A Flash of Light: Chris Nash

Dance photography specialist Chris Nash is filmed in action

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Video Transcript

(Phoenix Dance Theatre rehearsing in their new headquarters in Leeds.)

Chris Nash (CN):Ok?

[Camera click]

Voice in background: That’s good.

CN:and again… ok… yeah…

[Camera click]

CN (Narrating from his studio):I take an approach where I sort of draw on my fine art background really, and I look at the figure first, and I think of the dancer as being like a painting or a drawing or something…so I think about line, and light and shade, and all of those things that you would think about if you were actually painting from the figure or drawing from the figure…

CN(On the shoot): …And again

CN (Narrating):… And that then leads itself to you looking at dance in a particular way, and thinking about particular moments, that will be striking because of the way the body is angled or the aspect of, you know, an arm cutting across the torso.

CN (On the shoot):And I can darken that colour and change the actual quality of the colour so it can be more orangey or… I know it’s pretty much the same as the skirt

Voices in background: the same as the skirt…you can make it look good…

(Scene changes to outdoors in the car park at Laban with Transitions Dance Company)

CN (Narrating):I try and add a touch that makes the image visually striking, I sort of start thinking about it like that.

CN (on the shoot – talking about a light):We need to angle it up if it will.

(Scene changes, CN shows us picture of a dancer)

CN (Narrating):This is a picture of Helen, the student that I met at Laban when I was still an art student. This is a very important picture for me because it crystallised all my ideas about what photography could be, the way that light and the mechanics of a camera and movement come together…

(Scene changes, back to car park and Laban)

CN:Lets swap over one of the soft boxes.

CN (Narrating):Well when I get a commission, quite often its before the piece has been made so in a way you’re presented with a kind of blank canvas, so you’ve only got the choreographer’s ideas to work with, rather than any specific bits of choreography quite often. You’ve got, you know, a few hours to work on the images and, you know, turn them into ‘gems’ that they are and so it’s often quite tight!

CN(on the shoot): Are you just going to take it straight down?

Will Eastering [Constructor]:Yep.

CN (Narrating):Before the Laban shoot I had suggested to them that it might be interesting to build a little performance area in the middle of the car park so we could have it as a sort of installation. I was thinking about the way that the sun was tracking around that space and I thought if we’ve got something that will throw them into shadow, but they will be backlit by the sun, that would be quite useful, that’s quite a nice lighting set up…

(Background sound, dancers talking)

… and I also like the way that that plywood background isolated them from their surroundings. It was quite important to show that edge and what happened outside of  of that edge; that there was real life outside and then inside it was the sort of, the theatricality that was going on.

(at the Laban shoot)

CN:Lets see it now, lets see it with the kick.

David Waring [Artistic Director, Transitions] (DW): One, two, three…

CN: Yeah that’s good, that’s good.

DW:Great, very nice everyone.

CN: Someone needs to reposition the light on him… ok shall we go for one?

Dancer:Oops

DW:Ready? Everyone in their place please? One, two, three…

[Camera Clicks]

CN:This space here… you see… or we could move these two maybe this way a bit, keep him central, move these two over.

DW:So Claire and Adam if you could be slightly over this way… yeah, oh perfect thanks.

CN: OK, let’s Go Again

DW: One, two, three….

[Camera clicks]

CN (Narrating):One of the dancers was doing a very high kick and I thought actually that’s being lost in the group there, so it would be good to just make sure that I get that on its own.

DW: Ok, sorry we’re just going to do Clement on his own doing that…one, two, three.

CN:Great I’m just going to try it from an angle as well just so that its not so straight on… is it pointing out, is the head pointing out Shira?

CN (Narrating):…. The lighting was right at that moment, he was backlit by the sun and he was front lit by my big soft box on the flash unit, so I thought ‘we can’t let that go, let’s get him to do that on his own’.

CN:OK, let’s go for one.

DW:A  One, two, three…

[Camera Clicks]

CN:Nice

CN (Narrating):It worked; him very angular, very straight up and with the sort of geometry of the backdrop and the way that the shadows were falling on the floor.

CN:And again.

DW:One, two, three…

CN:Great. OK, here we go,

DW:One, two, three…That’s nice. One, two ,three…

CN: That’s nice, as a landscape shot – that’s fantastic. Oh my god!

(Scene changes, to Chris Nash in his office)

CN: This image is from a photo shoot that I did for Richard Alston Dance Company [Red Run image]. I’ve used a combination of flash and tungsten light. So the flash goes off, but then I combine that with a longish shutter speed of about a quarter of a second or so. So the flash will go off, freeze the moment, that I’m after but then the shutter stays open after the flash finishes and then the tungsten light fills in that quarter of a second with a bit more movement and a bit of blur and it provides this blur that you can see around the edges of the dress and across the leg there.

So my next step is to get some texture and colour into the picture. I then scanned this black and white negative – it’s an old concrete wall – and then added in this colour screen, which I’ve just made on the computer, and I’ve overlaid that onto the texture screen. And then I can take that and put it in and combine it with the original picture in various ways. So you can gradually change the look of the picture depending on how you combine the layers together. And that ends up as the final image that was used for their posters and to promote the show and I think it makes a very striking image.

(Scene changes back to Phoenix Dance Theatre)

[Multiple camera clicks]

Sharon Watson [Artistic Director, Phoenix] (SW):Is that working?

CN (Narrating):I think about pictures as being little stories, so you can look at it and get the story immediately, or maybe you look at it and you get a bit of the story and you’re intrigued about the rest of the story so you keep looking.

(Image shows Phoenix dancer on rope, while Chris captures the image)

[Multiple camera clicks]

CN (Narrating):The thing about this picture is that you’ve got this dancer emerging out of this light and swinging towards the camera and I deliberately used a wide angle lens to exaggerate that perspective. You’ve got this swing towards the camera which is dynamic in itself.  So that sort of becomes the story of the picture. And then I also thought well its quite interesting, when we did some pictures where she was high up and away from the floor and so on, I thought actually, to emphasise the fact that she is hanging there, you need to have that relationship with the floor because otherwise she’s just in an empty space and you don’t get any idea about the height of it, the hanging quality of it and so on. So then when she started swinging quite low down and was almost touching the floor…

Voice in background:Oh that’s a good one, that’s a good one.

CN (narrating)…I thought, oh now this is interesting.

CN (on shoot):Keep that shape, keep that shape… keep it

(Scene changes to CN in office with finished print)

CN (Narrating):That moment of ‘just about to touch the floor’ or ‘just leaving it’, is kind of what the picture is about, that’s kind of the little story of the picture.

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An exhibition of the work of Chris Nash's dance photography opened in the V&A Theatre and Performance Galleries in March 2011.

In this specially commissioned film, filmed on location both at the Laban Dance Centre in London and Phoenix Dance Theatre in Leeds, Nash explains how his very particular way of shooting dance and dancers has emerged and evolved during his illustrious 20 year career.