Creative collaborations can yield magic, proven on a yearly basis in the images resulting from photographer Sarah Silver and choreographer Stephen Petronio’s shoots. Two heads and four feet are better than one and two of the same appendages, as this dynamic duo proves.
Silver’s fascination with photography began as a child in her grandfather’s studio darkroom. Studying classical and modern dance from an equally young age instilled a deep appreciation for that art form. After completing her Bachelor’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Vassar College, Silver decided to pursue her artistic passions in the graduate photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
While finishing her Master’s Degree, Silver shot a fashion spread using dancers for Surface magazine’s Avant Guardian issue. She then incorporated the Stephen Petronio Company in her graduate thesis. The two fashion stories from that early collaboration yielded tear sheets in magazines including Vogue Italia, Elle and The New York Times, as well as a yearly project to create visuals for Petronio.
On occasion, Silver makes it to the other side of the camera, appearing on Bravo Network’s reality series Make Me A Supermodel (Episode Two) and America’s Next Top Model photographing "The Vampire Episode."
DPP: What was the evolution of your work with choreographer extraordinaire Stephen Petronio?
Sarah Silver: My coming-of-age photo shoot was for the Petronio Company for my graduate thesis from SVA here in New York City. I approached Stephen. He gave me, this 23-year-old student, a chance to shoot a professional dance company wearing fashion. It was the birth of this yearly project, the latest being the eleventh I’ve done with them.
DPP: How does that work?
Silver: Because I’m given such free rein and because Stephen is such a fantastic collaborator. I take what I do for them every year and let it trickle down into what I do the rest of the year. It colors what I do for fashion and beauty shoots, not the other way around. He shaped my career. He has this great ability to communicate with other creatives—he has collaborated with everybody from Lou Reed and Cindy Sherman to the sculpture maker Anish Kapoor. He has an amazing history as a performer and is very heavy into fashion. He’s a trendsetter in many areas. For this year’s shoot, we did video for the first time for this dance company.
Stephen Petronio Dance Company – Like Lazarus Did
By Sarah Silver
As a student of classical and modern dance herself, Silver is familiar with how to capture the Stephen Petronio Dance Company’s movement expression through the still image. But Silver looks at photography as a larger visual language that expands into movement itself through video. During this year’s collaboration with the company she directed the provacative, body paint-filled video ‘Like Lazarus Did’. Using a three-camera set up, Silver ensured she would catch every paint swipe, smooth hand gesture and twisted body as the group had only one take before the set was destroyed by the gold paint.
DPP: How did you insert the moving image into your workflow?
Silver: I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. I realized that photographers that don’t do it—I won’t say they’re becoming dinosaurs—but they’re painting themselves into a corner. Being a photographer, being visual, isn’t a language of stills anymore. We, as photographers, have the vision and have the voice. Now that we’ve been given the tools, we have to train that voice. We have to run with it.
But we hadn’t had the chance to incorporate video with Stephen until this year. We do these really elaborate shoots. Over the years, we’ve done shoots with water, smoke, light trails and, most recently, paint. The end results are used for the promotion of the dance company.
DPP: Some of the shoots you’ve done in the past with freezing a moment and showing movement couldn’t have been done with continuous light.
Silver: Right. Like the water shoot we did was based on stroboscopic lighting. Sometimes I used mixed lighting, getting some of the exposure from hot lights. It starts with a concept, then we figure out what we need to do to execute the photo.
DPP: What was your equipment setup to capture the stills?
Silver: It’s been the Hasselblad and strobes up until this year. That’s where the Hasselblad can really shine when you want to sync a strobe with a high shutter speed. I’m in love with the H4. The look of my work has always been extreme tack-sharp images and stop-motion. But this year we wanted to do video, and we didn’t have time to switch back and forth between lighting setups. Because of the ISO 800 we had to use for the video and not wanting to change setups, I used the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. I wanted a quick change between stills and video. That’s the key element in doing both. You don’t have time to relight so do it right once. The Canon at ISO 800 gives a beautiful image; there’s noise, but not the kind of noise that’s going to kill a picture. For the stills, I shot at 1/320th of a second at ƒ/4.5. We did the stills in the morning and the video in the afternoon. All the gold paint was for video only. The stills incorporated gold, but not the big orgy of it. The video was done second because, once we did it with all the paint, the set was trashed.
DPP: What was the setup for the video?
Silver: Three cameras for one take for the video. Once we started with the paint, there was no going back for a retake. We used daylight-balanced Kino Flos for general illumination and the Broncolor Para 88 FB Reflector with the Broncolor DW400 HMI head inside it for a harder light source to add a final snap and sense of direction to the overall lighting aesthetic. I wanted to use a parabolic light source, which is snappy and beautiful at the same time, and I need something that’s multiuse since I shoot a lot of hair, beauty and fashion with strobes. Everybody wants the same look for the video and stills.
For the dance video, we positioned the Para 88 14 feet off the ground facing down to give the killer jaw line I’m obsessed with. But I was lighting for the gold more than anything. Our lighting had to be reflective in all the right places. For the video, especially with dance, I wanted to see the bigger picture so I directed it with my DP Dustin Wadsworth and two camera operators shooting the video.
DPP: What are you looking for when shooting the stills and the video?
Silver: When you’re shooting stills of dancers, you’re picking a specific moment of body movement. You have a beginning, a middle and an end. Like a jump—you start on the floor, fly through the air, then you end up back on the floor again. You make the choice where the moment is. Dance photography is its own genre for a reason. In baseball, the pitcher releases the ball, the batter makes his swing, and the photographer chooses the moment. It’s the same thing in dance photography; it’s a very specific skill set. We hone in on the decisive moment. For video, it’s more like a theater production. We’re not making a documentary. We wanted to express the movements, but not necessarily in real time, and show them without being too "dancy." The video isn’t linear. We shot it in real time with three cameras and then moved the clips around in post. There’s definitely a crescendo to the gold paint in the video. We want to show the essence of movement, this orgasmic gold experience, without it being labeled "a modern dance film."
The set was massive, an elevated steel deck three feet off the ground. We had three walls painted matte black, as well as a matte black floor. That was very thought out. But inside these three walls and that crazy floor, I really wanted to be surprised.
DPP: Why did you build a deck instead of having the dancers on the studio floor?
Silver: For a couple of reasons. I wanted the experience of having them on stage. I also wanted the feeling of the dancers being enclosed in this space that was a little claustrophobic. But more than anything, it was in order to get the lighting in the right place; the floor had to be off the ground. For the dancers, it felt special. You put a dancer on stage and they transform.
DPP: What did you do in terms of post on the video?
Silver: Stephen chose the music for the video, which really helped. It set the mood. I worked closely with a fantastic editor, Thomas Ramsey. Post for me is as important as the shoot itself. You spend a lot of time "concepting" a shoot, why would you throw it out into the universe? Your postproduction and preproduction require the same amount of care.
DPP: Your background in dance must help you in this work. Did you think you were going to be a professional dancer when you grew up?
Silver: If I were delusional. I learned very quickly that I didn’t have what it took to be a professional dancer—although I cried when I figured it out at age 13. When I realized that I could have something just as rewarding by directing it in a photographic setting, I ran with it. I have an incredibly wonderful career shooting movement with fashion and beauty. My background in dance has allowed me to be a really good photographer. I may have been sad when I was 13, but now I consider myself immensely lucky. I married a professional dancer. I know what it takes—incredible stamina and flexibility and an ability to be extraordinary with your physical being—and I didn’t have it.
DPP: Dancers tend to have pretty impressive bodies to photograph.
Silver: That’s true, but if you’re not helping accentuate it with lighting, then you’re not showcasing their physiques. I always use some sort of tripod or camera stand because I like to see the big picture of the performance and use a remote to trigger the shutter. I prefocus and stand next to the camera. When I’m on the Hasselblad, I’m on a remote trigger. I don’t even look through the camera. I set it, then I forget it, because I want to see the action. It’s about anticipating the moves. You go for the Cartier-Bresson decisive moment.
DPP: His famous decisive moment shot is of a man jumping over a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. It looks like a dance movement.
Silver: Dance is a reflection of real life, and real life is movement.
You can see more of Sarah Silver’s work at www.sarahsilver.com.