Interviewed by Rachel Kennedy |
San Francisco photographer Margo Moritz has shot live and studio-based dance for various companies including Hope Mohr and ODC. In this exclusive interview with MOH, Ms. Moritz describes the evolution of her distinctive synthesis of dance and photography.
Margo Moritz: I started dancing around the same time I learned photography. The two art forms were always side by side for me. I was 12-13 years old when I started. I was always interested in the exploration of movement, and I continued to dance all throughout my schooling. I ended up touring, performing, and teaching my own classes while studying at UC Santa Barbara. I also practiced photography throughout my schooling, and came to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco for my MFA.
Rachel Kennedy: As a young dancer, what periods or genres of dance were you drawn towards?
MM: I was always attracted to modern dance, which I was trained in. I was, and continue to be, attracted to the more raw, more challenging, open movement. The weirder stuff. I was never classically trained. My approach was more about visceral, raw, spontaneous movement. I did other dance forms – jazz, lyrical, hip-hop – but within all of these forms it was always the more non-traditional movement that I liked.
RK: As for photography, did your work develop from a similarly “raw” approach?
MM: I started learning in the darkroom. My early practice was pretty traditional, using black and white film, shooting with a 35 mm Canon AE1. I started with more of a street style, idolizing Henri-Cartier Bresson. (laughs) Typical for a beginning photographer. I was processing my own film, handling my own prints, processing chemicals. I was immediately drawn to the magic that happened in the darkroom, to being able to create your own prints with paper and chemicals. I have continued to work as a photographer since then. After college, I was working a traditional desk job in advertising and decided I wanted to do photography full time so I went to graduate school. I have been working ever since graduating, and started landing some editorial assignments while I was still in school.
RK: What was a deciding factor for merging the two mediums of dance and photography?
MM: My movement photography started out as a very personal project, trying to capture more unconventional movement than we typically see with dance photography. I was only focused on exploring the projects for personal reasons, but because I kept building on it, it started getting me commissions with local dance companies, which has been great. It helps tremendously that I understand the dance language and it’s very gratifying to be able to communicate with the dancers about movement.
“Dance is intended to be experienced with the passing of time. When you make a photograph, you are freezing a moment, so it changes the intended mode of perception.”
RK: You have written about a poetic element of your work, of the “implicit contradictions of introducing the static art form of photography to the kinetic art form of dance.” Is it a challenge to combine stillness and movement?
MM: It’s a constant challenge. Dance is intended to be experienced with the passing of time. When you make a photograph, you are freezing a moment, so it changes the intended mode of perception. It is difficult to reconcile how to hold on to a moment meant to be fleeting. But I think that’s what is exciting about it as well – photographing movement gives you the opportunity to dissect it, to explore it further.
RK: Do you prefer to shoot live dance, or to collaborate with dancers and create premeditated images?
MM: I would say that I prefer working directly with dancers, because it is more of a collaborative relationship rather than a documentary one. There’s more potential we can explore when I can give input and feedback. The scope of live performance is much larger – movement is made for an audience in a theater rather than for a photographer. I am there to receive and document their performance, and if I miss a moment there’s no going back. When I work one-on-one with dancers, we can create a more intimate relationship, explore movement more specifically, and go further when we see something we like.
RK: When capturing a choreographed piece meant for live audience, many voices are expressed: choreographer, writer, dancers, costume designer, scenic designer, lighting designer…and so on. To what extent does your voice come into play, relative to all who contribute to the image?
MM: I think this really adds to the last question you asked, live performance as opposed to me hosting the shoot. The high level of collaboration for an intimate shoot is why it’s so satisfying. It really is my voice in collaboration with what the choreographer and dancers bring to the table. Because I have much less input on the artistic direction of a live performance, my vision comes through in the way I’m experiencing the performance that night.
When I do collaborative photo shoots I meet with the director/choreographer, and we come up with concepts together. I try to see who they are as a dancer, what their concept is, and let that guide the shoot. Two series represented with this interview were personal shoots, and two were commissioned jobs that stemmed from them. In the personal shoots (The Falling and Movement series) I had a concept I wanted to explore and brought in dancers to help create it. In the commissioned shoots, it was more of a collaboration with the choreographer or art director, and we worked together to achieve it. The goal of every shoot is different, so it just depends on who I’m working with and what we’re trying to create.
RK: Before we discuss the four series represented here, can you tell me what you shoot on, and other props you use for studio shoots?
MM: These are all digital. With dance the quick feedback of digital is very helpful. I shot many of these series with a Canon 5D Mark II. They are shot in-studio with strobe lights. The Movement series is shot with the focus thrown all the way out to get the blurry effect. I don’t do much post-processing or compositing. All movements, lighting effects, etc. are captured in-camera.
RK: Let’s talk about your series, Exquisite Abandon (late 2009) and The Falling (early 2009).
MM: The Falling was an earlier series that I worked on. It was a completely personal project that I invited dancers to participate in. I was intent on exploring this idea of people falling through space. I tried many different setups in the studio, and went through many steps before I found something that worked.
Exquisite Abandon…I entered the images from The Falling to Surface Magazine‘s annual “avant-guardian” competition in 2009. I was one of ten winners who get assigned a fashion spread for the magazine. They gave me a Prada collection and basically told me I could do whatever I want with it. I decided to do something in the same vein as The Falling. I had a team of stylists, models, and assistants. I worked with a great male dancer from the San Francisco ballet and a professional fashion model with some dance experience. It was very exciting, to take the original concept from my personal work, and be able to apply it to a high fashion editorial with a team of incredible creatives.
RK: Was there anything about that process that has stayed with you creatively?
MM: When I was shooting Exquisite Abandon an undercurrent theme started to develop. The shapes, textures, and colors of the clothing had a modern military character, and the movement started taking on something between obedience and total chaos, so I went with it. I think it’s great to have a plan, to have a cohesive creative goal, but it’s very important to remain open and flexible when unexpected things happen on set. That’s usually when the best shots happen, where the dynamic imagery comes out.
RK: I want to jump back to the The Falling for a moment. I couldn’t help but think of the Biblical Fall with the title of this series. Is there a connection? What is the underlying concept?
MM: I didn’t intend for there to be a biblical reference, though you’re welcome to interpret it that way (laughs). I think it will take me many years to figure out exactly why I wanted to photograph people falling. It was such an instinctual desire to shoot the concept. I wanted to capture something very aggressive and wild in energy, but elegant and graceful at the same time. There’s this feeling of completely giving in to the movement, even though it’s painful.
RK: Painful in the sense that there’s going to be a landing…and it’s going to hurt?
MM: I think the fear of falling is a universal fear we all have that might express itself differently for everyone. There’s something about not fighting it but just submitting to it, that gives it an incredible amount of gracefulness. I just find that combination of opposites really moving and powerful.
“It is difficult to reconcile how to freeze a moment of something meant to be experienced over time. But I think that’s what is exciting about it as well – with a photo you get to hold onto the movement, dissect it, keep it frozen. The two together have something that’s at the same time fixed and fleeting.”
RK: Now I’m curious as to where the dancers were landing, where they are jumping from?
MM: They’re falling onto a trampoline. I set up a 14-foot trampoline. It really requires them to let their bodies fall without bracing themselves. Both The Falling and Exquisite Abandon were shot at Left Space studios.
RK: Two other other series, Hope Mohr (2011) and Movement (2010), contrast from the earlier two in both contrast and concepts. Let’s start with Hope Mohr. How did you and Ms. Mohr divide authorship of the work?
MM: The Hope Mohr shoot was commissioned by a dance company. Hope Mohr is the name of the director. Working with Hope was a very successful meeting of the minds. She came to me and explained the concept of her work, and told me what was important to capture. She was very open to pushing in another direction so long as the thread of the idea was there. The shoot was very symbiotic – myself as the photographer, Hope as the choreographer, and the dancers, working off of each other.
RK: What aspects of this work were most gratifying to explore? For instance, symbolic features like the palette or American flag?
MM: I didn’t have a specific reaction to the flag per se, but I was very connected to that shoot because it was seamlessly creative and fluid. I think every participant felt fulfilled and engaged. It wasn’t specifically the concept of the shoot, but the openness of everyone, and being able to throw out ideas and have the dancers apply them in a really beautiful way. I felt very lucky to be able to apply something very personal to a public commission or commercial work, similar to the Exquisite Abandon shoot.
RK: Tell me about your Movement series.
MM: The Movement series has a different feel from the other work. For one thing, the images have a very soft focus. The lighting is softer, and there’s something dreamlike and abstract about it, whereas The Falling has this very intense energy and full of contrast. The movement in the Movement series is very soft, but at the same time awkward. I’m not giving too many details, actually restraining them from the viewer. It’s like you’re looking through a cloudy layer at something, you can’t exactly extract what’s going on. I’m exploring unconventional body shapes that at the same time have something elegant to them. So in this sense, it’s like The Falling: combining two elements that don’t necessarily go together.
RK: There’s a dialectical element to this work.
RK: On that note, can you discuss your technical method for Movement?
MM: I played with the focus of the lens. I put the lens in manual and threw it far out of focus. Technically, the intention was to erase the details. I just wanted the figure to become a soft shape. I think you can see the awkward movement still, through the blurriness, without seeing all the details of it. I think this stems from my constant interest in seeking the unconventional through movement, abstract shapes and the emotions they may evoke.
The way photography and dance treat movement is actually quite contrary; as one freezes it the other is defined by it passing of it. It is this unique relationship they both have with movement that I explore with my work. I am particularly intrigued by the unusual combination of tension and elegance, and use my own dance experience to explore emotions through form and movement.
In The Falling and Exquisite Abandon series, I strive to capture the moment the subject is neither flying up nor falling down; where they are at the apex of their passage through air. Something indescribable happens in that brief weightless moment, and to reach it the subject has to utterly give in to the force of their rise and fall – if they fight it, it won’t happen. Once they are there, they can taste the ephemeral gratification of letting go before gravity pulls them back down to earth. They somehow seem peaceful and tranquil while they are in the midst of aggressive movement.
In The Movement Series, elegant lines are confused with awkward ones. The graceful bodies take on unconventional shapes, and the out of focus viewpoint makes it difficult for the viewer to grasp what is really there. The whole story is not told, and the light and airy scenes leave many questions unanswered. The bodies are awkward, yet soft; elegant, yet contorted.
I am a native Californian, born to a Persian mother and Belgian father. I started training in dance around the same time I started making my own prints in the darkroom. I’ve continued exploring both arts as I’ve moved up the coast to pursue my BA from UC Santa Barbara and my MFA from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I am now a freelance photographer and create photographs for magazines, websites, and small businesses. I also photograph for many local dance companies, capturing live performances as well as conceptual movement work. My personal work has been shown in the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, seven degrees gallery, and Mina Dresden Gallery as well as my editorial and fashion work in San Francisco Magazine, The Bold Italic, and Surface Magazine. Whether it’s portraiture, dance, or commercial work, I am always driven by the intimacy, elegance, and authenticity in each of them.
CONTACT MARGO MORITZ: