French photographer Julien Benhamou has a passion for photographing dancers, musicians, and artists of all kinds. His style is crisp and vibrant which makes him an automatic choice for magazine assignments and even giant posters outside the Palais Garnier. His precise and detailed approach could easily make the resulting photos uncommunicative, yet while Benhamou’s work has the sumptuousness of a fashion shoot, it always says something about the subject, essential when his models are professional communicators such as actress Fanny Ardant, journalist and interviewer Bernard Pivot, and the future Paris Opera Ballet boss Benjamin Millepied.
Then there are the dancers, lots of dancers: Marie-Agnes Gillot, Agnes Letestu, Emmanuel Thibault, Mathilde Froustey… the list is a long one.
He started snapping away as a teenager, and was immediately drawn to portrait photography, using family and friends as his subjects.
I was aware that this medium was a great way to interact with people and that’s why I knew from the start that I wanted it to be my job as an adult.
After a period of formal training he became the assistant to two of France’s top photographers: Valerie Belin and François Rousseau. Although Belin’s style is more abstract than Benhamou’s, his portraits have the same cure: perfect lighting and a precise intention. Rousseau, however, seems to have left more of a mark on the young Benhamou (who is only in his early thirties now), with his glamorous and detailed work, maniacaly complex setups and visionary ideas. During this apprentice period Benhamou pursued his love of portraiture.
I like to photograph everyone, but dancers are great models because they are beautiful and they know how to pose: they have elegance in all their moves and that’s very photogenic. Artists in general have strong personalities so they make great models… and they’re inspiring.
Photos of Mathilde Froustey, taken when she was a sujet at the Opéra de Paris. She is currently a Principal with the San Francisco Ballet
Dancers are unique, in that they have the poise and fluidity of movement of a fashion model – ok, much better than most fashion models – but they are also artists and interpreters, concerned about the final result, not just in their role in the process.
They are not only interested in being beautiful in pictures, they want the final product to be creative, the image strong or unusual somehow. That creates a bigger challenge. It is not the case with some other models for whom the most important thing is to be shown at their best.
There is a tendency – just flick through internet ballet forums – to photograph ballerinas wearing tutus in abandoned warehouses, or with their legs wrapped around their ears in train stations, or wedged into strange spaces. Benhamou avoids this cliché.
I try to make photos that represent the world of my model, or what they mean to me. Then I get ideas, and the production comes afterwards. I rent a place to shoot or I go to a location that I like. Finding the right spot is not easy.
With his Nikon D4, and his lighting equipment, he meets with the subject of his photo for, on average, a two-hour session. “I often ask for more than I get,” he says laughing. And then the collaboration begins.
It is always team work. I come with ideas and materials, but I’m very flexible and I like to involve my models in the creative process. I am happy when both the model and I are satisfied with the result.
Dancers from the Opéra de Paris
Though he doesn’t dance himself, he loves theatre and music, going to ballets, musicals and other performances, and listening to all types of music, “Except rap and hard rock!” he says grinning. Benhamou shoots lots of live performances but, interestingly, finds portraits more demanding, even if in the theatre there is no chance of going back, and trying to get that missed shot.
It is all about catching the right moment, but you are showing something that already exists. To make a portrait implies creating an atmosphere.
The Inkörper Company
Of course with dance, as with sports photography, the frozen image can show something that is so fleeting that it can be hard to appreciate, or can even be missed, when seen live. Pirouettes are almost impossible to photograph, with their continual change of direction and velocity, though jumps of all types can be timed more easily and are always striking.
Photography is the art of showing something that you don’t see in real life. Stopping the movement of a dress, or catching someone jumping in the air, makes impressive images.
Benhamou’s fellow countryman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, said,
The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.
It seems that Benhamou is succeeding in doing just that. At thirty-four he has an impressive portfolio, so who would he love to photograph to add to the collection?
Anyone who has an aura.
See more of Julien Benhamou’s photography on his site: www.julienbenhamou.com