He wasn’t a photographer at that time, but his friendship with the headquarters combat photographer led to his interest in capturing images on film.
One day I went to the PX (post exchange) to buy a camera. I wanted a Nikon like my friends, but all they had were Canons. So I bought one and I still have it! And I still shoot with Canon Cameras.
Richard was trained as an architect, and was in Vietnam to design and construct “things”, as he says, not to shoot a gun, but not to shoot with a camera either.
As I got more interested and experienced at photography I was able to get my job changed to Combat Photographer. As such I photographed projects we were building throughout the country to furnish documentation for reports. I also covered ceremonies and special “events”. It was a great experience and it gave me a strong foundation in photography.
Architecture and business
Coming home from the war, however, saw him return to architecture designing schools, churches, and college buildings for ten years, though also taking pictures of the projects for marketing. Then he left architecture to take over the management of a sporting goods franchise business, tripling the number of stores and starting a clothing line.
I took a few pictures of models for our clothing catalog but not of really high quality.
With this management experience under his belt he was recruited by a software company to build their marketing. The company grew and started a European division. Richard became president of several divisions including the European division, and eventually sold his stake and retired.
I did not stay retired, but a few years and started another business which I then sold in 2008. Now I am truly retired.
Yes, and no, because in retirement his hobby became yet another job as photography began to take over. However, he wasn’t photographing buildings or landscapes this time, but dancers.
Becoming a dance photographer
Richard’s daughter grew up going to ballet school, and his wife had also danced, and continues to work with local ballet companies, particularly in marketing.
As a father of a ballerina I was exposed to her dance education. Specifically, it became my duty to take her to ballet class or pick her up from class. I would sit and watch… for years. Eventually, I was recruited by my wife to help the ballet company where my daughter took class. I joined the board and started raising money and marketing the company. Boy, did I learn a lot about the challenges of art organizations.
During this time he became interested in video and made videos of all of the performances and rehearsals, and enjoyed editing it all together. Strangely, he did almost no still photography during this period.
I never took a single still photo of my daughter dancing….
His daughter grew up and danced professionally for one year and then decided she wanted to go to college, while his wife stayed involved in ballet company marketing.
In 2005 my wife asked me to take some still photos of dancers for a brochure. I used my video lights! I had no clue what I was doing but I managed to get a few decent shots. That is how it started, and when I retired in 2008 I started shooting dancers seriously!
And with a great deal of success. Like most dance photographers, it is the extreme movement that he tries to capture, those feats of athleticism and extreme positions which so few are capable of. The “wow” factor of a shot is a combination of the dancer’s prowess and the photographer’s eye.
I guess I am an “action” photographer. Dancers move so that is what I try to capture. I try to make them look good as dancers! Since a picture can last forever, I want the dancer to be proud of what he or she has accomplished with me. My work with dancers is truly a partnership with the dancers. We work together to create our “art.”
Capturing movement, capturing the moment
However dancers move, and sometimes their movements are fast, which is a challenge to a photographer.
Shutter speed is important. Outside I usually have enough light to stop the action, and in the studio my strobes are 1/1200 of a second which almost stops most action.
Richard Calmes does much of his work outside or in a studio, as well as photographing performances for ballet companies.
A typical studio shoot takes about 2 hours to set up and 2 hours to take down. I shoot in dance studios where the floors are proper shock absorbing and there are dressing rooms and costumes. Dancers are very comfortable in a dance studio since they have probably spent more waking time there than at home.
I store most of my equipment at a local dance studio. I have hauled all of it to New York City and to Los Angeles on occasion but mainly I shoot in the Southeastern United States. I plan my shoots – I am an architect! – I make little stick figure drawings of poses. These serve as starting points because the dancers and I are a team. Almost always the dancers have ideas to make my vision better. Since I shoot tethered to a laptop, we can review the images as we make them and make changes.
Richard is a meticulous planner, and the results can be seen in his work.
A typical outdoor shoot takes a lot of planning and usually a pre-shoot trip for photos. Some things I consider are permits, sun location during the day, parking, bathrooms where dancers can change costumes.
I usually have an assistant especially outside. Outside shooting requires more planning and the weather can stop a month of planning! I prefer to shoot in studio where I have more control.
The camera doesn’t lie, but Photoshop can
Post production is an important part of the photographer’s art, using software to enhance the original image. This once happened in the darkroom too, in the days of film, to increase contrast, reduce shadows, intensify colour. Some use this possibility to manipulate the original image and create fantasy world; others use modern software to create a realistic-looking photograph out of something that was never there – change a background, lift the dancer further from the floor, even change the shape of a muscle and enhance the arch of the foot. The camera doesn’t lie, but Photoshop can. This is not an option for Richard.
All of my shots are real. I do not composite dancers into settings. If a dancer is in the street in Times Square, they really are on the street in Times Square. However, I do enhance those shots to make the dancer look better.
I do quite a bit of work in Photoshop in post production, usually from 30 minutes to an hour on a typical studio shot. My years on the drawing board as an architect working in ink prepared me for a lot of tedious work. I actually enjoy the post process and I shoot knowing what I am going to do in post.
Loving dancers, loving dance
The key to being a good dance photographer is loving dance and dancers, this must be at the centre of the photo-making process. A dance photographer must have the courage to reject that wonderful shot because the dancer wouldn’t be happy with a particular position. Magazine editors are capable of choosing a photo which results in a great spread, but makes dancers cringe: a leg not having reached, or returning from, its maximum extension; a pointe which is neither up nor down; a shoulder raised; an odd facial expression. The smallest imperfection can ruin an otherwise great dance photo… fashion shoots are far simpler.
I wish to show what dancers have spent a lifetime learning to do. Their beauty and their athleticism is my main focus.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.