Today on 10 Questions With… we have dance photographer Kristie Kahns…
1. What is your dance background?
I grew up in Grand Rapids MI, and began dancing at age 6. I studied ballet, jazz, and tap, and participated in my studio’s competition teams. But I began to love ballet the most, so I also studied at the School of Grand Rapids Ballet for about 5 years, before moving to Chicago.
I moved to Chicago to attend Columbia College, with an intention to major in photography and possibly dance as well. I did take some dance classes at Columbia, but photography consumed my schedule. Living in Chicago, I was exposed to hip hop culture, and became infatuated. I began to take hip hop classes at Lou Conte Dance Studio, and hung around with a lot of b-boys, even apprenticed with Culture Shock Chicago. Learning about the history of breakdancing led me to capoeira, and eventually I became a member of Gingarte Capoeira Chicago, with whom I trained for 7 years. Currently, though, I have devoted myself to my Ashtanga yoga practice, and am training for my teacher certification at Moksha Yoga. So I have a lot of body movement experience and knowledge.
2. How did you get started in dance photography?
During my first couple years at Columbia, I definitely missed dancing everyday and wanted to stay connected to dancers. My first studio lighting class was taught by Bill Frederking (a notable Chicago dance photographer), and I became inspired by his work to photograph dancers in a studio setting. I really couldn’t imagine photographing anything else, so I reached out to dancers that I would meet and began collaborating. My passion for dance and knowledge of technique came through in the photos, so I focused on that throughout my time at Columbia. After I graduated, I began to photograph for some Chicago dance companies that were new on the scene at the time – Instruments of Movement, Luna Negra Dance Theater, and Chicago Tap Theatre. And just kept going with it.
This is a good question. Dance photography is a bit of a paradox: dance is the movement of bodies through space, and photography is a fraction of a moment, producing a frozen and forever still image. The challenge for the photographer then is to make a still image that appears to move, or seem as though it is about to move. That challenge can actually become a means of making a stylistic choice. How do I want to depict the movement or the dancer? Do I want to show the blur of motion or crisply freeze the movement? How can I show the impetus of the movement? I’ve experimented with many different ways of shooting, but I particularly like the work I’ve done which combines strobe lighting and long shutter speeds, which portrays a crisp moment of a movement with the blur of motion in or out of the movement too. But the style that was made so popular by Lois Greenfield, freezing moving bodies in mid-air or in the midst of a dramatic movement, is fun to play with too. Ultimately, the photographer needs to have a great sense of timing and intuition into the movement, because timing is everything when you’re shooting bodies in motion.
4. What has been the most exciting moment for you in your dance photography career thus far?
A few highlights come to mind. My first cover for Dance Magazine was a big deal for me – I photographed Meredith Dincolo and Kellie Epperheimer of HSDC for DM’s Body Issue, July 2008. Since I grew up admiring the photos in Dance Magazine, it was amazing to photograph the cover and feature article. Another great experience was photographing for Cirque du Soleil’s Banana Shpeel show, which did its preview run here at the Chicago Theater in late 2009. The show had a lot of dancing and acrobatic acts, and the lighting and costumes made for a lot of great performance shots. Those performers were incredible!
5. Can you describe what you do to get ready to shoot a dance performance?
If possible, I like to watch the choreography first so I can see the movement and staging of the dancers. Sometimes I can do this at a tech rehearsal, other times in the studio. This helps me know if there may be a better side of the stage to be on when shooting. It does help to see the dance and the lighting first, and I discuss details with the director about choreography and positioning myself in the theater. But I’ve done plenty of performance shooting without ever seeing the dance beforehand.
It depends on the situation. Sometimes, I’m able to photograph a full dress rehearsal, which is obviously preferable – no audience to disturb and I can move around in the house and get close to the stage to get the best angle. If shooting during an actual performance, it’s tricky. I need to be close to the stage but usually off to the side, away from the audience as much as possible so I won’t disturb their experience. Every theater is different, so I just have to find the best spot where I won’t be a distraction from the performance.
7. Is there a particular dancer or company that you would love to photograph? If so, who, and why?
So many! I would love to photograph Misty Copeland and Drew Jacoby, both very hot in the dance world right now. Both of them are gorgeous and have incredible technique and very athletic bodies. I actually did get a chance to shoot Drew Jacoby when she performed with Complexions at the Chicago Dancing Festival many years ago – she is simply stunning! I’d also love to photograph Maria Kowroski one day. She is a principal with NYCB, and she is from Grand Rapids as well. I saw her perform with Grand Rapids Ballet for many years before she moved to NYC, and she was quite an inspiration to myself and many young dancers at the School of Grand Rapids Ballet. Neguin, a b-boy from Brazil and winner of the Red Bull BC One in 2010, is also on the top of my list of favorite dancers. His style and talent make him so much more than a b-boy, he’s truly amazing to watch.
As far as a company, I would love to photograph Nederlands Dans Theater, because they are simply the most amazing dance company I’ve ever seen. I’d also love to work with Antics Performance, a fantastic hip hop company based in Los Angeles.
My digital camera is a Canon 5D Mark II, and I have a variety of lenses I use depending on the situation. For performances, I use a long lens – I have an 80-200mm f2.8 which I like for performances. For personal projects, I still love to shoot medium format film with my Hasselblad. I don’t get to use it very often anymore, but there’s nothing like that camera! The optics are fantastic and I love the square format.
9. What was the most challenging assignment you ever had?
A recent instance that comes to mind is when I photographed the Yoga Journal Conference last summer. I documented some of the classes and activities at the conference, which were held in very poorly lit and pretty unattractive hotel ballrooms and conference rooms. It was a challenge to make good images in an environment like that.
Basically, any scenario on location or on stage where there is poor lighting is a challenge.
10. What is next for you?
I’m focusing on building my portfolio of yoga photography right now. Currently, I am working on a book project with one of my yoga teachers, the beautiful and amazing Alexia Bauer. We’re collaborating to make a photography book of the Primary Series postures of Ashtanga yoga. I’m really excited about it. I’m going to make a Kickstarter fund to promote and sell advance copies of it. I’m also planning some shoots with dancers for personal projects that I’ll work on over the summer. Other than that, I’d really like to do some traveling soon, it’s been awhile since I spent time outside of Chicago!
Bio: Kristie Kahns is an accomplished photographer based in Chicago, specializing in capturing dance and creating dance-inspired portraits. Growing up in Grand Rapids, MI, Kristie was an avid young dancer, participating in many competitive dance companies and studying at the School of Grand Rapids Ballet. But a photography course in high school sparked her interest, and in 1998, she moved to Chicago to attend Columbia College, where she received a Bachelors degree in Photography. Remaining close to her original passion, collaborating with dancers seemed inevitable; thus, she has spent the past several years becoming a part of the Chicago dance community through her camera. She has worked as a freelance photographer for Cirque du Soleil, Diavolo Dance Theater, Dance/USA, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Chicago Tap Theatre, River North Chicago Dance Company, Chicago Human Rhythm Project, and many other dance organizations in Chicago. Her work has been published in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Time Out Chicago, and has been used for various marketing materials for dance performances and performing arts organizations nationwide.
She was a recipient of a Community Arts Assistance Program Grant through the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs in 2007 and 2009, and received an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant in 2010.
She enjoys continuing to explore the many manifestations of the dance medium in our world, from capoeira in Brazil, to the traditional dances at Native American powwows in New Mexico, to b-boy battles in Chicago. Through her camera, she pushes for new ways to express her admiration for movement artists of all kinds, and continues to allow her passion for photography and movement to evolve.
All photos courtesy of Kristie Kahns