Friday, October 21, 2016

Principal Photography: In Conversation with Gregg Delman

Misty Copeland by Gregg Delman was published in the U.S. by Rizzoli at the end of September. (Photo by Gregg Delman)

New York-based photographer Gregg Delman photographed ballerina Misty Copeland over a two-year period, from 2011 to 2014, before she became internationally famous as the first African-American to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, one of the world's top classical dance companies. Their collaborative sessions yielded thousands of images, 95 of which have just been published in a gorgeous new cloth-cover book by Rizzoli. Misty Copeland by Gregg Delman, officially released on Sept. 26 with a Manhattan book launch party attended by both artists, is a feast for the eyes that deepens the intimate relationship between dance and the still image.

For fans of Copeland, the book immortalizes the California-born ballerina who today is the most talked about dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union in 1970s. Her fame arises from her status as a ballet iconoclast whose pronounced musculature and ample bosom represent a sharp departure from the pale and frail ballerina stereotype that has dominated the popular imagination since the early 19th century. It's a welcome change, and one which Delman appears to have presciently anticipated. His erotically charged images spotlight the dancer's voluptuousness and daring artistry. They celebrate a powerful dancer who is also a strong woman, in control of her destiny. Delman calls it an accurate portrait.

"Dancing is something Misty does but she's much more than a dancer," said Delman during a recent interview in New York, close to his Chelsea studio. "Anyone who meets her can see the energy she has. I always knew she'd be something. She was already something for me from the beginning. She was this incredible muse." Here's more of that conversation:

dk: You photographed Misty Copeland over a period of years, from 2011 to 2014, before she made those motivational Under Armour ads and graced the cover of TIME magazine, the first dancer to do that in decades. Why did you seek to collaborate with her when you did and how did the relationship evolve?

gd: I emailed her manager immediately after seeing her image in a magazine. It was clearly a visual attraction. There was something magnetic about her image. It was her physique. I'd never before seen something as strong and powerful in ballet shoes.

dk: You have shot portraits for Interview and worked for The New York Times. How does this assignment, if we can call it that, compare?

gd: This definitely was not an assignment, but a true labour of love.

dk: Had you shot dance before?

gd: Before shooting Misty, I had not worked with dancers. Initially, I took the same approach as I would have when doing a portrait. But, after the first shot, I quickly realized that I needed to change the way I worked. A traditional portrait focuses on the face and its expression. I usually set up a controlled environment using light and space and am direct in my approach. A dancer expresses themselves with their entire body so I needed to give Misty more freedom. I told her to take the lead, and was happy to follow. She just did her thing. For me, it was a case of switching off to work subconsciously.

dk: Was that frightening? It sounds like she threw you off kilter.

gd: It wasn't scary at all. It felt like this is exactly how I should go about shooting pictures. It felt normal.

Photo by Gregg Delman.

dk: Even though dance is not your world?

gd: Dance is one of those subjects I know almost nothing about. As I write in my introduction, I went to one ballet in my life, The Nutcracker, and when I was small. But I often take on projects I know nothing about. It's me putting my spin on something.

dk: Did you look at other dance photographs for ideas?

gd: Did I do any research in other words? Yes. I looked and knew right away that I didn't want to make a dance picture per se at all. I always want to make my pictures soulful and intimate. Hopefully, that has come across.

dk: What body of photographic work did prepare you for shooting a dancer like Misty Copeland?

gd: I have always been a fan of street photography and photographers like Bruce Davidson. I used to take street portraits and would follow potential subjects around for a bit until they ended up in a location that appealed to me. Only then I would I ask if I could take their picture. When shooting Misty, I did something similar. She would dance and I would follow and when I saw an image I liked, a pose for instance, I would ask her to recreate it. The lighting and composition came after.

dk: Significantly, you chose to photograph the dancer not on stage or a dance studio but in a series of intimate rooms decorated with gilded mirrors and antique furniture. Why?

gd: I didn't want it to be one dimensional, so every shoot needed to be fresh. I chose the spaces I did because they felt theatrical, which is in tune with ballet.

Photo by Gregg Delman.

dk: At any point during your photography sessions did you realize just how important she would become?

gd: I wish that mattered to me. I really don't know who she became. From the day I met her and until today she has remained the same. She is humble. She is hard working. She is generous. This book would have been just as important to me even if she had never done the Under Armour ads or become a principal dancer. The pictures speak for themselves.

dk: Did you have difficulty convincing others?

gd: When my agent first started shopping this book I don't think people knew who she was. This was about two years ago. I thought this very strange as I thought she was already huge. I thought she was huge the minute I saw her. She showed herself as someone who was somewhere already. I don't know if what I got were rejections or just plain silence. I don't think people had yet caught on. But then Rizzoli clearly did their homework. They understood right away who she was going to be.

dk: What's next for you?

gd: I am not sure right now. There is only one Misty Copeland so trying to find another would be impossible.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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