Full body movement
Elegance in the way that someone holds their figure and extends their limbs is always a crowd-pleaser, as this dancer image shows
Elegance in the way people move their limbs is one of those qualities that resonates very clearly and easily with viewers, without analysis. We have a natural appreciation of it, and it’s something everyone is attracted to. Capturing it, on the other hand, doesn’t come so easily, because in the flow of someone moving – even something as obvious as walking – the graceful moments happen between others that are ordinary, or just plain awkward. Also, some people are naturally graceful, others clumsy.
For a photographer this means paying close attention and reacting very quickly, and if you keep this as one of your goals – waiting for the graceful postures and not being satisfied with the ordinary ones – your success rate will be higher. This works in exactly the same way as looking for a distinctive expression over a flat one.
Elegance isn’t limited to special occasions, even though I made it easier on myself in this example by choosing a dance. Gestures and postures in daily life can also be elegant – or not. Here’s the great Richard Avedon discussing movement, and by implication its occasional elegance: “One of the most powerful parts of movement is that it’s a constant surprise. You don’t know what the fabric is going to do, what the hair is going to do, you can only control it to a certain degree – and there is a surprise. And I realize when I photograph movement, I have to anticipate that by the time it has happened – otherwise it’s too late to photograph it. So there’s this terrific interchange between the moving figure and myself that’s like dancing.”
Lord of the dance
This was a Chinese dance, in which sleeve extensions are flung out every so often by the performer. In fact, I was shooting a video, but decided also to shoot stills, as I was intrigued by the differences in approach. The setting was an old courtyard mansion, which on an overcast day had wonderfully smooth top-lighting, and I shot from behind the dancer so that attention would be on her body movement, undistracted by her face. I also kept her just in the shade so that her figure would be backlit through the material of the dress.
The idea was to keep it graphically simple. The video fairly well took care of itself, and just needed to be framed so that it would contain all her movements, which went from pencil slim to a wide reach left and right. I kept the same camera position for the still shots, with the idea of shooting many and selecting later.
There were almost 80 frames from nearly three minutes of shooting, and they caught a high proportion of graceful moments. There were lots of contenders, but I chose this one for its combination of elegance of movement, and the fact that it captures the instant at which the dancer flings her arms wide and her sleeves are fully extended – the distinctive element of this particular dance. Elsewhere I’ve written a little dismissively about this shoot-everythingchoose-later way of working, but I think it was justified here, because I wasn’t familiar with all the moves, and didn’t have the time to watch lots of rehearsals.
I shot from behind the dancer so that attention would be on her body movement, undistracted by her face
A Chinese dance performed in an old mansion offered a choice of deliberately graceful positions In all, there were 78 frames, almost like a flip book, and at least half of them were worth considering