Ken Browar and Deborah Ory – the husband-and-wife team behind the NYCDance Project – have their second dance photography book coming out next week: The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance.
Their first, which went on to be a best-seller, was The Art of Movement, which came out three years ago. While their particular style remains their signature, the approach is a little different in the new book, which sees dancers wearing fashion garments and costumes. I asked Deborah about how this changed the tone of the photos.
The first book was really only focused on dance. As this latest book is supposed to be about the relationship between dance and fashion, it naturally led to images that were more theatrical and dramatic.
But your use of a unifying background remains.
By using a background that is similar throughout the book, we tried to keep the focus on the dancer and the garments they are wearing and moving in. We love the simplicity of the background and how it helps to frame the dancer, allowing for no distracting elements in the background.
The clothes that the background ushers toward the camera include couture gowns from Dior, Valentino, and Oscar de la Renta, together with vintage pieces from Halston, Moschino, and Bill Blass, and there are some spectacular costumes designed by Martha Graham.
I spent many, many hours researching clothing and trying to figure out what would work best for dance and movement. The focus was on clothing that I felt would either enhance the movement or expression of the dancer, while still remaining timeless in its style. We did not want pieces that specifically looked like they were from today’s collections, making it more of a contemporary fashion journal, and that’s why we included so many vintage and timeless pieces.
And then there are those glorious Martha Graham costumes!
So glad you like the Martha Graham costumes! I had always thought of Martha Graham as one of the early connections between fashion and dance. The costumes themselves were integral to the choreography. She collaborated with so many fashion designers – including Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan and more. Many designers, including one of our favourites – Maria Grazia Chiuri from Dior – list Martha Graham as an inspiration to them.
Martha Graham also designed many of her own costumes – including the ones we photographed from Night Journey, which are truly spectacular on stage. Martha and her dancers used to sew the costumes themselves in the early days of the company.
So you’ve chosen the clothing – how did you choose the dancers?
I’ve always just picked dancers that I enjoy watching. We see dance all the time and are always looking for dancers we are interested in collaborating with. There are many more that I would like to work with, but it’s harder with the international dancers; we have to wait until they come to NYC, or travel to take the photos. It was really a pleasure to be able to include many of the same dancers from the first book. Our shoots always seem easier when we are working with someone for the second time.
How did you arrive at the movements that suited each outfit – the position seen in the final photograph?
This collaboration takes place on the set with the dancer. It would have been impossible for us to instruct the dancer on what movement would be best with each garment; rather we liked to watch them move for a while and see where the magic happened! After we all had an understanding of what works best for both the dancer and the design of the clothing, we worked to refine and perfect each image.
Elegance is the Browar and Ory fingerprint. Beautifully orchestrated photographs with great cure taken over every aspect of the composition and presentation, be it the lighting, the makeup, the clothes or the technical perfection to capture the moment. Ken Browar is a fashion and beauty photographer, though his passion for dance began when he was living in Paris and photographed dancers for the Paris Opera Ballet. Deborah Ory set out her photography career while she was injured as a dancer and started snapping away during rehearsals, later working as a photo editor as well as shooting editorial work for leading magazines. An eye for detail is part of their make-up.
Ken and I work together to create a unified voice. Ken is a master with lighting and spends so much time perfecting the light on each shoot. He lights everyone a little differently to find their best angles.
I also believe that working in the studio and spending a lot of time on each photograph allows us to explore the images in more depth. We work on making what we believe are a few very strong photographs, rather than producing lots of quick imagery.
The lighting is exquisite. How much of the final look is planned?
We can’t really preplan the lighting, that’s one of the things that has to happen in the moment. We certainly have to see how the poses work, how the dancer looks best, how the material picks up the light. It helps to be a team of two, so we each can focus on different elements during the shoot.
Are you trying to create atmospheres with the lighting, or is your primary aim to produce a beautiful look?
Our main goal with the lighting is always to set the mood and feeling of the images. With this book, the fashion served to influence the mood and we needed the lighting to reflect this. The lighting affects everything about the way the viewer looks at the image. Dark, dramatic lighting gives a completely different feel than stronger, brighter light. It all has to work together – the lighting, the movement, the clothing, etc., for the image to really work.
It must be a long process to arrive at that final image.
We can be quick when we need to. When we worked with Xander Parish, he stopped by our studio on his way to the airport to catch a flight to Russia, so we certainly had to work fast! But generally it took time for the shoots – the more we could have, the better. Dancers are such perfectionists and we are also. The combination of that, along with the unknown element of how the clothing will fit and move, could make our shoots for this book take several hours! Sometimes we could work all day on getting one specific image.
Ken and Deborah have a photographic studio in their home, which is a large loft in an old factory building in Brooklyn. A sad event became almost poetic in relation to the book.
The photos were all taken in our NYC studio. One week after we sent the book to Italy to be printed, we had a fire in the studio. The space was completely destroyed, although we were very lucky to save our computers and all of our files. It’s going to take some time to repair the studio.
There was something very symbolic about it though, having a fire after so much intense work being done in that space. It felt like there was a sense of closure to the project that was very final. So the book feels very special because of this – a big part of the creation of these photos was the space. I’m feeling that we will start to work in locations more from now on, and our work will change and evolve to a different place.
So Deborah, confess… some of those tulle gowns look delicate – any rips during the shooting?
Actually none! It was my biggest nightmare, as most of the pieces are one-of-a-kind and very valuable; we even got some of the vintage Valentino dresses from a museum. But luckily none got damaged, mainly because we were very, very careful!
In his foreword to The Style of Dance, Valentino writes,
I have always designed thinking about the movement of the woman wearing the dress—where would she wear it, how would she move in it, and what does it mean to her. A dress should never be designed just to be viewed from just one angle; movement must be considered in an entire 360-degree point of view.
Wearing clothing is about expressing emotion—just the way dance is. Dancers have a remarkable elegance with the way they hold their bodies: they truly carry a dress with the gentlest touch; a way that allows the dress to have freedom to move and be and carry the emotion of the movement. I have loved collaborating with dancers throughout my career because the movement of a dancer brings life to my designs.
And Ken Browar and Deborah Ory’s new book is bursting with life: 175 glorious photographs celebrating dance and dancers, fashion and style.
THE STYLE OF MOVEMENT: FASHION AND DANCE by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory
Foreword by Valentino / Introduction by Pamela Golbin
Hardcover / 10” x 12 ½” / 304 pages / 175 colour & b/w photographs
$75.00 U.S. / $100.00 Canadian / £55.00 U.K.
© The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, Rizzoli New York, 2019.