Photo Album: Body and Sohl
What sets Marty Sohl's photographs apart from many other dance action shots is the crystalline clarity of her images, a result she attributes in part to developing her own film for over 20 years. Expressions captured on the dancers' faces move; their feet don't blur. As a former dancer -- Sohl performed for ten years with Carlos Carvajal's Bay Area-based Dance Spectrum -- Sohl knows how and when to arrest dancers in motion. And, since she took her first professional shot 26 years ago, Sohl's done it all over the world, producing the textbook images of everyone from San Francisco Ballet legend Evelyn Cisneros (and, more recently, SFB's Lucia Lacarra) to American Ballet Theatre and Royal Ballet mega-star Ethan Stiefel.
The openness on the dancers' faces -- and their freedom in en l'air when posing for Sohl -- may also owe something to the way she approaches her sessions. Some photographers entirely control their shoots, not inviting input from the dancer-subjects; some rely on the choreographers. "My studio shots," says Sohl, "are a collaborative effort." After she and the dancers brainstorm, she explains, "we start working on making their ideas into something that will look good with my lighting, and fit within the limited space of my 12' wide seamless backdrop."
Often, of course, the choreographer gets involved. "My shoots with Alonzo King's Lines Ballet are a collaboration between myself, the designer Robert Rosenwasser, Alonzo, and the dancers," says Sohl, whose images of Lines will be published as a Calendar next year by Tidemark. "Alonzo is able to bring out something deep from inside them, and that's what makes my Lines photos so unique...." In particular, Sohl has an almost haunting chemistry with Lines veteran Chiharu Shibata. Her ability to highlight extraordinary costume without sacrificing the individuality of the dancer is captured in a recent shot of the retiring Marina Hotchkiss. And, her unique facility at working with the dancers to create motion shots that depict the technical feat as well as the artistry of the subject is expressed in her images of Lauren Porter.
Also in the Bay Area, Sohl recently began shooting Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, including stunning shots of Boston Ballet transplant Alexandra Koltun, who dance insiders say is a star of the future. (She's one of two dancers performing the title role in Roland Petit's "Carmen" with San Jose this May.) Asked to name favorites to work with, Sohl responds with typical enthusiasm, "I have so many favorite dancers that I can't list them here. For a studio shoot, dancers who have a positive, upbeat attitude about the shoot make it fun. I've photographed a couple of ABT dancers who totally amazed me. The director asked them to do a certain jump, and they did it possibly as many as ten times -- just to make sure we got a good one. When I got the film back, not only was every jump perfect, but every jump was nearly exactly the same -- flawless. And they didn't complain that they were tired. They make my job easy!
"Another favorite that comes to mind was a couple of boys of about 10 years old who dance Chinese dance. They are trained in a style of Chinese martial arts. I believe they had never been photographed in action before, and when they discovered that I could catch them mid-air, they could hardly be stopped. With my digital camera, we could check to see what I caught, and they'd make corrections and jump again and again. Some of my favorite dancers to photograph, surprisingly, aren't even pros! Recently, I've shot a lot of young dancers for their audition photos, and I thoroughly enjoy it. The young dancers have an innocence and enthusiasm that is sometimes lacking in older dancers, who, often, just want to get the shoot over with."
In the realm of Chinese dance, Sohl has also recorded stunning images of Bay Area-based Lily Cai Chinese Dance.
Not that she's confined to the Bay Area. Sohl's talents are in worldwide demand, with everyone from Boston Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and dancers from the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago seeking her out. Not confined to dance, she's also a favorite of the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera.
Even for a popular veteran in as much demand as Sohl, being a dance photographer is a career hardly more secure than -- well, than being a dancer. "I've just barely made this a viable career," she confides. "If it weren't for my low overhead -- my office and darkroom are in my home, and I don't have a studio -- I couldn't do this work exclusively. The work and money are limited. Every time a photographer offers to do work for free for a company -- I'm speaking of companies with a decent budget -- they take work away from photographers who depend on those jobs for a living. In my case, especially, in order to make enough money to live on, I tend to take on more work than I can handle, which, after so many years, has affected my health. I'm at a point in my life where I'm trying to enjoy living, as well as my work, which means cutting back on the amount of work I take on. Whether I can survive or not remains to be seen."
For Sohl, enjoying life has included a return to dance as participant -- exploring a newfound fascinating for Argentine tango, born after she photographed performers from Luis Bravo's "Forever Tango."
--Paul Ben-Itzak Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider
(First posted in 2002. Some of the dancer affiliations in photos may have changed. Marty Sohl continues to photograph for the Metropolitan Opera, Metropolitan Classical Ballet, and other companies around the world. Click here to see her Dance Insider Photo Album of Metropolitan Classical Ballet.)