Observing Lois Greenfield

In This Article

American dance photographer Lois Greenfield is a name that stands alone when discussing the great photographers of the dance industry today. However, Greenfield abstains from calling herself a "dance photographer".

Slip (2004). Dancer: Amy Laughton. Photo: Laura Ross

So what makes her photographs so unique that she is set apart from her peers? She creates photographs that illuminate the instant with such a force that they confound the viewer.

The style of Greenfield’s photographs has been a factor in her success with dance images. Her signature collections are black and white photographs, with people leaping and jumping, suspended in gravity defying images. Another stylistic trait in Greenfield’s work is the background. It is often indistinguishable from the floor and is composed of a white or grey colour, leaving the depth and clarity of the image to the dancers and their shapes.

Greenfield still stands by her claim that she never digitally manipulates her work, her images are amazing considering how many of her images seem humanly impossible to even capture, and also for the dancer to execute.

Another factor that makes Greenfield’s work stand out is the relationship with the dancer inside her images. Greenfield has always claimed she is not a dance photographer; and that this objective is not her ambition by any means.

Greenfield wants to use the dancers to create new choreography, one that reflects the versatility of the dancers and her artistry as a photographer. Even though Greenfield does not digitally manipulate her images, this does not mean that she has not embraced the options and instantaneous capacity that digital photography can produce for both the subject and the artist.

One example of Greenfield using technology to enhance her photographs is in her collaboration with the Australian Dance Theatre in 2003 – 2005, in the dance and live photography fusion called Held.

In the one-hour dance piece Held, Greenfield stands on stage for about thirty minutes of the piece. Her digital camera is wirelessly connected backstage to computers which render the images she captures. Instantaneously these images are projected onto two 9 x 9 foot white screens. Although the images are not altered, Greenfield is using technology to further enhance the collaboration of dance and photography in live performance.

Held first premiered at the Adelaide Arts Festival, Australia in 2004. As part of the Festival program, Greenfield offered a behind the scenes look at the relationship of digital photography and contemporary dance. I was lucky enough to be present at this demonstration of Greenfield’s astute accuracy in capturing live motion

Greenfield gave precise and lengthy examples of how low lighting can contribute to some wonderful slow shutter speed photographs. One of the ADT dancers, Daniel Jaber, freely moved whilst Greenfield waited like a hawk to capture the perfect example.

What she came up with was an image with many modes of movement, yet there was still clarity in each frame transposed through the lens. It was as if looking at cut-outs of the dancer, all interlaced on top of each other, each image further below or marginally further to the side than the preceding image.

During Greenfield’s demonstration at the Adelaide Art Festival 2004, she asked each dancer from Australian Dance Theatre to come forward and ‘dance’ for her, either using the material that Garry Stewart, artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, had created for Held, or something of their own that the dancer would like to perform for camera.

Just like a dance studio rehearsal, Greenfield was the director of arrest, making decisions and being responsible for the outcome of her work. Softly spoken, Greenfield would chop and change ideas if they didn’t produce the product she was after, providing each dancer with more stimuli for their choices in movement.

It’s also fascinating to see what choices Greenfield makes in regards to the capture point. I was often surprised by the stunning results of the last edge of a fall, where I did not think anything would be suitable to capture. The image turned out to be an amazing shot of a falling leg, parallel and only centimetres from the floor.

There was also the agreeable choice of the common "height of a spilt leg jump" which Greenfield captured. The viewer can quickly reaffirm what has gone flashing by the naked eye, agreeing that what they have just seen is real and also astounding.

Held is a contemporary dance piece with an airborne repertoire including fast acrobatic tumbling for which the company is renowned as a stable working ground for suspended mid-flight dance photography. Garry Stewart talks to Erika Kinetz on the initial collaboration between Australian Dance Theatre and Greenfield: "I had to create choreography embedded with a multitude of photogenic moments", he said. "To begin with, I overcompensated and made it too obviously a jumping exercise, and I had to reappraise the choreography and make it more seamless". 1

With fast-paced choreography comes the demand on technology to slice these actions into precise moments of time. The following quote by Greenfield from The New York Times probes the problems that Greenfield might encounter in a situation as fast as dancers leaping and tumbling:

The photographs in Held represent human action in increments of 1/2,000th of a second. The viewer is seeing the event and a solid version of a split second almost like a microscope. It reveals a slice of time the naked eye can’t see. 2

The beauty in each performance is that Greenfield cannot set each photograph to happen for the next performance, each night the images are different. Although there are moments which can be repeated, they are always slightly different; the dancer suspended in a different second, a foot caught in motion against a still thigh, the explosive movement of an aerial tumble marked onto a slate of time. The power of the image is echoed through what we see from one millisecond of the movement’s entirety.

Enthralled was probably the best word that could describe the audience coming out of Her Majesty’s Theatre on the Held premiere in Adelaide, 2004. I was saw the show a second time and was not disappointed by the suspense and cutting edge dance moves that entwined seamlessly with Greenfield’s photographs.

Crave (2004)
Dancer: Pamela B. Konijn. Photo: Laura Ross
Beaufort Street dentist series. Dancer: Patricia Wood. Photo: Laura Ross
Fine Scarf (2005)
Dancer: Emma Harris. Photo: Laura Ross