Ballet Preljocaj
by Susan Markisz
February 17, 2001

There are no do-overs. 

In real life, we get to learn from our mistakes, and fortunately this holds true for newspaper assignments as well, but, if we don't get it right the first time 'round, we'd better have a good excuse for our editors.

The assignment was the New York premiere of the Ballet Preljocaj. Not  the classical kind with tulle costumed prima donnas,  but rather a modern, passionate, erotic, ferocious and intense dance, the kind that is palpable and awesome to watch, but miserable to shoot, the kind that's almost impossible unless you're shooting at 3200 or 6400 ASA...and therein lies the lesson. 

The editor told me the distance from the stage to the booth was 66 feet. The day before the performance, I called the stage manager and asked a little about the ballet, who said it was "moody...and dark." I knew I was going to be given carte blanche backstage, but I didn't feel that my lenses were going to make a "dark and moody" performance reproduce in the paper. So I rented a 300mm  f2.8 lens.
The dancers were wonderfully tolerant of my itinerant travels from one dressing room to the other, as they put on their makeup and costumes and did warm up stretches backstage. 

The editor had suggested not to shoot too tight.   For most of the performance, I was shooting 800 pushed to 1600 at exposures ranging from wide open to f4 at 1/15th and 1/60th.  Occasionally, I thought I'd nailed peak action at about 1/125th, but I knew I was borderline on the action part. The extreme, blunt and split-second movements were probably the sports equivalent of a basketball game.

In several scenes, the lighting changed so dramatically that even to the naked eye, it took a few seconds to make out the figures on stage. At 1600 my reading was 1/4 second for some scenes. Any movement, even at 3200 would have been nigh impossible. Most of my images didn't show much fluidity or movement, a requisite when shooting dance.

The editor had also told me to concentrate on Paysage Apres la Bataille, which was the title of the entire piece. There were no sequence titles so I photographed each scene, except for one or two during which the ambient light was like a moonless midnight. 

When I got back to the newsroom, I realized that there was not a wealth of images to choose from where the dancers were not a complete blur. That of course, was no surprise to me, given the lighting conditions, but I did have representative pictures of the ballet although many represented the "end of an action" rather than peak action.

That night, I emailed a good friend of mine who is also a wonderful newspaper photographer and a mentor, about the assignment. We rarely see each other, but we often share important or compelling assignments we've done, or imagery we feel is particularly noteworthy, either technically or artistically, or something that has simply touched our souls. "So, the great thing was," I had written, "I got to go backstage and get some fun stuff beforehand. And although the pickings were slim for really great dance photographs, all in all, I was pretty happy with what I had done.

When the picture ran very small a couple of days later on the front page of the Arts section, with a major review, my first thought was:  "Oh well..." 

But then, this all-encompassing internal lambasting took place that really shook me up. My internal dialogue went something like this: "Geez, Susan, you shot way too much film, you rented a lens breaking even on the day, they run a 2 x 2 picture and no backstage shots and then, while editing your film on the light table, the photo that ran in the paper didn't even occur to you. You can't even EDIT!"  Complete self annihilation.

It didn't seem to be an ego thing about the size of the photo or that it was a small picture.  I had this nagging sensation. I knew this was an important review and some little voice inside started telling me it simply wasn't a space issue that lead the editor to run the picture so small. The review mentioned this one scene over and over again, in which I had gotten maybe one usable image. Naturally, this was the scene that I hardly photo graphed. It's probably safe to say I took a few pictures and then waited for it to be over. 

I emailed my buddy again and told him what my "inner critic" had said. He wrote me back:

"OK, repeat after me: 'We are photographers, and the joy is in the seeing, and in the craft of photography.' If I had to use as a yardstick how my photos have been used the last bunch of years in the paper, I would be lying with a gunshot wound to the head.  Life is more fun that that! How editors choose photos and use them matters little to us.  The size of the photo in a newspaper has nothing to do with how well we are doing as photographers. (or the meaning of life). You definitely did the right thing, renting the lens 
so you could shoot the assignment the way it needed to be shot.  And you had a great time, and that's what it's about in the end.  (Unless you are going after that elusive thing called "fame" or some such.  A graven idol, indeed.)  End of sermon."

I felt a little better after reading his email. The following day, an editor of another section called me and told me the arts editor had told him that I had some really nice outtakes from the ballet and he was going to use one in Sunday's paper. "A-ha," I thought, "my pictures couldn't have been that bad."

Wrong.  A couple of days later, I ran into the Arts editor in the newsroom, who, when I said that I had enjoyed shooting the Ballet, remarked that I hadn't given them what they wanted, referring to the assigning editor and the writer.  Gulp.  "In what sense?" I wanted to know.  She asked me if I'd read the review and I told her of course I had. Then I launched into a defensive tactic that I really disliked.  Difficult lighting, dancers that "snap in and out of poses," and "tear with grand whiplash truculence." I quoted from reviewer Anna Kisselgoff, virtually impossible to photograph, I maintained. Though the writer described many scenes for which I had photographs, I didn't have the ones she wanted. 

The Arts editor suggested I review my take again. In hindsight, I might have rated my film at 3200.  It's still doubtful that I'd have stopped the grand whiplash action the reviewer described.  In some of the more brightly lit scenes, I could have stopped down and increased my shutter speed, possibly capturing a little more movement. My pictures were fairly static and didn't describe the vitality of the piece. Hindsight is 20/20. But there are no excuses.  And there are no do-overs.

Two or more of the following statements may be true: This is a manic business.  I need to develop a thicker skin.  And I think I need a shrink.

Susan B. Markisz
February, 2001

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