When photographer Jordan Matter watched his three-year-old son Hudson playing with his toys, he didn’t realize his life was about to change. Matter was watching him play with a toy bus, and that’s when he had a creative epiphany. “[Hudson] had this level of enthusiasm for his fantasy life that I realized, as we got older, we lose,” Matter explains. “We stop seeing the beauty in everyday life. We just go from point A to point B, but we don’t see how we can enjoy that journey. I thought, suddenly, I could use dancers to show how beautiful everyday life can be.”
That simple thought set Matter off on a quest that has transformed his life and his career. It has resulted in The New York Times best-selling book Dancers Among Us (as well as two follow-up book projects), exhibitions at museums and with professional ballet troupes, and invitations to collaborate on new projects from renowned dance troupes across the globe.
Matter’s idea was to take dancers and put them in everyday situations, capturing them as they seemingly levitated in the air, or held complex and beautiful poses. “I had never shot dancers [performing] before,” he says with a chuckle. “Fortunately, I had just done a portrait of a dancer from [the legendary dance troupe] Paul Taylor. I wrote to him and told him the idea, and he said, ‘I’ll get you some of my dancers.’
“Over the course of a summer, I worked with 10 of the best dancers in the world, and that’s when the idea really started to come out. I didn’t understand it at first, but the more we would shoot, the more it became clear what I was trying to say.”
At this point, Matter still didn’t see this as anything more than a one-off project, simply an exploration of a theme. “My great ambition…was simply that Paul Taylor would make a coffee-table book out of it and sell it at their performances, and maybe have an exhibition hanging throughout their show. So I went to their company manager, who absolutely loved [the work] and wanted to use it—and this is the worst thing a photographer can ever say—but I said, ‘The pictures are yours, no strings attached. I’m handing this body of work I spent the summer doing over to you. Do what you want with them.'”
Chuckling again at the thought, Matter says, “To my great fortune, Paul Taylor said, ‘No, thank you,’ because the pictures didn’t represent his dances, just his dancers.” When they passed on the book, Matter didn’t know what to do with it next since he had always envisioned Paul Taylor using it.
One of his images, the one that eventually would become the cover of the book Dancers Among Us, pictures a dancer in a red raincoat, clutching a red umbrella while completing a grande jeté on a rainy day in New York City. That photograph ended up on PDN‘s Photo of the Day blog, and then went viral. The Daily News called Matter and asked if they could run one of his photos. Instead, he said to them, “You could do that, or you could come with me while I crash the Apple Store, go into fountains, and get intro trouble.” This clearly interested The Daily News, who did a five-page spread on Matter and his photography.
“There’s probably only one literary agent, I think, in the world that reads The Daily News, but [now he’s] mine. He brought me in and decided to start approaching publishers about a book deal.”
Matter and his agent would show up with dozens of 11×14 prints. Publishers all “fell in love” with them, Matter explains, and the agent thought there would be a bidding war. But, in the end, everyone passed because Matter says the publishers’ sales departments all said, “It’s a book about New York City dancers. No one is going to care.”
Months went by, with Matter thinking his book was dead. Then, a junior designer at Workman Publishing found some of his photos online and hung them in her cubicle. Coworkers kept seeing the photos and liking them, and when the publisher saw the interest in the images, they decided to bring Matter in to talk about a book.
“They said the same thing [as the other publishers]; they were worried by a book about dancers only set in New York City. Then I said to them, ‘It’s not just New York City; this summer I’m going all over the country shooting this thing,’ which was a total lie. But I had to say it; I couldn’t bear to hear ‘no’ again. I knew I had one more shot, right? So then I actually had to go get tickets, and go around the country.”
After sending the publisher images from his impromptu road trip, they signed on and he spent the next year traveling and shooting. Workman Publishing decided they wanted to rush to get it out in the fall of 2012, Matter explains, “because their gamble—which was correct—was that it was going to be a miserable election. People would need something upbeat and happy, and it just found its moment.”
That’s perhaps an understatement because next the Internet took over and things picked up speed. One night, the über-popular UK website The Daily Mail contacted Matter to ask if they could run some of his photos. Matter sent them images and some videos, and went off to bed. He had no idea that overnight his feature had become the most popular article on the website.
When he awoke, he had hundreds of emails from all over the world as a result of the coverage on The Daily Mail. One of the emails was from Diane Sawyer, who talked about the book on air that night. “It was around number five on Amazon that day,” Matter says of the exposure, “and it kind of took off from there.”
The publisher was unprepared for the explosive popularity of the book and started to run out of copies. When I ask Matter, “Isn’t that the best problem to have?” he says, with a laugh, “Yeah, until it happens. It’s still a problem.” After catching up with demand, the book started to rise on The New York Times best-seller list.
“When the book became a best-seller, I thought, ‘Well, this is over now.’ I didn’t see any reason to take anymore [dancer photos]. For several months, I didn’t shoot a dancer. Then life keeps coming back to it. It’s surprising how people keep discovering it…and they want to do a whole thing on it.”
After Dancers Among Us, Matter started to work on Dancers After Dark, a project that will culminate in a book to be released in 2016, as well as a series of exhibitions. Meanwhile, his work continues to evolve. While early portraits were classically posed dancers involved in daily activities, in later shots the subjects are taking more risks.
of a ballet dancer appearing to levitate over a dusty country road or gracefully leaping through a crowded Grand Central Terminal, in later works, they’re poised precariously over ledges or hanging from fire escapes by muscle power alone. In his Dancers After Dark project, Matter is photographing his subjects in the nude in locales around the world. In each case, Matter is clearly pushing against boundaries, both thematically and internally.
“I think I’m a bit of a thrill-seeker and an adrenaline junkie. I played baseball [through college] and then I was an actor. Both of these are adrenaline-fueled careers. What has happened is, the dancers will absolutely trust me with anything [now]…so, to find people that are as willing to take a risk as I am, I would push the limit on that.”
The risk-taking has to be in the purpose of a greater story, though. “These pictures have to be broken down into at least one of three categories,” notes Matter. “There has to be a beauty to it, humor or a ‘wow!’ The ‘wow’ can come from incredible extensions, but it can also come from ‘holy shit, he’s hanging off of a fire escape and I can see that there’s nothing down there [below the subject].'”
Sometimes, though, his risk-taking goes a bit too far, as was the case with the shoot of a female dancer on a stone wall over an incredible drop. “It’s a shot with a woman smelling a flower with her leg straight up in the air,” he explains, “except that she’s on a stone wall, and you can see, down below, it’s like a 100-foot drop onto concrete. She’s absolutely dead if she falls, and she’s holding this pose on a rocky, uneven surface. While I was shooting that, this guy comes up to me, just a pedestrian [passing by], and said, ‘Either you stop right now, or I’m going to call the police.'”
Matter says that was a sort of “rockbottom” moment for his use of danger in his images and decided to use this as a way to refresh his creative process. “I started to simplify it again and find the beauty of it. I didn’t get into doing the book because I wanted to shock people. I got into it because I want them to see there’s beauty around them and I want them to celebrate that.”
Instead of directing the dancers, now Matter has become more of a collaborator. For one shot, he had a dancer jump off a bench and cross her legs, to make it look like she was floating above the bench. “I had her do that 100 times until she said, ‘Let me show you something different.’ She showed me [a pose] I would never have imagined to ask her. She knows her instrument. And I learned a lot from that; now I start with asking their strengths, and [say], ‘Help me tell this story in a way that’s emotionally resonant to you.'”
Matter still draws inspiration from his children, with his five-year-old daughter Saylish providing the genesis for Tiny Dancers Among Us. While shoveling snow one day, Saylish suddenly performed an arabesque turn. “I put it online and people went crazy,” recalls Matter, who discovered the world of competitive junior dancers who compete for prizes. “These kids are phenomenally talented. You get into the competition world and they’re more trick-oriented than ballet dancers. And they’re cute.”
Matter is completing Dancers After Dark and Tiny Dancers Among Us at the same time. “I was in Europe for two weeks, and it was exhausting. I would go to a different city every three days. During the day, I would shoot kids, and at night, I would shoot naked dancers, then get up and shoot kids, then naked dancers.”
|Jordan Matter’s Gear|
AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 28-70mm
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm
ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
AF NIKKOR 28mm ƒ/1.4D Aspherical
AF NIKKOR 50mm ƒ/1.4D
AF-S NIKKOR 85mm ƒ/1.4G
Now, Matter travels the world capturing images for his books and appearing at gallery exhibits of his photography. He has been approached by foreign publishers that want their own cities to be included in his books. He has one best-selling book under his belt and two more with incredible support in the pipeline, all because of one day playing with his son.
When asked, though, what his life would be like if the social-media mentions, website coverage and TV appearances had never happened, if he would have still been capturing photos of dancers, Matter says wistfully, “If Hudson hadn’t picked up that toy, I’d never have known any of this. But, once I saw [that moment], I would have been content to be in New York City and continuing to shoot the dancers. I think I would still be working on this thing until someone published it because I was just having so much fun doing it.”
And, to Matter, celebrating the fun of the moment is the whole point.
You can see more of Jordan Matter’s photography at dancersamongus.com and at jordanmatter.com.