Jordan Matter

Matter, in the air, getting the shot he needs in Times Square

Making dancers look good

When photographer Jordan Matter first asked a group of Paul Taylor Dance Company members if he could photograph them around New York City—running to catch the subway mid-grand jeté, hailing a cab with a levitating leap—he had no idea what kind of interest his pet project would quickly generate.

Three years and thousands of photographs later, Matter published Dancers Among Us, the best-selling, Photoshop-free book of photos capturing dancers all over the world doing everyday activities with a zest for life—and some serious skill. In one particularly unbelievable shot, five cast members of the Broadway show Newsies reach out to donate a fistful of money to a Salvation Army volunteer—while jumping a good three feet off the ground, with their bodies parallel to the pavement. It took 54 tries to get the ultimate shot; the five dancers would launch themselves upward from a push-up position on the ground, only to crash into concrete on the inevitable landing. (Meanwhile, the security guard for Juicy Couture—the shoot took place right in front of the store—kept telling Matter and the dancers to stop blocking the doorway.)

Matter is currently working on a spin-off of Dancers Among Us, this time documenting circus performers. “Circus performers are an extension of the same thing I’ve been doing. They’re dancers on steroids,” he says, joking. “It seems like a natural progression.”

Making a great photo “The most important quality is collaboration. I think dancers are generally raised to be told what to do. The way I like to work is to have a story and then ask the dancer, ‘How would your skill set fit into that story?’ I ask them to think about what their single best skill is and then try and make sure the shoot focuses on that thing.”

Getting the money shot “There’s no studio. You’re dealing with the elements of passersby, composition, hitting the pose in the midst of all that. A lot of the time, you’re dealing with the additional element of ‘You’re not allowed to be doing that here.’ In that case, we conceive the shot. Then we go elsewhere and practice it. Once we’ve got it, then we go into the church or wherever we’re not allowed to be and we shoot it. I’ve had shots ending up in the book where I took literally two frames.”

How dancers differ from other subjects “Dancers, more than anybody I photograph, have a willingness to keep going until it’s perfect. That’s both a good and bad thing for them. We’ll get an amazing shot, and then they look at it and say, ‘My toe isn’t pointed. One more—let’s do it again.’” DT

Books: Dancers Among Us: A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday (2012; New York Times best-sellers list); Uncovered: Women in Word and Image (2009)

Exhibits: Jacob’s Pillow; National Museum of Dance; One New York Plaza; The Grace Building; Savina Museum of Contemporary Art

Photo by Samantha Siegel, courtesy of Matter

Technique
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"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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