Dancers are known for their strong commitment to the art, working tirelessly to master a technique or memorize a combination of moves. What makes a dancer is this unparalleled sense of perseverance – a strength that cannot be overlooked. Jordan Matter, an internationally acclaimed photographer, captures the beauty of the performer in his latest book, Dancers After Dark. His collection of awe-inspiring photographs shot after dusk explore dancers lifting, leaping, kicking, and posing – but this time, in the nude. Culture Trip sat down with Jordan to learn more about this adventurous and wildly artistic venture.
How did you get your start in photography?
Years ago, I bicycled to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine. I grabbed my Instamatic to photograph the horizon and realized I had no idea how to use my camera. On my way down the mountain, I decided to take a photography course. I signed up for a beginner class on black and white printing, and when I saw my first print appear in the developer, I had a Hallelujah moment. I started carrying my camera around everywhere, shooting street scenes, taking my cues from legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Eventually, I found my own style as a portrait photographer, and my career took off.
How did you conceptualize Dancers After Dark?
My first book, Uncovered, features women of all shapes and sizes topless in NYC and includes interviews about their body image issues. My next book, Dancers Among Us, uses dancers to celebrate the beauty of everyday moments. Dancers After Dark seems to be an obvious extension of those two projects, but that’s not how it started. It was pure serendipity. A circus artist I had photographed several times suggested we shoot some nudes. I had not done many, and I didn’t want to copy nude photos taken by other photographers, so I suggested we shoot outside at night. We found a private streetlight near my studio after midnight. The images were very raw, and it sparked my interest. I continued to shoot in that hidden, gritty, New York City style for several months, allowing the project to slowly develop. One night, I came out of the shadows, and on a whim, I photographed three naked ballerinas in front of Lincoln Center. The experience was thrilling, and I realized that I needed to take more risks. Suddenly, I was booking plane tickets, traveling around Europe and North America, and shooting in front of the most iconic locations I could find.
What is your message? What do you hope your book will achieve?
Dancers are fearless dreamers. Many have left the comfort zone of a familiar life to pursue an ambition fraught with nearly impossible odds of success. They work countless hours over many years, driven not by profit or fame but by a quest to bring their dream world to reality. Etched into their bodies is extraordinary perseverance, and when stripped of their clothing, we see each layer of muscle and every subtlety of expression. They are an inspiring embodiment of intense commitment to a life’s passion. Dancers After Dark celebrates this optimism. It is about a willingness to say yes to the unlikely, the outrageous, the impractical.
How has your book been received so far?
That depends on your expectations. Personally, I think every household in the world should have Dancers After Dark on their coffee table, so by that measurement, it falls short (so far). But by all objective standards, the reception has been universally positive. I assumed I would take some heat for the subject matter, but instead, the book has gotten rave reviews throughout the media. We’ve recently had two sold-out book launches (in the United States and Europe), and people have been genuinely effusive in their praise, so hopefully the excitement will continue to build.
How did you choose the locations?
Pure serendipity. I would have several dancers meet me somewhere centrally located, and then we would walk or drive around until I saw something interesting. Rarely did I have an idea ahead of time. I was looking for beauty and daring – I wanted a location that would take my breath away, terrify me, or both. Once we found the spot, all of us would collaborate together to discover the pose. There are several videos by filmmaker Sandy Chase at www.dancersafterdark.com that beautifully document the creative process.
If you had to choose, which photograph are you most proud of?
That’s very difficult. I am incredibly proud of this book, and each photograph represents a shared adventure I will never forget. If I have to pick one, I’ll say the final photo I took. As the project progressed, I started challenging myself with more extreme locations, poses, and, most importantly, groups. What began with individual dancers hidden in the shadows eventually became large groups in the middle of busy streets. The final photo featured a group of 25 dancers naked in front of the iconic Washington Square Arch in New York City. People broke into groups, and dancers were choreographing each other. The creative energy was frenetic and inspiring. The idea was so ambitious that excitement was palpable throughout the park. A big crowd of people had gathered behind me, and everyone went silent as I called out, ‘On three, drop your clothes and run into position. One . . . two . . . THREE!’
They stayed in position for 43 seconds, but it felt like an hour. When I yelled ‘BREAK!’, the park erupted into spontaneous applause for what these brave and talented dancers had just accomplished. I reviewed the photos and announced that we got it! The shot, the evening, and the project were done! Five minutes later, the police arrived, closing down a park we had all assumed stayed open all night. My streak of zero arrests remained intact!
How did you connect with the dancers featured? Were they open to the idea at first?
Dancers Among Us was a bestseller, so I began Dancers After Dark with a strong base of support. If I had come right out of the gate with this project, I may have struggled to find dancers. Instead, the response was unbelievable. Because I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, I did not reach out to many performers. Instead, I began posting photos on social media, and they reached out to me, asking to participate. I was shocked by their immediate enthusiasm. I photographed over 300 dancers for this book, and there were at least that many more volunteers I never had a chance to meet. They would sometimes travel for hours to join me for an evening. It was very humbling and definitely motivated me to make each photograph justify their effort. This project features performers from many of the top companies in the world, and I believe they all participated because they understood it was a celebration of their fearless beauty. And perhaps they were in the mood for an adventure.
How long did the project take you from start to finish?
Any regrets, or things you wish you would have done differently?
Honestly, not one. I think it’s as close to perfect as I’m capable of getting.
My next book is Tiny Dancers Among Us, which is like a prequel to Dancers Among Us, celebrating the magic of childhood. Workman Publishing will release it in the fall of 2018. I’ve gone from naked adults to adorable kids. I guess babies will be next.
Catch more of Jordan’s work on his Instagram, Facebook, and website. Ready to purchase a copy of Dancers After Dark? Get yours here. And don’t miss the behind-the-scenes video of Jordan shooting more than 300 dancers in 400 different locations across the globe.