The Digital Journalist
Support Your Local Dancers
October 2006

by Peter Howe

Jay Mather has had the kind of career that most young photojournalism students dream about. After picking up a camera during a stint with the Peace Corps in Malaysia in 1969 he got a job with a small weekly paper in Colorado in 1972, moved on to Louisville and the Courier-Journal in 1977, and then to California to join the staff of the Sacramento Bee in 1986, where he is employed to this day. During that time he won a Pulitzer for International Reporting for his work with Joel Brinkley from Cambodia in 1980, received a Robert F. Kennedy Award for coverage of the disadvantaged in 1981, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1991 for a Sacramento Bee project on the centennial of Yosemite National Park. As he says, "Basically I've just been doing day-to-day photojournalism for almost 35 years."

Since 1996, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was a staff photographer for the Sacramento Ballet. For a decade he has faithfully recorded pretty much everything that the company has done in Sacramento, and has provided to them an archive, free of charge, that they can use in programs, promotional materials and as handouts to the media covering their activities. He has been such a regular participant in the dress rehearsals that "it finally got to the point that if I missed one they wondered where the hell I was."

His first contact with the company was when his daughter, who is now 16, auditioned for a part in "The Nutcracker." The ballet has a tradition of using local children in the production, which runs for about two and a half weeks. She was successful in getting a part, and Mather finagled a way though his position at the Bee to go to the theater and photograph her. He had already toured with the Louisville Ballet when he worked for the Courier-Journal, and the intensity and dedication of the dancers appealed to him. It is an admiration that has increased over the years. "I think of ballet dancers as athletes. They're youthful and they have all those qualities that as you get a little older you wish you still had. You admire their flexibility; you admire their strength, their endurance, their commitment to what they're doing. By the time you're 30 you're an old dancer, but these people have been doing it since they were kids, and they still come to the studio every day and go through their two hours of class. Then they do another four or five hours of rehearsal for performance, and throughout it all they don't get perturbed; they maintain a friendly demeanor, they're cordial with each other. They're the most polite people I think I've ever been around."

If it was athleticism and grace of the dancers that first attracted him to the ballet, it is the technical challenges of photographing them that has maintained his fascination with the art. Unlike many other dance photographers, such as Lois Greenfield, Mather shoots only the action on stage, never in a studio. One of the major difficulties with this is the fact that he has to use the existing lighting. This has been created by a Lighting Director whose aim is to produce an environment pleasing to the audience and appropriate for the choreography, not one that is conducive to photography. As a result Mather is often faced with the near impossible task of freezing action at speeds as slow as a 1/60th of a second, and, if he’s in luck, a 1/125th. The light or lack thereof is not the only problem that faces the dance photographer. On the surface it is a subject that has many similarities to sports photography, but Mather points out a significant difference.

"I think it's different from sports because in ballet both the photographer and the dancer have to be perfect at the same time for the picture to work. If you're shooting a football game, a soccer match or a basketball game the photographer's trying to catch peak action but at that point of peak action the players don't have to be in perfect form, whereas in dance if you're trying to capture peak action you'd want the dancer to be in perfect form too. So it's really a combination of the dancer and the photographer coming together at that fraction of a second when everything is perfect. The dancers have always told me that a good photograph of them is neither when they're on their way to the top of a move nor on the way down from it; it's right at that moment. I'm always looking for that moment when they're at the top of their move and I'm taking the picture at the same time."

The advent of digital photography has made the task of shooting dress rehearsals much simpler. For one thing you don't have to change film every 36 frames, and as a result miss a vital piece of action. Sometimes it's possible to photograph a complete performance on one card, and even if this isn't the case, then Mather can always download his camera onto his laptop during an intermission, and start off again with a clean slate.

Why has this photographer spent so much time over so many years working with the ballet pro bono? Well, for one thing, as he points out, it's not a huge investment of time. The company only produces five shows a year, and the dress rehearsal for each only lasts a couple of hours. But the real reason for his commitment is that they need an archive of their work and they have very little money. Although it is a well-established company, having been formed in 1954, it's not much of a moneymaker, and they have trouble making ends meet (one of the dancers is also the local UPS driver!) Mather says, "I'm going on the basis that people in the community need to support the arts, and if you don't support the arts you won't have arts to support. This is one way that I could do something that would actually have some benefit to the company."

With his experience in both Malaysia and Cambodia the photographer has both thought and acted globally. He also recognizes the value of acting locally, and this he does by preserving moments of beauty and grace produced by people who are as dedicated to their craft as he is to photography.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor