Pretty as a picture

Melanie Holman is slightly disappointed by a book that is visually stunning but doesn’t tell much about either of its subjects, photography and dance

Airborne is the title of a collection of modern dance photographs by Lois Greenfield. The book features over 85 black and white photographs of contemporary dancers, each with a short caption written by Greenfield on separate pages. The book is the ideal size and length for a casual browse.

The emphasis of the book is on Greenfield’s skill at capturing dancers mid-leap, or under a shower of various food products rather than on the beauty of dance itself. The photographs are studio-based and composed for the camera, instead of capturing a moment in a dance performance. On one hand, this gives the photographs an amazing clarity and a sense of people frozen in time, but on the other, the book focuses on the photographer’s creative expression, rather than that of the dancers. Indeed, in the preface the dancers are described as “heavy, sweating bodies thudding about”. Anyone who has seen live dance will know such comments do no justice whatsoever to these highly trained and graceful people.

The book has a rather reverential air, with a preface by the director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Switzerland, no less, and the deity-inspired chapter headings, Earthbound and Airborne. The immediate impression, however, is that this is ideal coffee table fodder. Serious students of dance or photography may find the lack of technical explanation a hindrance.

There is no doubting the beauty of many of the photographs and Greenfield’s skill in capturing the fluidity of movement is impressive. I was particularly taken with some of the group shots, where you could almost see the muscles straining to keep the whole composition together.

This dynamism is not consistent. Some of the shots are too posed, aimed at creating an attractive picture rather than showing dance as an art form. The accompanying captions have a personal diary feel about them, attractively grouped in little nuggets on a double page spread of their own. In these captions, Greenfield talks about the props and costumes used and adds short comments about the experience of shooting the pictures. This leaves little room for her to impart much of her obvious technical knowledge, which could have been useful for anyone interested in studying photography.

Anyone who really wants to experience and be inspired by modern dance would do better to put down their coffee cups, get off their sofas and go and watch some of the many talented dance and physical theatre companies that are performing at the moment. This book may serve as a good-looking starting point, but should not be seen as a definitive tome on either photography or dance.

Airborne by Lois Greenfield is published this week by Thames and Hudson priced 14.95

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