Henry Leutwyler on Photographing the New York City Ballet

By Conor Risch

© Henry Leutwyler
While looks behind the scenes often serve to demystify, critique or break down the public face of a subject, Henry Leutwyler's photographs enhance the reader's appreciation for ballet in general, and the New York City Ballet company in particular. To see more images, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

For photographers, access to a subject equals opportunity. How photographers gain that access often depends on their intentions. Some aim simply to expose a subject for profit, and their access often comes through cold persistence and even underhandedness. But if a photographer seeks to translate or interpret something essential about that subject for his or her audience, real access most frequently depends on trust.

For Henry Leutwyler, whose new book Ballet, published late last year by Steidl, is the product of unprecedented access to the New York City Ballet Company, trust meant the opportunity to become invisible. “This is not a given,” explains Leutwyler, who photographed the ballet company for more than 30 days during rehearsals, and backstage during performances. Trusting that Leutwyler understood and appreciated their work enough to “make them look good” and stay out of the way of the dancers and crew, members of the company went about their work and never looked at the camera, which allowed Leutwyler to make close-up, intimate images. Says the photographer, “When you are surrounded by 300 people every night, to become invisible is a gift that they give you.”

Leutwyler earned his access over the course of four years creating advertising for the company. He first began working with the New York City Ballet (NYCB) commercially in 2008, photographing snippets of the repertory in a studio. At the end of the first multiday advertising shoot, which involved collaborating with Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins and select dancers, Leutwyler and his crew received a round of applause and he was booked for the next season. According to Leutwyler, it was the first time a photographer had made it beyond one advertising shoot for Martins and the NYCB.   

Leutwyler’s love of ballet was a primary reason he was able to not only photograph but to collaborate with Martins and the NYCB. Indoctrinated into a love of the arts, including ballet, by his parents, and carrying the experience of photographing the famed Swiss ballet company Bejárt Ballet Lausanne in the 1980s and ’90s, Leutwyler says he “always had an immense respect for [the NYCB’s] work.”

Leutwyler began photographing dancers in the 1980s while he was working in Paris as a fashion photographer. He photographed them for editorial clients, and also liked to use them as fashion models. “They understood space, they understood how to fill it … They knew how to sit, they knew how to cross their legs and arch their back; they knew how to do it,” he says. Leutwyler used a ballerina for one of his largest fashion jobs for Chanel. He also followed Bejárt Ballet as they toured, and was planning a book of his Bejárt photographs, but it never came to fruition because his friend, the famous dancer Jorge Donn, died of AIDS in 1992, and other friends left the company.

Working with the NYCB dancers, Leutwyler says, he always appreciated that “they’re the talent, I’m not the talent. I don’t have the broken feet.” He also understood that collaborating with Martins and the dancers meant teaching them that “the way they dance and the way they perform is not always camera friendly, because when [a photograph] is printed you have a problem of perspective.” Through small suggestions that made the movements look better for the camera, Leutwyler was able to show that he understood. “If the dancers see that the collaborative effort is a good one, then they trust you.”

When he pushed to make more frames of a particular shot, he says, he was aware that “at some point the person in front of the camera believes the mistake is theirs,” so Leutwyler was careful to let the dancers know it was his mistake that necessitated repeats of a shot. “Believe me, they’re perfect,” he says.

After doing a couple of seasons of repertory shoots, Leutwyler suggested creating portraits of every member of the company, to offer a glimpse of “who these people really are,” he recalls. The company agreed, and Leutwyler created classic studio portraits of the dancers over the course of the next three years.

Initially the NYCB proposed creating a book of the portraits, but during a meeting Leutwyler’s wife, the designer Ruba Abu-Nimah, suggested that Leutwyler could create a more interesting book if he was given backstage access, something for which he had been “nagging” them. The NYCB agreed, and Leutwyler began photographing the company and their performances with the same Leica he’d used to photograph Bejárt Ballet. In the end he shot more than 600 rolls of film.

Leutwyler’s color and black-and-white images of performances and dress rehearsals, which offer perspectives that no patron could see, are painterly studies in movement and performance. His backstage images capture small details that form an overall impression of the production atmosphere, and share unguarded moments with the dancers. Leutwyler also captured the intimacy of preparation, and the intensity of rehearsal. “Everything behind the curtain is magic,” he says, “to me more magic than in front.”

The reference for his work, Leutwyler says, is Alexey Brodovitch’s famous book Ballet, which was published in 1945. While the connection is obvious and extends beyond the title, Leutwyler has undeniably built something of his own on Brodovitch’s foundation. His use of color, in particular, and the depth and variation of his study are delightful.

With respect to the art form and the artists in front of his camera, Leutwyler says, he views his as the role of documentarian. But he allows that he is “reinterpreting the art form.” “It’s definitely what I feel, how I see it,” he says. And what he chose to portray.

While looks “behind the scenes” often demystify, break down or even critique the public face of a subject, Leutwyler’s images enhance the world of the dancers and the New York City Ballet, and add to our appreciation of the artists.

“You need to take sides,” Leutwyler says. “Are you going to make them look good or are you going to make them look bad? If you want, you can make anyone look bad.” Leutwyler “refused” to show injuries or vulgarity, or photograph anyone in a compromising situation. “This is not ballet,” he says. “Ballet is the purest art form. A musician has an instrument; a photographer has a camera; a painter has a brush. A dancer has his body—you can’t make excuses. Then it has to come from inside.”

Related Article:

Henry Leutwyler Photo Gallery

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