The loneliness of a performance photographer

Swar Thounaojam, a participant at the Writing on Dance Lab, spoke to the Darshan Manakkal, the official photographer of the Attakkalari India Biennial 2015 on watching contemporary dance through a camera lens and audience reactions to the mechanical clicking sound.

When Darshan Manakkal, official photographer of Attakkalari India Biennial 2015, was leaving the auditorium of Chowdiah Memorial Hall after the performance of The Past, a German production from Constanza Macras | Dorkypark and Oscar Bianchi, an audience member stopped him and told him that the shutter sound of his camera disturbed her experience of the performance. He apologised.

Darshan is painfully aware of this disturbance and tries not to take pictures during quiet moments of a performance. He often times his clicks to coincide with the music used in a performance piece but, he says, “a lot of contemporary performances are very quiet and I do get really embarrassed about the shutter sound.”

While he was apologising to the aggrieved audience member, another tapped on his shoulder. He turned, ready to offer a second round of apologies to perhaps another peeved punter. It was, however, an admirer who has been closely following his works on Ligament and the Attakkalari Facebook page.

"I just wanted to tell you that I really like your photos and look forward to seeing them after the shows."

 *****

Darshan has been photographing Attakkalari India Biennial for two seasons now – 2013 and 2015. His oeuvre has been music photography before performance photography happened. He works with smaller bands where there are conversations about the kind of photographs that can emerge from working together. He mentions the work of iconic jazz photographer Herman Leonard which is “a unique record of the jazz scene of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s” as an example of astonishing music photography that can come forth as a result of collaboration between the artists and the photographer.

After two editions of Biennial, Darshan has begun enjoying contemporary dance, and is finding moments in contemporary dance that move him and bring him closer to the art he is photographing. When he is composing a shot, he looks for movements that are “exaggerated” or “expansive” since the camera is unable to do full justice to “small, subtle” movements. These choices are of course subjective, he adds.

Vikram Iyengar   performing at FACETS

Lighting is key in his composition of a photograph. And Darshan has this to say about the lighting at Alliance Française de Bangalore (where performances of FACETS Choreography Residency and Platform 15: Emerging South Asia were staged) and Ranga Shankara (where a number of the centre stage shows were staged):

This year at Alliance, the lighting was very harsh. For some reason, all the lights were hanging from the top and the light fell on the performers with sharp shadows and there were no fillers to soften the effect. Nobody really realised everything was getting burned out. It was very flat and didn’t give me enough depth. At least at Ranga Shankara, the lighting was designed in such a way that it played very well with highlights and shadows. Also, with the pictures I took at Alliance for the FACETS and PLATFORM 15, I had to sit and clean up the stage in post production. Against the stark white or black backdrop, I found in my photographs that the stage floor was actually quite dirty with leftovers from previous performances. I spent quite some time cleaning up the litter on the floor in my photographs since it was very distracting!

 *****

How was it photographing the centre stage performances at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Ranga Shankara, and Alliance Française de Bangalore?

Darshan watched video recordings of all the performances, except two, to get a sense of the shows and figure out possible moments to capture during the live performances. He also had to decide which lens to use depending on the number of performers – solo, duets and ensembles. Unlike 2013 Biennial, he didn’t get a chance to watch the tech runs of dress rehearsals of any of the shows. He played it by the ear every evening. He quips, “As a digital photographer, we end up taking many pictures and a few of them do work out fine.” He also looked carefully at the publicity images sent by the performing companies since those images formed key moments of the performances.

Tao Dance Theatre perform <em>4</em> at Chowdaiah Memorial Hall

Three centre stage performances happened at Chowdiah Memorial Hall: Tao Dance Theatre’s 4,5; The Past by Constanza Macras | Dorkypark and Oscar Bianchi; and Timeless by Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company.

The Tao Dance Theatre had brought their photographer. So I was keenly watching her movements and taking cues from her since I knew she knew the performance intimately. The repetitive movements also help because you get a hang of things happening on stage and can time a shot properly. I was sitting four or five rows away from the stage and since Chowdiah’s incline is quite flat, audience heads came into my frame and I had to chop them off during post production.
The Past – I watched video recording of the show and made mental notes of the key moments I wanted to capture. But during the live performance, there was lots happening on stage and I am quite sure I must have missed a hundred things to capture.
Timeless – It was a colour horror. Yes, to the human eye, it looked spectacular – those red and blue and orange lights – but to the camera, it was awful. There was one scene where an orange spotlight came on while the background was a blue wash. See, on the colour wheel, orange and blue sit on the opposite spectrum, so that scene was an example of how something seemingly spectacular on stage for the human eye can end up looking very bad on camera.

At Ranga Shankara, the performances have been The Measures Taken by Alexander Whitley Dance Company; Les Chants Des L’Umai by Systeme Castafiore; Pattern & Variable by the Bereishit Dance Company; 4: Still Life by NB Projects; and Black Out by Compagnie Philippe Saire.

A still from <em>Les Chants Des L'Umai</em> at Rangashankara

The Measures Taken and Les Chants Des L’Umai had these screens downstage that made it really challenging for me. The screen is very difficult to work with. The human eye adapts to it but to the camera lens, everything can become quite fuzzy with it.
I have seen the Bereishit Dance Company before, so I was familiar with their movements. They usually work in duets or move in specific geometrical patterns that make it easier for me to frame my shots. Also, the lighting was good for the camera. It wasn’t stark or low. The highly repetitive nature of the performance also helped me.
4:Still Life – it had a particular tone of performance and lighting that worked very well for me. Also, it was only two performers so it was easy to photograph.
Black Out – I am really not sure about this performance. It is such an intimate show, with people standing very close to each other. So I am uncertain about where to place myself with my camera and take pictures without disturbing the experience of the audience.

There was one centre stage performance at Alliance Française de Bangalore – CESC Gelabert V.O.+ by Gelabert + Azzopardi.

I didn’t watch a video recording of the show so I didn’t know what was going to happen. The scene with the jacket was used as a publicity image, so I made a note about it. It was a matter of timing for me with this show. I adapted as the show progressed and used many of the repetitive movements.

At an event like Biennial, Darshan feels that what we are compromising with performance photography is well-conceived compositions. Compositions created by the likes of Herman Leonard are difficult to achieve. One is because there is no conversation happening between the choreographer, lighting designer, and the photographer. Second is because ‘as digital photographers, we cut lots of corners. We have the freedom to take as many pictures as we want, unlike photographers using film, and all exposure related issues can be fixed with the camera or during post production.’

An observation that Darshan makes as a performance photographer is his inability to move. He speculates what might be the best place in the house to sit and places his camera. He hopes to get some decent shots as contemporary dance performances throw in video projections, downstage screens, laser beams criss-crossing the stage and other high end technical gymnastics along with human bodies at the immobile photographer.

 *****

As Darshan leaves another Biennial performance at Chowdiah, two scientists come up to him and ask, “What was this all about?”

He jokes he is ready to choreograph his own performance piece called Mistakes – a highly synchronised piece of dancing where you wait for somebody to screw up. A throwback to old high school performances where the best thing you remember about well synchronised dance gigs was when one of your friends in the show screwed up and you laughed.

WORDS
Swar Thounaojam
IMAGES
Darshan Manakkal

About

Ligament, the online dance journal, has been launched to reflect the keen rise in the interest to contextualise, reflect and voice the goings-on around contemporary dance practices in the South Asian region. It has been envisioned as an avenue that is aimed at prompting and encouraging a sustained engagement between contemporary dance practitioners, thinkers, writers, artistic practitioners from other mediums, stakeholders and the wider public. Over the past editions of the Attakkalari Dance Biennial, there has been a continuous effort to create a space for writing on dance; and with this squarely in mind, Ligament has been conceived as a platform to facilitate the much-needed articulation and thinking through this evolving language. We hope to accomplish this by looking at this artistic practice through the perspective of historical threads that helped shape, through practice and creation of work, which is adding and solidifying the ever-changing lexicon and its presentation, or even through research and scholarship. The endeavour is to make this an open, creative and vibrant forum that invites ideas, contributions and suggestions allowing for the collective development of this artistic practice in the South Asian context; as well as mapping its links and impacts on contemporary dance as a whole. On one hand, it is about looking at contemporary dance as a growing repository of our present realities and on the other hand delving into our rich heritage of physical and performative traditions in an attempt to seek continuum and elucidate the now. In an attempt to ravel the medium of contemporary dance, We aren’t simply interested in text as a mode of expressing, reading, examining and looking at contemporary dance but to reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of the movement arts, we are also looking towards image, sound and video and the practitioners of these mediums to create and catalyse conversations. We hope that dialogue and discourse enabled through Ligament opens various entry points into the ongoing shifts in contemporary dance for its lovers, practitioners, enablers and its future.


- Jayachandran Palazhy
Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts

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