binaghi, p. 119), the positions of the dancers on stage hint at the choreography of the play. But rather than looking at the performance with a photographic camera and recording what happens in front of the lens, the strip camera also allows recording from within the action of the movement itself. If the images of the Silent Move-series (2007) were photofinish-like images of stretched space (spatial image of time), we now have long panorama-like-scrolls (time image of space). Technically both types of images are identical, but the emphasis differs. In the Contraction of Movement-series (2007) the actual movement of the dancer in front of the camera received all of the spectator’s attention. In the Moving Body-series (2007) the environment, a landscape or an architectural space, is mostly fixed and therefore all movement has to come from the play with the camera and the film transport. So the actual moving with the camera through space is the basis for the image creation.


The continuous movement of the film and the camera while recording means that there is no longer any centrally focused viewpoint. The central perspective, often clearly recognisable in architectural pictures, is here abandoned in favour of a variable perspective. One finds a comparable approach to space in oriental roll paintings. In this age-old Chinese tradition, the artists attempt to evoke a real experience. The scroll paintings are walks through landscapes that are not intended to summon up the illusion of an existing landscape, but try to communicate the experience of the walk itself. They are objects not so much to be looked at as to be experienced, much more so than in western culture. Their typically high viewpoint and shifting focus leads the viewer through an imaginary landscape composed of several places seen from whichever angle that makes the greatest impression. According to George Rowley in Principles of Chinese Painting, this is a type of painting of the mind. When the paintings are read, “L’œil est conduit au fil du rouleau dans la poursuite d’un voyage imaginaire” (Leys, 1998, p. 583). There is of course a difference between making a composition with a brush or with the lens of a camera. However, the composition of the image depends not only on the existing surroundings but also on the movement made and the distortions this creates. Of course the great leaps in space and time that the Chinese artists incorporate into their composition are physically impossible to achieve in a short photographic image. But the way the space appears in the image, possibly with extended spaces, mirroring and repetitions, is determined entirely by the movement of the camera and film. And just as in the roll paintings, we can only discover the newly created space in the photographic image by reading and experiencing it. As such, this experience might be a solution to the paradox of dance photography. As we focus on the movement itself, rather than on the dancers, we might be able to communicate the essence of the dance, its flow of movement, instead of documenting it.



Image 3. Maarten Vanvolsem, Moving Body 2 - 2007



Image 4. Maarten Vanvolsem, Moving Body 10 - 2007


In Moving Body 2 (image 3) and Moving Body 10 (2007) (image 4) one can see a basic panoramic movement of about 360°, except that the camera is not levelled but makes a curved diagonal movement and also the axis on which the camera turns, moves during the rotation. The result is a depiction of a room seen from different angles as if one is walking through and looking around. Straight lines become bent, walls are seen from two sides and floors and ceilings are connected in a smooth curve. The changes of viewpoint, the absence of a central perspective and the length of the images make it difficult to immediately grasp this kind of image. These images do not have the kind of instantaneity the snapshot seems to have. They must be read. Then the movement of the camera can be read in the changes in direction, and the internal variations of speed, rhythm and tempo become clear. They indicate where there is acceleration, deceleration and where there is a return to the basic tempo. In the photographic image, one finds this in the transition from sharp to blur, in the distortions (stretching and compression), and in the repetitions of particular motifs and objects. The movements of the camera itself are directed by the photographer (dancer) and take on the photographer’s personal rhythm. The photographer  becomes a dancer and in this way, photography offers an opportunity to show the experience of time. Each photograph is a performance in which the camera is used to seek a movement that is able to elicit a corresponding sense of movement in the viewer. The myth of the photographic image as a frozen moment in time may now be allowed to gradually fade, and the experience of dance recreated as an image.





Binaghi, Manuela, Daniel Dobbels, Laura Maggioni (ed) (2004) Fleeting Instants. Marion Valentine. Milan, 5 Continents Editions.

Braun, Marta (1994) Picturing Time. The work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904). Chicago, London, The University of Chicago Press.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The mind’s eye. Writings on photography and photographers. New York, Aperture.

Darius, Jon (1984) Beyond vision. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.

Ewing, William A. (1987) Dance and photography. London, Thames and Hudson.

Ewing, William A. (1994) The fugitive gesture (Masterpieces of dance photography). London Thames and Hudson. (first paperback edition, the text identical to Dance and photography, some changes in the layout)

Greenfield, Lois and William A. Ewing (1992) Breaking bounds. The dance photography of Lois Greenfield. London, Thames and Hudson.

Greenfield, Lois and William A. Ewing (1998) Airborne. The new dance photography of Lois Greenfield. London, Thames and Hudson.

Gypens, Guy, Sara Jansens, Theo Van Rompay (ed) (2002) Rosas / Anne Theresa De Keersmaeker. Tournai, La Renaissance Du Livre.

Laban, Rudolf, Roderyk Lange (ed) (1975) Laban’s principles of dance and movement notation. London, Macdonald & Evans Ltd, (second edition annotated and edited by Roderyk Lange).

Leys Simon (1998) Essais sur la Chine. Paris, Laffont, series Bouquins.

Martin, Marijke and Judith Smals (2001) Wall House #2 John Hejduk. Groningen, Platform Gras.

Méaux, Danièle (1997) La photographie et le temps. Le déroulement temporel dans l’image photographique. Aix-en-Provence, Université de Provence.

Marey Etienne-Jules (1994) Le mouvement. Nîmes, Jacqueline Chambon, 1994 [Originally: Masson, 1894].

Rowley, George (1974) Principles of Chinese Painting. Princeton (N-J), Princeton University Press, 3th reprint.

Verbeke Els (ed), Pieter T’jonck, Maarten Vanvolsem, (2007) Move:in:Time. 01:15:12:DD07. Concertgebouw Brugge vzw, Brugge.


dr. Maarten Vanvolsem is photographer, Head of the MA-programme in Photography at Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design (Belgium) and is Research Fellow at the Lieven Gevaert Centre for Photography (K.U. Leuven).




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