I am not the photographer I used to be. I once used my camera to tell other people’s stories. I documented the facts of their lives. Good or bad, it was always limited to reality. Now, I tell stories without limits, from dreams and the imagination. I have changed my ways, transformed by unearthly visions: a trio of 25-year-old women, contortionists, bending their bodies into surreal shapes, each mimicking the other, in a silent, synchronized ballet of twisted beauty on the dry, cracked floor of a mile-high desert. Two men pressing and balancing their bodies together, creating fulcrums of flesh and power. A pair of aerialists, hanging from the rafters of an abandoned nineteenth-century power plant, one bathed in angelic light pouring through the torn roof above, using all her strength and grace to hold the other in space. I know these visions were real: I photographed them, and they are in this book. As the old hymn says, “I once was blind, but now I see.” And I do see now. Differently. Working with acrobats, aerialists, and contortionists has changed me I was motivated and inspired by the raw courage of these young artists who daily searched for new ways to move their bodies. Each day, each act, and every performance was an opportunity to create a renewed version of themselves. Like them, I needed to find a fresh way to express myself. I reinvented my way of seeing. In the making of these photographs, I left the world of images I knew and had made for many years as a photojournalist. Early in my career, I was attracted to certain types of images, and I developed my own specialties. I learned how to look for moments that mattered, whether shooting environmental portraits or documenting events in difficult situations. I knew I could always bring back a successful picture, and that work formed a comfort zone for me. You could say that the shoots for this book were a natural extension of those specialties— but in fact, they were more of an unnatural extension, like the extreme curve of a contortionist’s backbend. This process— which, like the practice of acrobatics itself, involved both physical and creative work—pushed me and the artists I photographed beyond our comfort zones, to a place where we could create something entirely new, beautiful, and even transcendent In those early days, I saw the acrobats as enticing subjects to photograph. But as I continued to work with them, I also came to recognize them as partners and collaborators in creating these unique images, which are part photography and part performance art. I worked with each acrobat to find his or her own personal stage. Long before a shoot we discussed the performer’s specific skills—which ranged from contortion and hand balancing on the ground, to tumbling through the air, to working with more complicated apparatus that required a rig or a base: trapeze, silks, ropes, Chinese pole, and other exotic circus equipment. We talked about their “act” and, even more deeply, about how they saw themselves as artists— what moods or characters they brought to their acrobatics onstage, and what images and emotions were in their dreams and private thoughts when practicing their art I sought a location or background that would complement the lines of their bodies and what they do, as well as conjure a feeling or an image—whether it be of Greek gods, or a playful sprite in the woods, or a sexy cat burglar in the city. As we developed our dialogue about what we wanted to capture in our shoot together, usually an idea for a location would organically emerge. Often it was a place I’d seen that I was saving for the right subject—some I had scouted or found by word of mouth, or even on Google Earth. Sometimes it was a fantasy the acrobat had for doing a trick in an unusual situation. None of the artists was paid to participate in this project, so it was important that whatever the concept—whether on a beach, or rigged from the rafters of an old winery, or twisting on the concourse of the Brooklyn Bridge—it felt right to each of us Both acrobats and photographers are used to working hard and in hardship for our craft, and for Private Acts, we shared the difficulties of bringing our visions to life. Depending on the venue, we rose before dawn, or stood in frigid water, or climbed down jagged rocky crevasses together. We often spent hours rigging equipment in unfamiliar places, or working tricks and poses to get the image we were looking for. Other times they were spontaneous as we came upon an unexpected scene that spoke to either me or the acrobat. I never let an inspiration go by. I learned to trust myself and to be open to the an idea born of the moment.
At times, some of the shoots took on the feeling of mini-capers or a heist movie. We ignored rules, regulations, and occasionally, some might think, common sense. “Get in position, get the picture, get out” was my mantra on these adventures, or as our cover subject, Lauren Herley said, “It’s all just right here, right now.” We risked the unwanted attention of gawkers, police, park guards, junkyard dogs, and scorpions. Of course, I always had the advantage of being fully clothed, which made the elements and the observers easier to handle. I’m reminded of the old saying that Ginger did everything that Fred did, but backward and in heels, the acrobats did it upside down and barely dressed. As I got to know the people in this unusual and tight-knit community, ideas for combinations naturally came forth: What if I took three contortionists, all friends and collaborators, to portray the three muses in the middle of a public fountain? Or another trio for a five-day road trip into the Black Rock Desert in Nevada? The resulting images, and camaraderie, were surprising and rewarding to us all
I became versed in a strange new language, both in words and in movements. I learned the meaning of “meat hook,” “toe hang,” and “pretzel”—and when to ask for these tricks from the acrobats. I also discovered just how far these talented people and their amazing bodies could go, and how to coach them into position for the still camera: the equivalent of “Can you turn your chin to the left?” on a normal portrait shoot became “Can you just touch your foot to the back of your head?” or “Can we get more expression in your toes?”
I am humbled and inspired by what I learned in the process of exploring these acrobat dreams. Many of the performers have said that working on this project—both creating these photos and looking at them afterward—has led them to see themselves and their art in a whole new way. The same is true for me: after thirty years behind the lens as a professional photographer, I feel transformed by the experience of working with these exceptional muses; my vision and my imagination have been liberated. I like to think that when people see this book, they will start to see their own world in a new way. Certainly they will never view acrobats the same again, and I hope it will stir them to see new possibilities in their own lives. I do. My idea of photography and art is forever changed.
There are no limits.