Internationally renowned celebrity portrait photographer, Mark Mann will celebrate the release of his new coffee table book, Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance, with a one-night-only star-studded evening of dance at the Joyce Theater, on Monday, April 10. The evening will offer a multi-disciplinary program of ballet, modern, tap, hip hop, contemporary, tango, and musical theater with stars from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Broadway, Martha Graham Dance Company and more. Mann’s book includes photographs of dancers like Chita Rivera, Misty Copeland, Carmen de Lavallade, Desmond Richardson, Tiler Peck, James Whiteside, Rena Butler, and many others. He recently spoke to me about this project, and more.
From what I understand, there are two major aspects that influence the vision for your book: one is the stillness that we all found ourselves in over the pandemic, and the other is light—you decided to work with natural light for these photographs. So, in a sense, this project is a stripping away of artifice and getting back to basics from stillness through the movement of the human body captured within a light that is not enhanced by humans. Is this so?
Yes, both are correct. About six months into the pandemic, there was a feeling I couldn’t seem to shake, because I wasn’t creating. I mean, I was teaching I was doing stuff online, but I wasn’t really making new imagery and I realized I was sad. My sister-in-law, Loni Landon, is a choreographer, and one day we were discussing the pandemic and its effects on creativity. She told me how so many of her dancer friends were basically doing Zoom classes or teaching on Zoom, like me, and she said: “Why don’t you photograph dancers?” I’m a portrait photographer, I’d never really photographed much that’s moving before. Portraits are often very still and thoughtful, and I’m in motion all the time trying to create a reaction from them, to make them come out themselves. But I said yes, and when the first dancer, Rena Butler, came in and started to dance, everything was completely turned on its head because I wasn’t the performer anymore. I was still. I was still from the pandemic, I was still from my photography and now there was such beautiful movement in front of me.
In the beginning, I had no idea how to capture this movement, it was so new to me. We had this incredible huge open warehouse with windows facing West. What would happen is, the sun would bounce off the Hudson and into the windows that were so dirty that they diffused the light in such a beautiful way. I thought, there’s no point in me trying to augment the light, this is the best light ever. Usually, I’m in charge of light and now, all of a sudden, I’m giving up such a massive aspect of what makes a photograph up. I said to myself: Mother Nature has created this light but it’s not for you and if she decides to make it darker, you have to adjust. So that was a massive learning curve as the light became another character in making these photographs. Also, trying to capture the motion at its pinnacle was hard. The camera I use is a Leica S and it’s built for taking maybe three frames per second. I like to shoot with my aperture wide open, which means that only a little bit of the photo is in focus. The dancers would do something, and I’d miss the pinnacle. Loni said: “I’ve never seen dance photos like this, you’re missing the pinnacle, and getting it just before or just after, and that’s so unusual!” Then, when I had that knowledge, I started hitting the pinnacle because I was getting better at what I was doing, and I had to retrain my brain to capture it just before it gets there or after. As a photographer, it was definitely the biggest learning curve I’ve had in 20 years.
Mark Mann in action during a photo shoot for the book
The book is beautiful, and it is a marvel to gaze upon the human body captured in motion. Besides the aesthetic pleasure, what do you hope people will get out of your book?
All the profits from the book are shared equally among all the participants, plus Jacob, the producer, and Loni who was the overseer and who really made this happen. I would also like to think that this book is a snapshot in time of how we were all still during the pandemic, which allowed people to do things like this, because never ever would 142 dancers have been available to schedule… and during 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. —the only time the light was right. People weren’t doing anything else, and they wanted to dance. Also, the dancers got to choose the photos they liked for the book. So, I hope that some of the joy of dancing comes through. It’s also important to see the diversity within dance, the genres. We tried to capture most of them, from hip hop to ballet to tap to modern. I hope it’s something that is going to be just as relevant in 30 years as it is today. And I think what might inspire other photographers to learn from my experience is that you’re never too old or set in your ways to approach something which is so diametrically opposite of what you usually do. There’s always so much to learn in photography, and somebody like me, who has been doing it for 30 years and has a lot of knowledge about how things are done, was super humbled. You know, when I was an unemployed photo assistant after I first moved to New York, if I had a day off, I would go to the Rizzoli store and look at their photo books, thinking, maybe one day I’ll do a book. It’s only taken 30 years but here it is!
Banner for the Joyce Theater performance featuring Evan Ruggiero, Skye Mattox, Lloyd Knight, Sara Mearns – Photos from the Movement at the Still Point book by Mark Mann
Tell us about the upcoming performance with dancers featured in this book.
On the 10th of April at the Joyce Theater, we are having a one-night-only performance with several performers from the book. There are 12 or 13 little vignettes, 3–4-minute performances. We would have loved for all 142 dancers in the book to perform but people are busy. When we asked people to perform for us, the response was absolutely amazing! It’s going to be very diverse and fun!
Did you always want to be a photographer?
When I was in high school, I wanted to do art. I did a lot of pottery, I loved painting and big collages but even though I was really encouraged by my parents, making a living as an artist was so beyond my family. In my family it was like: you get a job or you start a company or you go to law school… Then I met a girl on a train, which is a long story, and she told me that she was studying photography at Manchester Polytechnic as it was called then, and I thought, that’s a good idea, I’ll study photography. So, I came home, I was in my last year of high school and asked my high school art teacher if we had a darkroom. My teacher said: “Photography will be great for you because you’ll be able to photograph your sculptures, so if you want to go to art school, you can’t take 30 big sculptures to your interviews, but you can bring a portfolio of their photos.” We went into the darkroom for the first time and exposed some film and it was just magic! And that’s what I’ve wanted since then: to be a photographer. I did go to art school and that girl on the train is still a friend of mine today. Of course, at first, I’ve done other jobs to support myself: work in bars, restaurants, clothing stores… Very soon I started to find faces really fascinating, and I still do. I suppose the camera allows you to stare at somebody’s face without being weird. I think also that my personality very much leads to communication and conversation, and I can’t have that with still life or a landscape. Although, I did enjoy learning how to photograph jewelry as an assistant because it was a team and I like the team aspect of what I do, I’m not very good loner.
Chita Rivera in Mark Mann’s Movement at the Still Point
In your portraits of celebrities, you managed to capture various expressions from them. How do you get famous people to reveal a different side of themselves in a photo?
My go-to is to get people back to being a human being and not celebrities for a minute. I think the way I do that is by very simply asking questions about humdrum stuff that they’re not used to being asked by journalists or people that they work with. They quickly start to realize that I’m not gonna be gushing over them. So, I ask things like, how was the traffic this morning? Or talk to them about what they had for breakfast or a current TV show they may be watching. If you can talk to them like that, then I think, all of a sudden, you’ve broken through that outer layer and they’re just talking to Mark. I always have my camera up close, so there’s no surprise in bringing the camera up and they forget to do their celebrity face. It’s hard when you’re in the presence of certain people like the President. So, with President Obama, the first question I asked him was “Are you having a busy day, Sir?” He smiled because he’s the President, of course he’s busy! It’s the practice of how I can make things different by what I can say, it’s really based on conversation. You know, it’s like two people are passing by this little window and connect with each other. You have this really small amount of time to make something happen.
In a world where many are so preoccupied with posting their best looks on social media and in which the doctoring of photos happens more often than not, how do you see your role as a portraitist? Do you see yourself as cutting through all the trappings of filters, airbrushing, photoshopping to uncover natural aspects of a person’s expressions?
That’s a philosophical question! Getting attention is very important for many people. I’m looking back at the great photographers, and I don’t follow trends so sometimes my work is really in fashion and then other times it’s like, well, nobody wants that! What worries me is: I’ll do, let’s say, people’s LinkedIn profile pictures and they ask me to retouch them. I do that and often they end up with pictures that don’t really resemble them. I think it would be much better to just let me take a picture that shows who you are. I worry about the people who are constantly filtering and retouching, and then develop a fear of going out in the real world because they don’t want others to see that they don’t really look like that, or they don’t live like that. I think that’s very, very scary and sad, and making people more and more insular. But on the other hand, if you’re an Instagram star and you’re making $1,000,000 a year or whatever you’re making from bikini photos and pictures and that’s your life, fine. I’ve never criticized somebody for how they make a living, mostly, so I embrace it. I just don’t know how all this is going to go in the future.
Ricardo A. Zayas in Mark Mann’s Movement at the Still Point book
Tell us about your love for New York City.
There’s nowhere in the world for me like New York City. After I lived here for about six months, when I went home to Scotland, I felt alien. Coming back here, seeing the taxis at JFK felt like coming home. New York City very quickly became my forever home. I love the vibe and the people. I mean, for somebody who loves to talk to people, it’s amazing!
What’s next for you?
I loved doing the book so I’m going to do another one down the road. I’m also making a push to get some more commercial work because I have to eat! I love teaching and I have a YouTube channel about photography that Jacob produces. So, I’m finding ways to stay relevant; it’s all changing so fast and I’m trying to keep on top of the curve.
Top photo: Misty Copeland in Mark Mann’s Movement at the Still Point
All phots courtesy of Mark Mann