Tommy Panto, a 6-foot-4-inch dancer with Atlanta Ballet, stood in a jail cell. As he arched his back and clung to the metal window grate for support, his feet shied away from dust bunnies and grime (below). A camera clicked.
Panto wasn’t in jail, but on a movie set at Special Projects, a scenic components shop in Atlanta. He was dancing and posing for Jordan Matter, the New-York-based photographer of “Dancers Among Us,” a project for which he shoots dancers in extraordinary positions in everyday, and not so everyday, locations.
Matter is touring the country, photographing a diverse array of dancers. He hopes to add at least 15 Atlanta shots to the 200 images he’s taken in such spots as New York’s Carnegie Deli and Apollo Theater, which will appear in an eponymous book for Workman Publishing, set to come out in 2013.
“Dancers Among Us” began with a simple inspiration. “The idea really came from watching my son play,” Matter explained between photo shoots in Midtown. “He was three at the time, and the joy of the small, everyday things was so present. I started thinking that we lose that joy at a certain point in our lives. So I thought that maybe I could use the dancers to embody the joy children feel in everyday events.”
Unlike most dance photographers, Matter says he is unconcerned with having “a pretty pose in a pretty place,” preferring to be “in each moment fully by asking what a real person would actually be doing there.”
The jail scenario represents a new direction. “Initially, it was joyful, small things, like having a cup of coffee, cheering in Yankee Stadium, catching the train,” he said. “Now I am starting to explore not-so-joyful moments in life, like harder, industrial areas. I shot in a cemetery recently.”
While in Atlanta, Matter wanted to test out some of these harder, less happy feelings while also capturing the South’s unique offerings, such as beautiful old homes, small towns and country roads, not to mention Little Five Points and the Varsity. He chose to shoot here because he had received many comments on Facebook along the lines of “Come to Atlanta. You have to bring ‘Dancers Among Us’ to Atlanta.”
So, when Matter first posted on Facebook that he was coming here, he expected great feedback. After absolutely no response, he began to fret. The project has always been somewhat risky, because it depends on dancers who’ll volunteer to pose for his shots, and Matter had already booked airline tickets and a hotel room. He wrote a strongly worded, almost desperate blog post begging for some “love.” Shortly afterward, more than 50 dancers volunteered.
Abby McDowell Hyatt of the Georgia Ballet was excited to be among the finalists he selected. “After looking at his work online, I loved the colors,” she said. “There is one photo of one dancer in front of Macy’s with a red outfit and a red umbrella [above]. I thought that was so awesome!
“I like the thought of humanizing the dancer, but still having the beautiful aesthetic of the [dancer’s] lines.”
Matter says his work is fundamentally about emotion. “If we really invest ourselves in each moment, then we are going to have a very full life. What happens so much is that we turn off to everything. We can go about our day and not feel anything. This is about feeling things.”