Sasha Arutyunova was born in Moscow, Russia, and raised in Florida. As a child she was taught to appreciate dance, so when Arutyunova was commissioned to photograph Claire Kretzschmer, a member of the corps de ballet for the New York City Ballet, it was a dream gig. Arutyunova shadowed Kretzschmer for 48 hours, and the assignment felt like a collaboration because Kretzschmer’s training as a performer gave her a greater intuition than most subjects about how a photograph should be composed. The resulting photo series was honored in PDN’s 2018 Photo Annual in the Magazine/Editorial category.
PDN’s Photo Annual is now open for entries for 2019. Visit www.pdnphotoannual.com to learn more and enter.
PDN: How did this assignment come about?
Sasha Arutyunova: It was assigned to me by Alana Celii for the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times.
PDN: For the image of the dancers captured as they’re performing, where were you positioned in order to achieve this vantage point?
SA: I was on the rafters directly over the stage, next to a lot of lighting equipment.
PDN: Have you ever photographed ballerinas before? How was this shoot different than shooting other subjects?
SA: I had done a few dance commissions for the Times prior to this shoot, specifically mixing photo and video for their Speaking in Dance series. I hadn’t yet been given an assignment to shadow a ballet dancer so closely, but it’s something I had always wanted to do. Shooting Claire was a dream because, while her schedule was chaotic, she was so in tune to the rhythm of it and at ease in terms of giving me intimate access. It’s a real pleasure to shoot someone who can not only move but also understands, as a professional performer, what makes a great image. That synergy created a wonderfully collaborative process that we explored over a couple of days.
PDN: What is your favorite element of the overhead performance photograph?
SA: What stood out immediately to me about this shot was how painterly it feels. I feel like, for a lot of work that focuses on ballet, Degas is a reference. It felt exciting to capture a little bit of that spirit. I’m from Moscow, so Swan Lake was part of my cultural upbringing; getting the opportunity to watch a seminal piece performed from such a unique vantage point was a pretty emotional experience.
PDN: What was the biggest lesson you learned from this shoot?
SA: I learned to always be paying attention and problem solving, even when nothing is going on. When you’re given a few days to shadow someone, it can feel like there may be off moments, but you never know when something really special might happen when you’re looking the other way. Trying out new angles can also completely refresh your perspective. I was definitely on blissful overdrive covering a subject matter I’ve always wanted to shoot, and I think a consistently inquisitive spirit was what helped me produce such a variety of images in a relatively short period of time.