This is a VERY special edition of Avant-Exposure. It contains 3 prolific photographs (the featured photo included) of the Los Angeles Ballet, and a detailed interview with photographer Matt Fry. Please enjoy and take a further look at Los Angeles Ballet’s future productions and Fry’s past and present photographic work!
California has taken the dance world by storm for over a century. With the beginnings of modern dance to the present with LA Dance Project, ballet, as well, has permanently wedged itself into California’s cool vibe with such historic companies as San Francisco Ballet and Sacramento Ballet.
It is in this present era that the Los Angeles Ballet (created in 2004) lives and works. They frequently perform works from Sonya Tayeh, Balanchine, and, recently, Kylián. I am excited to see what they have to offer in the coming years, perhaps a partnership with one of the universities that offer dance degrees around Los Angeles?
And it is in L.A. that a wonderful professional photographer, Matt Fry, lives and works as well. I trailed Matt Fry through a mutual friend and have been following his portrait sets for a while now. But, I was most taken when earlier in October he produced hauntingly beautiful and soft photographs of LAB’s Swan Lake production.
I’ve seen hundreds of Swan Lake photographs from hundreds of companies and dozens of versions. But these photographs by Fry of LAB speak of an artistic era that has since seen its rise and fall. Not to mention, a fresh eye from a professional artist who happens to be an essential “outsider” to the ballet world.
Most of the contemporary dance photographs try to capture a hyper-reality of movement, and with advance SLR/DSLR cameras, the technique of capturing dance has left the grainy, ghosts of the past behind. The work of Louis Greenfield to Rosalie O’Connor, for example, are incredible and important to archiving dance today, but they belong entirely in the world of digital photography; crisp, direct, definite.
But I appreciate and find importance in both forms of dance photography. That is why I am featuring Matt Fry’s “Swan Corps” photographs with such distinction and praise.
There is a traditional softness that only film can allow and an artistic eye can capture in these three photographs. They reflect that classic softness of Swan Lake with whispers of movement from the swan corps, and none of the blaring digital clarity or sensationalism of Odette or Odile in their iconic, overdone poses.
The interview that follows these photographs is also another way for me to promote Fry’s style and that of “traditional” dance photography.
Who are you and What do you do?
My name is Matt Fry. I live in Los Angeles with my beautiful wife, and our three dogs. I’m a film photographer, best known for my intimate female portraiture.
Who and/or What artistically inspires you?
People inspire me; more specifically, women inspire me.
When I photograph someone, I usually don’t care so much about the photos. It’s more about the conversation, and everything else follows. I have no desire to make someone look pretty, I want to get to know them. I want real, and I feel there’s so much more beauty in that.
There is no greater photographic tool than the trust of two people and the willingness to put it all on the line. At its best, the image becomes secondary, and the moment is all that matters.
For shooting movement: Film or digital? Or both?
I only shoot film, I don’t own a digital camera other than my iPhone. I found that I liked using my Rolleiflex best for a performance, its twin lens or TLR camera from the 50’s. It gave me a decent speed of 1/500 of a second for faster movements, but also allowed me to shoot at slower shutter speeds to get some motion blur.
The TLR has a viewing lens, and a taking lens beneath it. Most new cameras are SLR or DSLR which have a mirror that flaps as the shutter is fired; causing the camera to shake and blur at slow shutter speeds. This lack of mirror made the Rolleiflex perfect for how I wanted to capture dance. Actually, if you look at the famous knockout photo of Mohammed Ali and Sonny Liston, you’ll see a sports photographer in the background with a Rolleiflex. It also shoots on medium format film; giving me a bigger negative, allowing for beautifully large film prints
How did you get involved with Los Angeles Ballet?
I was looking for performances in Los Angeles that were coming up, and I saw Los Angeles Ballet was doing Swan Lake. I didn’t know much about the show or the company, but I knew it would be beautiful. I got in contact with Julie, the Executive Director, and submitted my request for press pass. To my surprise, she graciously accepted and allowed me the choice of a performance or a dress rehearsal. They were all incredibly kind and just let me do my thing.
What were your honest thoughts/knowledge/feelings on ballet before your session with LAB?
I’m actually quite new to ballet, and dance in general. Earlier this year, without having ever really danced in my life, I began taking modern dance classes at Santa Monica College. I had started watching dance on tv with my wife, Kenz, and I really connected with modern. Still though, I had no desire and not much knowledge for ballet. My instructor, Seda Aybay, told me that if I wished to progress I should look into one of their ballet classes; as ballet was where everything came from. So with the terrified thought of myself in tights, I began to take ballet classes with Cynthia Molnar at the college. I would have never believed you if you had told me, but I quickly fell in love with ballet. The history, the dedication, the beauty in the simplest movements; I truly fell in love with ballet.
You photographed one of the most iconic ballets, Swan Lake, and I love the freshness these photographs provide. While shooting, did you think about capturing the ballet, Swan Lake, or were you capturing the dancers, particularly the swan corps?
I didn’t know much at all about Swan Lake, other than what Hollywood and Natalie Portman had taught me a few years ago. I went online and watched the full length version performed by the Australian Ballet so that I would have an idea of what to expect in the acts. I soon found out that this version didn’t prepare me at all.
I really just went into this trying to capture the beauty of the movement as best I could. My style and what I was looking for drew me to the Swans of act II and IV. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen.
While photographing Swan Lake, did you run into any photographic problems you’ve never faced before?
To be honest, I really had no idea what I was doing. During act I, I remember thinking, ‘what am I doing, I can’t photograph dance.’ I even thought about just ducking out and leaving.
The day before, I actually googled, “How to photograph dance.” I had never shot action before, so I was primarily looking to see how the movement looked at different shutter speeds. I shoot only film, so there’s no looking and adjusting while I’m there. Another tradeoff is that I only had one shot at a time, unlike the rapid fire DSLRs of today that catch everything. This meant I had to feel the music and stay with the movement as best I could. Because of this, I felt I was much more in tune with the dancers and I think that helped.
One last thing I learned was to bring extra cameras or an assistant! It’s a nightmare trying to quickly load film in the dark while you’re missing all of the action.
Your portrait work is spectacular and intensely intimate, would you be interested in doing portraits of dancers? And what surprised you about the dancers in LAB?
Thank you very much! And yes, absolutely. I just did a shoot with Allyssa Bross at the LAB studios. It was incredible to be able to work with someone so talented. It’s moments like that that you realize how lucky you are as a photographer.
I don’t know that anything surprised me, but I will say that everyone with Los Angeles Ballet has been incredibly kind and open. I never thought that they would even let me shoot, but I figured why not take the chance. And I’m so grateful that I did, and grateful that they said yes! Now all I can think about is how to get to Saint Petersburg.
One piece of advice for all artists:
Mess up. Take chances. Be open to what moves you and be willing to put your heart and your soul on the line. Honesty in work is what moves people. There is great strength and beauty in being vulnerable.
More on Matt Fry:
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