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Ephemeral Dance Immortalized by Photography at an Istanbul Festival

The iDANS festival celebrating its 6th edition this year also hosts an exhibition of photography on dance, besides the performances and events taking place within its framework. “Portraits of Choreographers: Body into Face (1985-2012)” is a photography exhibition on dance by the renowned photographer Peggy Jarrell Kaplan who is also the resident photographer at iDANS 06.

For more than four decades Kaplan has been photographing world-famous visual and performing artists and her works have been exhibited in many places around the world. Her recent exhibition on display at Haliç Congress Center between October 4-9th and at garajistanbul between October 13-18th “takes the viewers on an analogue journey in contemporary dance through the ‘faces’ of its creators.” We interviewed her on her work.

Ayşe Draz: You are only making portraits of choreographers: what is it about dance and the idea of portraits that engages you so much.

Peggy Kaplan: I’ve an early history in the eighties of making portraits of visual performance artists, composers, and theater directors, as well as choreographers, who were exploring new forms of artistic expression in rebellion against the past, but quickly found special fulfillment in photographing choreographers. This group of artists, who investigated the potential of the body and intellectualized dance movement, seemed to chart a new art in special ways.

I became interested in the qualities of these artists that inspired and informed their work, the sources of their creativity; and a portrait seemed the best way to get closer to what could not be seen. I also liked that the relationship of the dance artist to his/her creations is the most immediate and direct. In the words of the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: the dancer is both the draughtsman and the pencil.

There are other reasons as well: It is important that making photographs is about having experiences and meeting people. I like the intimacy of the portrait session, where realities evolve and are not reconstructed or reproduced. Yet my subjects will always remain mysterious to me, stage presences larger than life and heroic. Going to performances to “know” the choreographers before I meet them and sharing my exhibitions with dance audiences is all part of the process as well.

The title of the exhibition comes from the choreographer Ea Solo, who asked how much the camera was capturing. When told that I was photographing only above her shoulders, she said: “Then I’ll have to put my body into my face.”

A.D: What, in your opinion, are the major differences and similarities between dance and photography?

P.K: Well, I would say that dance is the most ephemeral of the arts and photography immortalizes; that dance and photography, like all aesthetic pursuits, can emotionally touch audiences and viewers, and that is what I would like to accomplish.

A.D: From your experience working with choreographers, could you compare the work of a choreographer with her/his dancers and your work with your subjects for the portraits?

P.K: One of the most unexpected comments from a subject was that I was choreographing the choreographers. So your question is apt. The portrait studio becomes a small stage, and portrait making has performative elements that skirt artifice. I carry out my concepts by using subjects whose inherent qualities determine the impact of the picture – similar to the relationship of the choreographer to his/her dancer. The relationship is also collaborative as the success of my ideas, some premeditated, some intuitive, are based on mining resonances. I select the subject and the image to present the final “product.” The photographer Irving Penn has said that for him every portrait session is a competition, but I’m on the opposite end of that spectrum.

A.D: How much time do you spend together with a choreographer, getting to know her/him personally before you photograph her/him?

The session is about an hour at my apartment, and we meet as strangers, sharing pleasantries for a short time. The “knowing” takes place through the camera and there is an ebb and flow of the improvisations that lead to a natural ending. I become an over-caffeinated person -checking the equipment, tripping over wires, watering Plexiglas panels, hanging fabric from the ceiling, looking about for objects, creating makeshift tables – while the subject usually remains calm. It has occurred to me that Pina Bausch’s slightly bemused expression in my portrait of her is her reaction to observing me.

A.D: Have you ever photographed a Turkish choreographer or artist?

P.K: I photographed the choreographer Mehmet Sander in Scotland where I was soaking up the British dance scene and he was also performing in 1993. I photographed Ayşe Orhon, Filiz Sızanlı, and Mustafa Kaplan (whom I had always wanted to meet since we share a surname but are not related) in New York City during a festival celebrating Turkey.

A.D: Have you been to Istanbul before? If yes, what are your impressions on the city of Istanbul? If no, what are your expectations of it?

P.K: I spent a year in Turkey in 1967/68 teaching English at the Lycee of the American College for Girls and in fact purchased my first camera for the trip “as a tourist.” I volunteered to teach the photography club and learned my darkroom skills one lesson ahead of the students. It was wrenching to leave because the city’s beauty and its closeness to nature had become a part of me and now that was gone. My return in 2003 to see Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” was intense: I had changed more than the city, less a student of life and more a practitioner, but it was still painful to leave.

Now, 9 years later, I am aware of the sophistication of contemporary design and architecture that coexists with Istanbul’s unique character. Perhaps this new internationalism will make my departure easier to bear this time since the contrast between İstanbul and New York City is not so piercing.

An interview with photographer Peggy Jarrell Kaplan by Ayse Draz


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