SLEIGHT OF HAND
Photographer Steve Carr explains how the simplest of subjects can become the most rewarding of photo books via close focus, creative vision, and innovative thinking
A trans-Tasman collaboration this year sees one of Australia’s top photography awards shared by a Kiwi photographer and Australian independent book publisher. Christchurch’s Steve Carr, working with Melbourne-based Perimeter Books, has been awarded the top honour at the Australian Photobook of the Year event for the breathtaking publication
Variations for Troubled Hands. The photographer’s project beat a record number of entries to receive a $1K cash prize and $4K in Momento Pro printing credit — not bad for a first try. An artist and educator, Steve has been producing works that reflect a fascination with technology, transformation, and the exceptional for over a decade, but
Variations marks the first time that he has attempted to translate his process to the photo book form. The project comprises a series of over 200 images focusing obsessively on a ballerina’s hand, cropped from the rest of her body, as she dances a choreographed 12-part performance. Assembled as a photo book, the monochrome series becomes a singular, mesmerizing experience unto itself.
No matter how physically f it you are or how much gr ace you have, within the industry you need a certain body type, otherwise you just don’ t really progress
“I always wanted to do a publication, but I wanted it to be really relevant for that medium,” the photographer says. That’s an objective he achieved with distinction, prompting Heidi Romano, the competition’s judging chair, to praise the book for its originality of concept and beautiful execution. “It is a meditative object that draws you in as a participant rather than just an observer,” she comments. Further emphasizing the collaborative nature of producing the book, Steve explains that his wife, Anna, is trained in ballet, and it was through talking with her about the art form that he came up with the idea for Variations for Troubled Hands. “I was thinking around ballet, and I was talking to Anna about how, when I think of ballet, I think of feet — it’s about the athleticism of being on pointe, that kind of stuff. It was her who talked to me about how hand position is graded and assessed.” While leaping, pointing, and spinning pull the causal observer’s attention to the feet and legs of a ballet dancer, the hands are of equal import in a successful performance. Every gesture, angle, and shape has significance, and because — like the feet — the hands finish the line of the body, they are particularly important in creating ideal ballet shapes. The idea of dancers being anatomically dissected in this way fascinated Steve, so he sought one out to help him explore it.
The series was shot by photographer Becky Nunes using the high-speed Canon 5D Mark III, and Steve knew that he would need someone immensely elegant in front of the lens if he was going to pull this concept off. An early trial run made this very clear. “I did some test shots with an assistant, and you could really tell: I mean, she had beautiful hands and everything, but she just didn’t have that kind of grace.” Cadence, 16 years old at the time of the shoot, is a prodigy of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and was recommended for the project because of her perfect hand positioning. Steve explained the concept of the shoot — using high-speed photography to capture the minute hand movements too quick or subtle for the human eye to detect — to Cadence and her mum, and they both embraced it enthusiastically. “Cadence would talk about how there’s this thing with ballet where, no matter how physically fit you are or how much grace you have, within the industry, you need a certain body type, otherwise you just don’t really progress,” Steve recalls. “That was why I wanted to exclude the rest of the body and focus on the hand.” The resulting images were initially displayed as a gallery exhibition, printed on museum-grade Canson Infinity Rag Photographique paper, but when he turned the project into a photo book, Steve knew that he wanted to take an entirely different approach. “There’s the idea when you’re making a photo book [that] you spend all this time
laying out photographs and sequencing it, creating narratives — then someone holds your book and just kind of flicks through it,” he says with a laugh. “I like that way of enjoying it, it kind of operates like a flipbook; then, if you own the book, you can take more time and look through each of the acts.” Executing the hefty, stylish book without blowing out the budget required the innovative design expertise of Wayne Daly, with editorial oversight by Dan Rule at Perimeter Editions. Dan came up with the idea of using affordable web-fed printing, in which a continuous roll of paper is fed through the press and cut to size after printing, usually used for cheap, massmarket novels. “I like the idea of the web-fed process rushing by really fast, you can imagine watching the machine and seeing this kind of animation come through,” Steve says. Wayne was responsible for the book’s refined look, including its captivating cropped cover and jumbled title display. The designer created the cover font based on old ballet-performance posters from the 1950s, then sequenced the letters to emphasize the project’s feeling of movement. “At one point, we were going to emboss and foil the cover, but we decided that this simple block was the thing,” Steve explains. “I feel like there was a real confidence in holding back there, letting it just be what it is.” What it is, is a photo book that many art-fair attendees cannot believe is the artist’s first publication. And it certainly won’t be his last: Steve is already plotting to put his Australian Photobook of the Year winnings towards a new book, something that tackles moving image through the static photo book format. It’s not a straightforward concept, but the photographer has more than proved that he’s got what it takes to pull off the unconventional.