Research notes – Maarten Vanvolsem

The following comments follow from reading the article “Motion! On how to deal with the paradox in dance photography” (1) by Maarten Vanvolsem, a Belgian photographer and scholar.

Dr Vanvolsem, which main area of research is the relationship between photography and time, writes on this article about the limitations of traditional photographic equipment (ie cameras equipped with a central shutter) to capture the essence of dance, that is the choreographed movement. He talks about how various other photographers have tried to resolve this problem, including the use of various dancers moving simultaneously (see for example, here), in the same way as the timed sequences of chronophotography popularised by Dr Etienne-Jules Marey in the late 19th century to study the movement of animals (the so called Marey-effect (link)). The problem with this, Dr Vanvolsem reasons, is that none of these attempts are able to overcome the issue of stillness that is inherent to central-shutter photography: you are only able to capture a particular moment of the dance, a specific movement or passage in the sequence, but there is no way to get a feeling of the timing and the choreography. As a result, most of the traditional dance photography is primarily focused on the dancer rather than the dance itself.

Dr Vanvolsem then suggests that one way of overcoming this is by using  the slit-scan technique, which aims to capture a small strip of the frame over time, rather than the whole frame at once. This is, in a way, like a small motion picture captured in one frame of film. The technique of slit-scan allows the viewer to get a sense of not only motion, but acceleration as well, which would then enable the photoghrapher to depict the choreography of a dance. There are, however, limitations to this. Dr Vanvolsem uses some of his own images to illustrate his research and in my opinion, this shows that the technique is not very effective for choreographies that do not require the displacement of the dancer. In his image “Contraction of Movement 3” (link), the dancer seems to be girating on her feet and is difficult to get any sense of timing or acceleration in here. His image “Silent Move 12” (link), as well as another of his dance images available in http://www.kunstinhetdorp.be (link), are actually more effective at showing what the choreography would entail, as they include both vertical and horizontal desplacement of the dancer as well as a sense of the acceleration of her moves.

The slit-scan technique can also be used from a different perspective, which is that of the dancer. In a way that is not different from the use of action cams these days, Dr Vanvolsem explores how the choreography can be depicted by the moving of the camera around the space in the same way as the dancer moves: there is no fixed perspective or central point of view, resulting in an image that resembles a twisted 360 degree panorama (link). In these cases, because we do not have the reference of the dancer moving against a fixed background, is more difficult to decipher the choreography. Nonetheless, the images convey a clear sense of movement and acceleration, and are likely to be more suitable to depict dances where the performer does not displace his or her body too much.

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(1) Vanvolsem, M., Motion! On how to deal with the paradox in dance photography. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 23 (2008). Available from: http://www.imageandnarrative.be/timeandphotography/vanvolsem.htm (accessed on: 13 November 2016)

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