If the name Jim Markland (or James Rowbotham, Jim’s pen name) rings a bell, it may be because you read of his photography workshops here on Dance Advantage. Or, perhaps you’ve run across Jim’s work in exhibition or one of the many press publications in which he’s appeared.
In a recent interview Jim talked with me about how, at 60, he became interested in photography, capturing dance, and his learning experience with Lois Greenfield. He also gives advice on the camera features required to capture dancers in action both onstage and off, and how dancers can prepare for a great studio shoot.
Dance Advantage: When did you first become interested in photography as a career?
Jim Markland: I had taken the decision to retire from my professional career in the international oil and gas business sometime around my sixtieth birthday and had in mind establishing a new interest in something quite different and “creative”. The decision to pick up a camera really made itself during a conversation I was having with a photographer overlooking the little waterfall that disappears into the ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park on Highway One in California.
The man in question was using an old-fashioned plate camera, the sort where from time to time the photographer would disappear under a large cloth. I had wanted to know what on earth he was doing using that old contraption in this digital age. The explanation was simple, he was making platinum prints, prints that have a very large tonal range. He told me that prior to that he had been shooting art nudes. I remembered a book my mother had entitled “Women of all Lands”, edited by Rosita Forbes and printed around the 1930s. In it are several artistic nudes by photographers John Everard, Walter Bird, Horace Roye and others.
There and then the seed was sown. I would learn how to shoot nudes and would start out using “Rowbotham” a different family name as a “nom de plume,” something that nowadays causes no end of confusion. That book is still in my possession and is a veritable time capsule.
DA: What sparked your interest in dance photography?
JM: Buenos Aires is a lovely city that I have enjoyed visiting greatly. On the last night of my first visit I was taken to a tango show in San Telmo. The music was still in my head all the way home on the flight back to London. I was hooked on the music and on subsequent visits I would try to be in the city on a weekend to visit the live open-air tango performances in Plaza Dorrego.
The dancing brings the music to life with great vibrancy. Capturing the dancers in motion, hair and fabrics flying, or in a dramatic pose exhibiting great flexibility gave me images that hitherto I had not been able to create. From those days I began to look to dance images for inspiration for my own studio work and one day, whilst walking past a bookshop somewhere on Vancouver Island, spotted a Lois Greenfield calendar that I just had to go back to purchase. The next step was obvious, I had to join one of her workshops.
DA: How has what you learned in that workshop shaped your work with dancers?
JM: The workshop introduced me to the system that Lois uses for her dance photography. This system is extremely reliable and produces high quality results, the main focus being how to capture a moment, to remove all time delays and to freeze motion. There was a full team on hand: Lois, Jack Deaso and the others in the studio plus a bunch of extremely talented professional dancers from the Amy Marshall Dance Company.
Once we had absorbed the basics, it was a great deal of fun creating our own images. One of mine with Natasha Czarniewy was particularly special. I had no end of people in the wings waving fabrics around. Lois walked into the room just as we were shooting and was, I am pleased to say, very pleasantly surprised. These days I invariably use that system for studio work.
DA: You photograph dancers in live performance as well as the photography studio. What are the challenges of each?
JM: Quite a question! There is so much to think about and all at the same time. Without focusing on any particular system, the issues that any aspiring dance photographer should consider in the studio are the amount of space available (never enough), the suitability of the floor and other safety related issues, and the duration of the flash that controls the speed of the capture (unless continuous light is being used, when it is the shutter speed). There is a lot said about this in my book Frozen Motion and Beyond.
I don’t say too much about lighting as that is a whole subject of its own, though it is worth noting that many studios can be quite limiting as to where lights are placed. In the main I seek to capture a special moment within a move and we repeat that move several times until we are happy with the results. Just occasionally I ask people to improvise or to run through a much longer piece when I shoot at will. One particular duet I shot with dancers Murilo Imperio de Leite and Raphaella McNamara was especially memorable. These two had never met before that day yet helped me produce the most fabulous images in a quite mesmerizing improvisation.
In live performances the challenges are totally different. The studio photographer is in control; in live performances he has absolutely none. He might find himself in a previously unknown space, shooting a previously unseen performance in appallingly low light whilst shooting from the gloom of an auditorium. He will need to find a good camera position and a camera/lens combination suitable for the task in hand and might well need to be able to operate his equipment in darkness. He will need to avoid blocking the view of anybody watching or making too much noise (shutters are surprisingly very noisy in quiet theatres) and, if he is able to shoot from the wings, he will need to keep well out of the way of the performers. Given the choice, it is far less intrusive and much easier to shoot a dress rehearsal than a live performance. I wouldn’t want this to sound too easy, it is absolutely not!
DA: In live situations like the stage and in the dance studio, can someone with less than a professional-grade camera hope to get a good shot? Are there minimum requirements?
JM: The answer is probably yes but only in certain circumstances. I imagine that these days many images never get printed but are viewed on screen. For that, a full frame digital single lens reflex camera (or better) is absolutely not necessary. The big challenge becomes having sufficient light of the right sort to be able to shoot within the camera’s capability. The images I shot in bright sunlight from a pontoon in Vancouver harbour last summer could have been done by anyone with a camera with which it is possible to set the shutter speed to a high level (preferably at least 1/2000 second). The only slight rider is that we used a cheap reflector in an attempt to kill facial shadows, not so easy with fast moving dancers.
Live performances in low light are much, much more difficult. Typically I expect to need to use a sensitivity of 3200 ISO, a minimum aperture of f2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/500 second. Anything less than 1/500 second will invite too much motion blur and anything faster than that is likely to be unachievable. If your camera can get close to this then do have a go!
One simple trick, if you don’t have top end zoom lens, is to move closer to the stage and make use of the wider aperture and to let more light into the camera. Conversely, if you use a wide aperture from a distance any individual dancer fills less of the frame and you can try reducing shutter speed. One most important practical point is not to hold the camera too high. Knee height to the dancers or lower is ideal though is not always possible if raked seating comes right up to the stage.
As a final note it is worthwhile mentioning that new developments are making high-speed flash more and more accessible and more portable at relatively low cost.
DA: We like the tips, do you have more for us?
JM: I try to let the camera do all the hard technical work so I can concentrate on what is happening on stage. I tend to pick on a suitably photogenic subject and then continuously track that dancer around the stage, seeking to capture interesting moments. With a bit of practice it is possible to keep both eyes open so you can also see what is happening outside the viewfinder.
Another thing to look out for is the background. Outdoor performances are not guaranteed to have good backdrops. For example, it was at times totally impossible to avoid an awful blue backcloth when shooting the lovely performance of the Sinatra suite by Misty Copeland and Marcelo Gomez at the 2009 Bristol Harbour Festival. So, where possible, position yourself to be sure of a good backdrop [pauses] and light, and uninterrupted view, and camera angle and…
DA: It’s a lot like dance actually, thinking on your feet about many things at once. Do you try to anticipate a dancer’s movement to capture it at its pinnacle?
JM: Over time I have developed a sixth sense for this although I must say that contemporary dancers can easily surprise me with quite random moves. It is clearly very helpful to see a piece before photographing it, and the music will say a great deal during the performance. However the opportunities to prepare beforehand are rare events. Ideally, given the opportunity, the photographer needs to be in the dance studio during rehearsals over several days beforehand. I was very fortunate to have this opportunity photographing Danza Contemporanea de Cuba’s Mambo 3XXI.
DA: Do you have some tips for dancers on what they can do or bring to a studio shoot to help it go smoothly and to get better pictures?
JM: Preparation, preparation, preparation! For a studio shoot aimed at producing a mini portfolio it is really helpful to go along with a variety of costumes although sadly many individual dancers don’t have access to the lovely costumes owned by their companies.
I have a simple formula for girls, men are much more difficult!. Six looks:
- Tight and body hugging for big shapes,
- Light and flowing fabrics and hair down for motion,
- Skimpy or nude and hair up for physique,
- Something in character,
- Something characteristic of a genre of dance,
- And a wild card chosen by the dancer.
Then we mix and match trying to avoid dreary drab colors. Suitable underwear is also very important. Many a jump in a nice light dress has been ruined by inappropriate underwear.
Props are also useful as they can bring inspiration to the shoot.
If we are shooting duets or group shots then the shoot is far more productive if the moves we are trying to capture have been identified and rehearsed beforehand. The most productive shoots I have done have been characterized by careful planning and a long period of the dancers working together before the shoot.
Having said that I really enjoy getting dancers into the studio and simply trying various ideas until serendipity strikes and something special emerges. At the last studio shoot with Edd Mitton and Kiyo Mizuki, both talented contemporary dancers, we turned a small white tutu into a ruff to make an instant Pierrot. The images are in my portfolios.
Invariably, in a studio, I shoot tethered to a laptop so that everyone can see the captures as they arise. That brings a huge benefit to the shoot.
If the shoot is to promote a specific piece then the choreographer needs to be there to work alongside me and of course the costumes need to be those from the piece. Again, preparation is vital for those early publicity shots. Leaving costume decisions to the last minute is not the best strategy.
Finally I would mention make up. From time to time I work with a young make up artist, Sam Day. The scope of the make up tends to be theatrical, often focussing on the eyes, and has the ability to really “lift” images. Sam’s family are deeply involved in dance in different ways and it is a pleasure to have her along.
DA: What projects are you looking forward to in 2011?
JM: I am trying to put one project together which, if it works, could prove to be something quite special but I would rather not say what that is as it is outside my control and might not happen. Other than that I am still hoping to find a suitable company to work with on an ongoing basis. That process had begun with the New English Contemporary Ballet but sadly that company is no longer.
I will of course be running more dance photography workshops in 2011. These workshops have now developed something of a loyal following. Each time I bring new dancers. The last one was amazing. We had Melody Squire’s Sol Dans, an exciting contemporary jazz company and almost the whole company came! At the next one I am planning to bring Elena Marina and several other talented aerialists into the studio.
At some stage next year we will be going back to Vancouver which I hope will bring some other interesting opportunities and most importantly I have to prepare for a major exhibition that I have been invited to mount in 2012 at a prominent dance house and which we hope to tour.
Jim Markland is originally from Lancashire in the north of England. He spent most of his career working as a petroleum economist which gave him the opportunity to travel very extensively and experience numerous languages and cultures. He now lives in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. You can find Jim and more of his work at www.perfectlandscape.com, www.rowbotham-dance.book.fr, and www.rowbotham-cirque.book.fr, or on Flickr.