Book review: Ballet by Alexey Brodovitch
Jesse Freeman has very kindly agreed to put together a series of book reviews for us. We are hoping that this will be a popular feature and we will be able to do it bi-weekly. We hope you enjoy it.
Ballet is a photo book by art director Alexey Brodovitch. Although he photographed this, Brodovitch never proclaimed to be a photographer working most notably as the art director Harper’s Bazaar for over two decades. Yet Ballet is considered a masterpiece and perhaps the ease of which he photographed it can be traced back to his early history in the 20s, where he worked as a ballet set painter. He seemed to have an affinity with the numerous ballet companies he shot from 1935-1937. Originally he took the photos for souvenir purposes; the photos were quite radical to the realistic photographic conventions of the time.
The ballet itself as a subject is nothing knew as far as art is concerned. Though stigmatized it actually is an amazingly beautiful art form within itself. I came to appreciate it through the French Impressionist Edgar Degas who made the ballet one of his most painted subjects. As a true artist, in the late 1880s, he even became a well known photographer, doing portraits of friends and nudes. The correlation I’m attempting will make itself evident later in this article, but impressionism itself sought to for the first time bring to the medium the inclusion of movement as an important element of the human experience. Going against convention, short brush strokes and accurate depictions of light are characteristic of what you will see are relative. I think more recently ballet has become slightly more acceptable in the mainstream with the dramatic film adaption of the classic ballet piece Black Swan, though as film goes Wim Winders’ Pina best captures the sheer beauty of it. Though Pina herself actually can’t be described as ballet choreographer, her art carries the same expressive movement. Bringing us back to Ballet…
104 photos in all, it was shot in black and white, with a 35mm Contax with no flash. The film of the time was pretty slow, so one can imagine the challenge of this shooting on dark ballet sets. His intention of focusing on motion then is heightened by these limitations. Basically everything you’re not supposed to do in photography…he did. And the result was a new exhilarating form of expressionistic photography that didn’t merely just seek to capture stills of the ballet, but more so to express what Brodovitch actually felt from the ballet. Shots are severely underexposed, excessively dark, out of focus, or blurred do to the slow film and lens speeds of the time. If the dancers’ movements are the heart of ballet, why shoot them in still? The result is photos that reflect the fluidity of ballet, using available light as a tool to paint with.
Isn’t this the perfect essence of photography? I always felt photography is just a mode of expression and the only way it can be bad, is if your shooting things that you think people will like whether than shooting what you actually like and care about. The ballet to Brodovitch was a re-visitation of his earlier life, so there was a personal connection, and from there he didn’t worry about technicalities he simply just shot and captured entirely what he felt in combination of what he saw rather than simply…just what he saw.
The layout of the book shows a perfect balance of ballet and Brodovitch’s own photographic performance. The book begins like a ballet with images of the performers getting ready backstage. From there the graphic flow of the photos themselves on each page reflect that of the dancers. Often even using two-page spreads of a single photograph we can trace the dancers forms, dizzily as they spin, toss, and turn, from page to page. All of this comes off strangely unconventional, as the prints themselves are highly manipulated, enlarged to further the grain and one print was even notoriously dropped and accidentally stepped on and simply left that way.
The actual first printings of the book are extremely rare as it never received a wide release and was never really sold through any major book outlets. It is said the original prints were destroyed in a fire at his barn house preventing any chance of a reprint of the negatives. Yet it remains influential and even today feels as fresh as it was in 1945 when it was published.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Many thanks Jesse, looking forward to more.
Nice review Jesse. A really interesting book. The shots don’t look like the typical ballet shots at all. Particularly ones taken by someone who’d decided they go and “shoot ballet one time”. The familiarity and intimacy are clear. I’d love to get a close up look at this some day.
Thanks man! Ya I`d kill to shoot a ballet!
Why don’t you shoot one? Not trolling, but asking honestly and rhetorically…you should do it, it’s not like it’s Guantanamo Bay or anything! Follow your muse.
no worries…i will watch.
Brodovitch was the art director of Avedon and Penn, one of the most influential photographers in print photography in the 50`s and 60`s. You can see his approach here: movement, feeling, large images that speak for themselves. A true pioneer of magazine Art Direction! Something to aim for in this age of overflooding imaginery.
That is really cool! And i wonder…they have this book shop here in tokyo called So Books that actually has a few vintage magazines where Brodovitch was the editor. I forgot what they were but the typography, layouts, and graphic designs are like nothing I have ever seen before. Really amazing…
Thank you for bringing this book to wider attention, especially because Brodovitch is a stealth figure in photography. Your intelligent and well written review captures the magic of his approach. More book reviews, please. What a fine website, JCH.
He really is, and this is an important book that i think on its premise being ballet turn most off…Glad the reception has been good! Thanks. Bellamy has a good thing going here…
Awesome, a book review once a week sounds cool. :D
Great! ahem bi-weekly!
Review something that is not mainstream, something that people usually ignore but good. :D