Interview: Behind the Lens with Mark Mann

Mark’s new dance photography book, Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance is available now! And don’t miss An Evening of Dance on April 10th at The Joyce.

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Mark Mann has photographed everyone. Google his name, and you will find hundreds of famous people he has exquisitely captured through the lens of his camera.

Actors. Musicians. Presidents. Literally everyone in the public consciousness.

But perhaps his greatest undertaking was during the COVID-19 lockdown, when he could no longer work as he used to. "I thought I had this creative block," he shares of the time. "But [really], what I did was taken away from me." So, he turned to Loni Landon, a respected contemporary choreographer-and his sister-in-law-and the two joined forces to celebrate a group of artists who too had their craft taken away: dancers. And what was created? His new, fabulous coffee table book, Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance.

I sat down with Mark to chat about this incredible accomplishment:

Q: I love the double entendre of the title, Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance-you're capturing dynamic moments in still frames, but you're also speaking to the stillness of COVID-19; when the world was on pause. How did you set out to create this book?

Mann: During the pandemic...I realized I was just sad. I was just sad that I had lost something and literally, I didn't know what I had until I lost it. So Loni [Landon] came over and...I was chatting, probably, waxing lyrical and feeling sorry for myself...I was missing the human connection, the energy, the feeling you get when other people are in a room and something's going on. And she said "You know, all the dancers are feeling exactly like that. Why don't you photograph them?" I thought "Hmmm...How would [I] do that?" And you know, I've been a photographer a long time. So I knew how to shoot it...but it's one thing knowing how to do it and actually doing it. So, it was very challenging because it turned everything I knew about photography completely on its head. I was shooting with natural light-I've never used natural light in my life. The other thing was composing full body. Look, the dancers made that easy...but it was challenging for me because I've never done it before. So, we did about 5 or 10 dancers, a lot of Loni's friends. And, somebody said, "Maybe you should do a book." I always wanted to do a book...and when [Rizzoli] got on board, people started to come to us and wanted to be in the book.

Q: What I loved most about your book is that you have such a variety of dancers and you could feel the difference captured from the modern technique vs the ballet technique vs the Broadway technique. The juxtaposition you did of these full body shots and the artists' faces in these could feel them.

Mann: The artists' faces were shot just after they danced. That was really important to me, because that was joy.

Q: You could feel that! So I'm curious, not having much familiarity with dance photography, was there something in particular you were searching for with every person?

Mann: I think I approached it how I approach all my portraits. The more time I can get one-on-one with you before there's a camera involved, the happier I am. That aspect of things is really really important to me. And the more I can gain from talking to you, and being honest and showing my integrity to you...the more you're going to get out of this. The only difference was I didn't know what was going to happen. I remember Rena Butler, she was the first dancer we photographed. And Rena started to move and I literally forgot to take photos. Because I'm watching her, and I went "Whoa. Wow." It was just gorgeous and exciting. [To see] world class people doing world class things, for you, [it was amazing]. We had this big industrial space and I wanted people to be able to see behind the scenes. Because I didn't want the dancers to feel constrained and I didn't want to be constrained. And then, everything else just came together.

Q: What is something that surprised you and that you learned about yourself during this process?

Mann: It's easy. I learned how to be still and let somebody else breathe in my space and watch and observe in a way that I had never done before. And, I'm a portrait photographer, that's what I'm known for. But, I'm a clown. [laughs] And you know, this behavior, trying to make people smile, make people laugh, goes way beyond one-on-one in a portrait session-It's happening right now. And now, I suppose, I'm maybe trying to roll it back a bit in photography and let other people breathe in the space and have the freedom to do what they want to do.

Q: Dance is one of those art forms in particular that is, in a larger societal sense, under-appreciated or misunderstood. That intersection between dance and photography is very important and what you've done is captured them both equally. How do you want this to reverberate into the world at large?

Mann: Wow, great question. The first thing is that we did this project and we had no idea where it was going or what it was going to be. But the one thing I said to every dancer immediately is "I don't know where this is going, but if it is a book, we'll be sharing every penny of profit between all the participants." Every dancer got their pictures that are theirs, and are free to use. And I was determined to not take advantage of anybody. Something that comes through in the book is that every dancer knew that, and I think the fact that everybody trusted me as an artist...I think that says a lot in the photos as well. I mean, definitely my appreciation of dance went to "wow" very quickly. And I hope people have a different appreciation of photography or dance or both. It's just a little project and I hope people like it. That's all I can hope for.


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