There are thousands, millions, of dance photos scattered around the net, and most of the best come from just a handful of photographers. We know their copyright watermarks, we know their style, we read their names, but know relatively little about the people behind the lens.
Jack Devant is one of those names, with his white ballet shoe logo preceding it, and although he is reticent to reveal anything about his personal life, in this interview with Gramilano he was more than willing to share the details of his working life: his technique, his approach, his aims.
He started snapping away when he was a child:
I was about 9 or 10 years old, in the '70s, shooting with black and white film and developing in the darkroom.
My father was an amateur photographer and opened up this new world for me. Later, in high school, I used to earn some extra money by shooting parties and events at school, and selling prints.
His early entrepreneur spirit stayed with him,
I've been in internet, marketing and IT related businesses; I actually have an MBA from my technical and business education. I started to shoot ballet later, after selling some of my companies.
So why ballet?
I have been a balletomane for about 20 years, visiting, if not all, many of the famous opera houses in Europe, the USA and Russia, and with a pretty large ballet DVD collection stored in my home media server.
No publicity, fashion, landscapes?
No, currently I'm very focused only on ballet photography. As an exception, I shot my best friend's wedding recently, but it was my only wedding shoot ever. Also, when I visit different cities I shoot street-life, but only for myself.
Ballet has taken over. Devant enjoys skiing and mountain biking, but his ballet photography leaves very little time for other activities. So why did he choose to leave a lucrative business career and tread the rockier paths of the arts world?
I simply felt that loving and knowing the ballet and my mastery of photography combined could be something valuable for many people around the world. I probably wanted to share this miracle with other people and nowadays, with the internet and social media, there is a much more effective way of communication than by selling a few coffee-table books.
So how to get started as a ballet photographer? Not so easy. Snapping little girls in their end of year show might be one method, moving on to dance academies and then professionals, but Devant dived in at the deep end:
I was a total outsider when I started and it was quite complicated task to get into opera houses just to start a portfolio. With time, theatres started to accept and later use my work. And then they started to invite me to dress rehearsals and premières. So, the beginning was pretty slow, but the pace is speeding up!
Many ballet photographers are dancers themselves, which has some obvious advantages, above all-knowing the right moment to release the shutter to capture an elegant line, the maximum extension during a jump, a stretched foot… how many photos are there splashed over the internet where one wonders how they got out of the company's press office! Dancers have to trust in the photographer's knowledge and capability because sometimes he is the only real filter between their performance and its representation in the media.
To make sure that the wrong shot doesn't get through, he chooses the best images as he sees them, and then to double-check has a ballet instructor look through them to weed out any bent knees or raised shoulders that have got away, only then will he go on to post-processing and send the results to the client.
Devant is passionate about the whole process and finds it difficult to apply the label ‘work' to what he does,
I enjoy this life a lot and consider it more like a lifestyle, a hobby, a privilege.
Ballet companies are renovating their marketing and social media like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram are all important tools, as well as the traditional media: newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Apart from the last of these, they all require images, moving and not, and in high quality, to act as publicity for a particular ballet, and, as internet images are not thrown away, a cumulative database of images which will represent (and sell) the company in the future.
They also need quality images for archiving for future generations, and I shoot for programmes and posters too. Some theatres are putting lot of effort in producing good-looking programmes, as part of the ballet experience.
It is taken for granted that when a ballet opens there will soon be photos to see… and share! But how does that work exactly?
Companies invite me to fly over and shoot main rehearsals, performances and gala concerts. Usually I fly to the designated city the same day, check into the hotel, eat well, rest and then shoot the performance.
Later in the hotel, I import photos from the memory cards to my portable workstation, backup everything to an external drive and pick some “quick” photos from the performance for immediate social media publishing.
Some events are longer, like the leading ballet festival Dance Open 2014 in St Petersburg. I stayed in St Petersburg the whole week and shot masterclasses, backstage, rehearsals and performances. I shot about 7,000 frames during the week. Sometimes I get three really good photos from a three-hour performance, sometimes 25.
Now if you are only interested in the end result you can skip the next paragraph, but if, like me, you are curious about how it's all done, the next few lines are the equivalent of the extras on a DVD…
Devant's equipment is no secret, you can see it all photographed and labelled on his site, and for photography buffs it might be surprising to see a Sony a99 at the centre of his kit bag:
I made a quite unusual choice and picked a full-frame Sony a99 as the platform for my work. Many Canikon fans are quite astonished, but they understand quickly when I explain.
Firstly, the Sony has a fixed mirror – SLT – design, so it is so much quieter because of it lacks the mirror “clack”, there is only the shutter noise which is less disturbing and almost totally eliminated by a camera muzzle I use during performances.
Secondly, the Sony is a 100% live view EVF [electronic viewfinder] camera so I can see the end result in real-time. Stage lighting is very challenging, but using the viewfinder and not the LCD display I can ‘pre-proof' the shot. Besides which, a LCD display is distracting during a performance so I leave it switched off at all times.
Last, but not least, Zeiss makes fast and sharp prime lenses for Sony, like the 80mm F1.4 and 135mm F1.8, very capable for low-light shooting. I also use a Zeiss 24-70 F2.8 for backstage work and the Sony 70-200mm G2 F2.8 and Sony 300mm F2.8 for performances, supported by a Sirui carbon monopod.
So now you know; let's get back to the main feature!
Devant has arrived at the theatre, he has all his equipment, but there are many more considerations; some of which are quite surprising.
The first part of my shooting technique is discreetness: shoot quietly, don't move around a lot, dress in dark colours, switch off the AF assist light [auto focus – that orange light which always irritates people] and LCD. Use silent mode and a camera muzzle during the performance. Arrive last, leave early. In short – be invisible.
An important aspect is to know the piece. Usually I study it prior to a shoot at home and during my travel to destination.
Lastly, your photos have to be in compliance with the vision of the stage and costume designers: if they have conceived a light, pale and airy palette, then you can't oversaturate or make it to look super-clear during post-processing.
Being at the service of the piece, and not trying to overlay it with your own vision, is vitally important. The over-ambitious television director who whizzes around the stage with mini-cameras, places cameras above the dancers' heads, and uses fidgety editing, leaves the viewer with absolutely no idea of what the performers were doing or of the shape of the piece. It is the same with stills: not being in the theatre we want to see how the work looks on stage or, if we were present, to have a reminder of what we saw.
A theatre provides the photographer with the models, clothing, set design and lighting which might seem like a huge advantage, except that it does it on its own terms because (usually) there is no possibility for changing the lighting – which normally means increasing the lighting – or going back and repeating a sequence, as one would with a studio shoot.
You have to be 100% concentrated during a two or three-hour performance, usually standing still toward the back of the theatre. Lighting can be very problematic: some very beautiful acts, like the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère, are so poorly lit that you have to work outside the capabilities of your camera.
Lighting also differs between theatres, so in some I have to shoot a whole performance at ISO 6400 and make compromises between aperture and shutter, depending on my particular need. My Zeiss 135mm F1.8 has a quite shallow depth of field if I shoot scenes full open, so I have to work continuously changing settings in real-time.
Let me translate! If you have a wide aperture to let more light into the camera (needed for those dark scenes) you have a shallow depth of field, which means that if your principal dancers are in focus then the corps behind them may not be. Just take my word for it as this is no place to explain the laws of optics. Of course, this may be a desirable effect: an in-focus Myrtha while the Willis are just fuzzy, ghostly shapes behind her. But sometimes you need to cut down on the light coming into the camera in order to have everything in focus, but with less light you gain more noise, that is, all the disturbance in a photo which makes the blacks more greyish, and lines less defined. And another thing, if someone is moving quickly (which ballet dancers are in a habit of doing) you have to quicken your shutter speed so they are not just a blur, and so again there is less light entering the camera. It's a choice, sometimes an artistic one, sometimes a practical one, but the photographer needs to be quick-witted and continually focused… and focused!
I always shoot simultaneously to two SD cards as a guarantee [SD cards store the photos – so it's a disaster if one malfunctions], and again, the last thing I want to do is to spoil someone's performance experience with my camera noise, so I shoot less, I skip piano adagios and I shoot single shots only. Shooting live ballet performance is quite demanding and special task.
Photographing operas may be easier technically as they are more static, but certainly a good ballet photograph can be spectacular.
There is a fundamental problem with shooting ballet: dance is movement; photography is still! Indeed, there are different approaches to show the movement – using a slower shutter speed to deliberately add motion blur, for example – but ballet is also about poses and positions. It´s so much easier to shoot classical ballet than contemporary and capture the beauty of classical poses. Then again, these poses have to be perfect – but they are never absolutely perfect.
Contemporary style leaves more freedom to express emotions. Classical ballet is such an old discipline, developed over 270 years, that I always must consult with experienced classical ballet pedagogues about my photos, prior to publishing. Your photos will be forever on the internet and nobody likes to see poor lines. A well-executed photo makes choreographers, dancers, and indeed lots of people interested about ballet, happy!
The internet! What does Devant feel about so much of his work being shared and re-shared on Facebook and in fan blogs where he doesn't get a penny from their use?
Social media is good thing and a photographer can't be too rigid over this matter. Low and medium resolution web-quality photos in the internet is just great as an advertisement for the photographer.
The world is changing and I believe the whole copyright system in the digital world will be revamped over the next 5 to 10 years. I always wonder why photographers release super-small photos with watermarks everywhere; it just spoils the photo and doesn't even show what the photographer is capable of.
In general, sharing ballet photos in social media, Pinterest and other social tagging sites does good for ballet culture, and also for ticket revenues!
Devant has photographed the Matvienkos, Ivan Vasiliev, Iana Salenko, Lucia Lacarra, Matthew Golding, Friedemann Vogel, Vladimir Malakhov, Ulyana Lopatkina, Isabelle Ciaravola, Tamara Rojo, Johan Kobborg and many others. Who does he want to be next on the list?
I haven't shot Svetlana Zakharova yet, the prima, She is someone I really admire.
So who does he admire of that handful of ballet photographers out there?
The first ballet photographer who inspired me was Gene Schiavone and I really love the bold style of Erwin Olaf, shooting mainly the HET Nationale, but my favourite ballet-specialized photographers live and work in St Petersburg. I admire the work of Nikolay Krusser, Mark Olich and Sasha Gouliaev; they all have different styles and artistic approaches, never standing still… always searching for fresh angles.
Is Jack Devant searching for a fresh angle?
My current style is pretty much just documenting, freezing the beauty that is already in the ballet. I merely select and emphasize the best if this. I'm not adding any of my own creativity.
I believe that this is going to change in the future. I am probably going to add a tad of my own sauce and spices. But only a tad.
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.