It’s unlikely that a young Vietnam War combat photographer would eventually find a calling in the art of dance photography. But after a successful career as an architect and businessman, Atlanta-based Richard Calmes unexpectedly discovered a passion for capturing “bursts of beauty” in dance.
Calmes has photographed dancers in numerous settings across the country, with work published in The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications. Notably, his images show dancers’ body lines and structure; they reveal the athleticism that creates an appearance of effortlessness. His eye for dramatic lighting and color enhances the composition of his work. Although his photos portray a somewhat idealistic world, they capture the raw reality of dancers’ strength, dedication and passion.
Recently, I spoke with Calmes about his life and his work as a dance photographer.
Chelsea Thomas: How did you begin shooting dance photography?
Richard Calmes: My daughter grew up dancing, so I have been around dance for a long time. When my daughter was growing up, I was into video. I videoed many of her performances and rehearsals. I got to understand a lot about choreography and to appreciate dancers.
After my wife took a job with a local ballet company as marketing director, one day she said she needed some photos. I took my video lights, which really are not appropriate for still photography, and set those up in a studio. I took the pictures and enjoyed it. That was seven years ago, and my photography has really grown, because I enjoy doing it.
Thomas: In comparison with other dance photographers, such as Lois Greenfield, what differentiates your work?
Calmes: I shot photographs in Lois Greenfield’s studio for a weekend in New York. I got to know her and to appreciate her work. She has done a lot to bring dance into the public eye. But she is strictly a studio shooter, and I prefer to shoot not only in the studio but out in the world. Also, when I photograph dancers, it is a total collaborative effort. Any shot I have tried to do has been better because a dancer has added something to it.
Thomas: I have heard that you shoot dance photography free of charge. Is this true, and if so, what inspires you to do so?
Calmes: First of all, this whole dance project is something I have done as a retiree hobby. I haven’t really needed the income. The other thing is that there is not much money in dance. For the work that goes into it, dancers are paid less than any other entertainment medium. When I started, I looked at whom I was doing it for, and they really didn’t have the money to pay me. Although they offered to, I knew it would be a sacrifice for them. Now I do many shots where I pay the dancers. If the dancers are professionals, I pay them because they deserve it.
Thomas: You have recently published two books, “Dance Magic” and “Water Dance.” How did your goals as a photographer lead to publishing books?
Calmes: I am asked all the time for prints, and I have not wanted to get into that business. But other than being online, people did not have access to my work. So I came up with the idea to have a book. My first book, “Dance Magic,” incorporates all my work. I talk about how some of the pictures were made from a logistical and inspirational point of view — how we did it, why we did it, and a side story of what went on.
I realized I had enough pictures in and around water that [showed] something different. When you put a dancer in water, you see the way the water flows and splashes. It creates a whole new world.
Thomas: How would you describe the challenges of photographing dance?
Calmes: Knowing your subject can be a challenge. The other challenge is to find beautiful dancers. Photographs of the dancer are only as great as the dancer is. Although I can make an average dancer look great for a thousandth of a second, shooting a great dancer is even more exhilarating.
Thomas: Lastly, what else would you like for people to know about your photography?
Calmes: One of the great things about my photography is that I have seen the effects it has had on the individual dancer. I had a professional dancer from a prestigious company in the studio. She looked at a picture I had just taken of her and said, “I didn’t know I was that good.” That dancer has since gone on to be one of the 10 best performing dancers in America [listed among Pointe Magazine’s "Best of the Best” standout performances of 2011]. I don’t know if I had anything to do with that, but many times, dancers see pictures I have shot of them and they feel so proud. Those kinds of experiences make photography special for me.