“Hanging Out” by Derry Lubell.
Derry Lubell’s photography captures the motion of dance, the ephemeral magic of the art form that generally only exists at the moment of performance. Unless, of course, it is recorded by a talented photographer.
Lubell’s solo exhibition The Body Speaks: Dance • Movement • Emotion opened on July 2 at the Zack Gallery. The official opening on July 8 was in person, as the long months of COVID restrictions started to ease. The gallery’s latest email to its patrons joyously states: “Appointments are no longer needed to see the show in person. Come on in!”
When you do go in, you’re surrounded by dance and dancers, their beautiful faces, and their astounding bodies. The gallery is a quiet place, but you can almost hear the music floating in the air, while the graceful ballerinas leap and pirouette around you. Most images are black and white or rendered in muted colours. “I think you can see the lines better in black and white,” said Lubell in an interview with the Independent. “The colour is often distracting, and I don’t want that. I don’t like fussy. I want clean shots.”
Lubell has been an artistic photographer for about five years. “Before that, I had a career as a psychotherapist. I had a family to raise,” she mused. “I always had a small camera with me, since I was young, to photograph my family or places I visited, but it was casual, like memory shots. After I retired, I started thinking: what else do I want to do? I always enjoyed talking to people, understanding their emotions. I wanted to do something similar but without the responsibility. Photography allows that. Using photography, I can still communicate with people, discern their emotions, reach their hearts, but on a visual level, without words.”
The former psychotherapist reinvented herself as a photographer, and it led her on a long road of self-exploration, especially because the technology had progressed so much. “I had to learn computers,” she said. “I work harder now than before I retired. Shooting. Editing my pictures. Studying. Taking classes. Looking at other photographers’ images to see what works and what doesn’t. I put up my pictures on my website and Instagram, so others can see me, too.”
The dancing series is her latest, and it came about almost by accident. “I always enjoyed working with people who are comfortable with their bodies,” she said. “Even as a psychotherapist, I paid attention not only to words but to body language. Many people speak with their bodies. Dancers are the best at that.”
Her admiration of dancers prompted her a few years ago to enrol in dance lessons. “It was incredible,” she remembered. “The instructor was wonderful. I asked her: could I take your photograph? She agreed. After that, I photographed her and some of her students, and some other dancers.”
Lubell prefers taking pictures in people’s natural milieu. Some of the photos in the exhibit she took during rehearsals in the dancers’ studio spaces around the city. For others, she arranged meetings with the dancers outside, in urban surroundings, parks or the beach.
“Each session is an hour or two hours long. Each one is a collaboration between a photographer and a dancer,” she explained. “Together, we choose a location. I would ask her to bring half of her dancing wardrobe, and we try different costumes to see what works for the camera. I often select the background, and then the dancer would start dancing, and I would walk around and take shots. I might suggest a position or a prop, like ‘play against that log’ or ‘turn this way,’ but they are the performers. They like to perform. It is up to me to capture the perfect moment.”
One of those moments resulted in a unique picture. Only the legs of the dancer are showing. One wears a point shoe, posing like a coquette on a staircase. The other is still wearing a stiletto. The photo, titled “The Dichotomy,” emphasizes the dual nature of the subject: a woman and a dancer.
“It was sold before the show started,” Lubell said. “I brought pictures to the gallery to hang on the walls. Everything was still on the floor, in boxes. I left the gallery for a few minutes. When I came back, Hope [Forstenzer, the gallery director] said: ‘You know, this one just sold.’ Before it was even displayed.”
Another interesting image, “Form in Flight,” is of a young dancer in street clothing jumping in front of a brick wall. Lubell took the photo in Chinatown. “It is one of the oldest walls in the city,” she said. “I walked around Chinatown with that dancer. She is a student, but she loves dancing. When I saw that wall bordering a parking lot, I asked her to dance against it.” The dancer’s flight in the image is airy and joyful.
Several pictures display more than one dancer. One of those photos, called “Hanging Out,” is imbued with humour: one dancer is hanging from a wall with her hands, while the other is hanging upside down by her feet. “They are best friends,” Lubell said. “They met years ago as gymnasts. One does stunts for the movies now – she is the one who is upside down. I asked them to dance against the wall, and they started playing together, having fun. That mutual pose was a surprise to me.”
Lubell considers her dancers as partners in her art. “They have the right of veto. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes they would say: ‘Don’t use this picture, my leg is in the wrong position.’ And I won’t. I honour their requests. After all, they honour me by allowing me to shoot their photos.”
The Body Speaks is on display until Aug. 16. For more information, visit the photographer’s website, derrylubell.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].