Rick Guest is a photographer who’s highly polished style has led him to work with some of the biggest international brand names – Nike, Ferrari, BMV – yet he fell into photography by chance.
I was between jobs and had a friend who was a model booker. She had some new guys starting out and asked if I wanted to take some shots of the for their folios. A bit of beginner’s luck and they came out ok, but it was the first time in my life I had actually made something… these being the ancient days of developing film and making prints! I was instantly hooked.
Luck started the motor but talent kept it running. Now he has two limited-edition large-format books out – The Language of the Soul and What Lies Beneath – featuring dancers. What attracts him to dance?
I like the idea of being able to capture a fleeting moment, to freeze an act and in doing so, reveal something previously unseen. It’s also amazing to stand so close to these incredible artists and athletes, at the peak of their powers. In some ways photography is just a great excuse to see them perform in such intimate surroundings. It’s the best part of the “job”.
Guest’s books show dancers in a neutral environment, the studio, usually without props or extravagant costumes. This is his world. He doesn’t shoot performances in the theatre.
It just doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in trying to make something new, something collaborative. Documenting a performance, as important as that is for history’s sake, allows me little in terms of self-expression, and all I capture is what anyone sitting in the stalls can see.
The Language of the Soul contains photos of Edward Watson, Tamara Rojo, Marianela Nuñez, Steven McRae, Sarah Lamb, Sergei Polunin, Zenaida Yanowsky, Nehemiah Kish and Melissa Hamilton and includes portraits of Wayne McGregor, Kevin O’Hare, Liam Scarlett and Christopher Wheeldon, with a foreword by Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet.
I have deliberately turned away from using photography to document dance as it’s staged for the audience and I have concentrated on the bringing together of three separate disciplines, that of photography, fashion and dance, in an attempt to create something new and singular.
The second book, What Lies Beneath, features dancers from The Royal Ballet, The English National Ballet, The Richard Alston Dance Company, The Dresden Semperoper, The Royal Danish Ballet and Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, with dancers such as Alban Lendorf, Tamara Rojo, Sergei Polunin, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, Zenaiada Yanowsky, Edward Watson, Olivia Cowley, Nehemiah Kish, Hikaru Kobayashi, Federico Bonelli, and Yuhui Choe. Quite a line-up. The English National Ballet Director, Tamara Rojo, has written an introduction.
I wanted to make a series of portraits of the dancers themselves, as opposed to dancers dancing, to show the character that underpins their performance, to see the determination and sacrifice that it takes to succeed at such a high level.
In an art form that deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation, we are not meant to see behind the curtain, but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being. These portraits are at once beautiful and brutal.
An official photographer for the London Olympics, Guest loves the challenge of capturing movement, one of photography’s strengths yet often difficult to achieve.
You learn great timing, you learn to feel the shot coming more than see it and you also get to learn all the technical tricks to be able freeze fast motion. You learn the rules, and then how to judiciously break them.
By breaking the rules Guest lets emotion seep in, unfortunately something often lacking in dance photography, yet ballet it is an art where emotions help to define movement.
The contrast between the black and white athleticism of The Language of the Soul and the largely still, almost lonely, colour portraits in What Lies Beneath, is striking. The first book contains the performer, the second the person. Guest has not photoshopped his subjects to hair-commercial glossiness, but lets them speak through the experience that has marked their faces and bodies… even their dance apparel. It’s a warts-and-all approach which these dancers were intelligent enough to understand and allow: the honesty of the true artist which allows him to communicate through artifice.
Dancers’ lives are so dictated; constantly scheduled and choreographed. All repetition and discipline. So when they come into my studio, I start by asking them what they would like to do, to which the reply is invariably, “Well, what do you want me to do?”. And we have this back and forth as they get their heads around the freedom. Like all artists, they are insecure and vain, and things can often start off slowly, but of course they are performers first and foremost, and can use any vulnerability to their advantage, to give me something. And ultimately this is what I end up capturing, a gift that they have chosen to give me.
I usually discuss the nature of what I would like the shot to feel like, whether it’s a beautiful gracefulness or a look that sums up years of sacrifice, but I want the end result to be the thing that happens in the space between us, something collaborative. I want all the shots I take to be portraits.
Shooting a collection of photographs for a book or exhibition means that there will be an overall look, a mood, a thread that links all the photographs together, but flexibility is vital.
It’s always discussed with the dancers before we shoot, I’m not interested in completely stamping my vision onto the final image; why would you choose to ignore an artist in front of you with years of experience doing what they do?
Of course, a good group of photos doesn’t come about by chance so planning is required, but not so much as to kill spontaneity.
Preparation is really important; when I first started out I would storyboard everything and have all my shots done in my head already. But as the years passed, I found I would miss what was in front of me by trying to force a shot that just wasn’t working, and being open to the happy accidents and sometimes following the rabbit down the hole leads to much better results. It’s nice to be surprised, but you have to be open to it.
It’s the same as it is for a dancer, or in fact any profession, the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert, it’s years of practice that pay off in a moment. People are always surprised that when the “muse” arrives, she’s wearing boots and overalls and closely resembles hard work! You have to put the hours in to hone any skill set.
Having the instinct and experience maybe essential, but having the right gear helps too… Guest uses some impressive gear!
I shoot on a Phase One camera for portraits, as I tend to blow these up very big and the quality is phenomenal, and for the action shots I tend towards Canon gear, 1Ds mark 3’s.
Google ‘Phase One’ and goggle at the prices! Of course, capturing your image with the best possible resolution for the finest detail gives you a great deal of flexibility over what you can do with the image, but…
Ultimately, it’s very easy to get caught up in the technical stuff, but a great image is a great image, it can be shot on your phone and printed on a photocopier. Pictures are taken with your head; you just need some kind of box with a hole in it to record it! The technical aspect of any camera is there to be used as a further expression of what you’re trying to show, trying to say.
Guest is a quick worker, so when the dancer arrives the shoot will last only between ten minutes and half an hour.
A dancer’s time is precious and invariably short, so we talk about it, we shoot it, we go home. You know when you’ve got it, I try not to waste the dancer’s time, so hopefully there’ll be a next time.
Having started out with film where reviewing the shot wasn’t possible, and connecting the camera to a computer during a shoot wasn’t even a gleam in the photographer’s eye, means that he can up the pace during a studio session as he doesn’t need to constantly consult the last shot. Much like a ballet class, where the teacher who pauses to talk too much between exercises causes the class to lose momentum, it is important to maintain a good rhythm to get the most out of your subject.
I believe a digital workflow can hurt your instincts and allow for second guessing yourself. Your mistakes need to hurt, either your pride or your wallet, so you don’t miss things the second time around. I find being decisive makes the dancers respond to your confidence with their performance.
And the results can be seen. Although the dancers in these two books make an outstanding group, and Guest has photographed many more, there are others – Sylvie Guillem, Carlos Acosta, Mikhail Baryshnikov – who remain on his wish list.
But I tend to shoot fairly democratically, you just never know what someone’s going to give you… and it’s often in the least expected places.
His upcoming show What Lies Beneath will be held at the Hospital Club Gallery in London’s Covent Garden. It will be open from the 22nd through to the 31st of January 2016, from 10-6pm.
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.