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You’ve seen it framed on dorm walls, especially at arts colleges: A poster of a ballet dancer’s legs, crossed in the fifth position, dressed in tattered, battered slippers, socks and leg warmers on a scuffed rehearsal floor. In that single image, of which countless have been sold as prints, we feel the heedless dedication a young dancer, where nothing matters but the work – and where every ragged tear and permanent crease is a scar of honor as if won on a battlefield. Those comfortable and familiar rehearsal clothes will be shed at some point for a glittering jewel of a costume, to be worn in some ephemeral and magical fantasy of movement and beauty. And then the next day, it’s back to those reliable old leg warmers.


Harvey Edwards Ballet Dancer Legs

©Harvey Edwards


The artist behind that iconic image is Harvey Edwards. Born in New York City in 1946, he began taking photography lessons at age 10. A decade later, he was an Air Force aerial photographer during the Vietnam War. He returned to shoot commissioned commercial photos for such major corporations and nonprofits as Ford, Sony, Coca-Cola, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the New York Philharmonic. And since then, his hybrid eye – part documentarian, part artist of abstract form – has celebrated the world of dance and dancers in a singular and highly recognizable way. As Newsday once wrote, Edwards “has captured the spirit of dance and the emotional sweat and strain it takes to become a true dancer.” In his 1989 book The Art of Dance (Bullfinch), one dancer admired how he captured not only the art’s glamour but also her colleagues' "bulldog work habit."


Edwards is preparing to release a new book this year, Celebrities Unveiled, with art nudes of Lindsay Lohan and others. A sampling of his work, new and old, appears at HarveyEdwards.com and HarveyEdwards.net.


Harvey Edwards portraits

©Harvey Edwards


Many sources exist to teach about shooting dance in performance, from how to capture a leap at its height to which strobe lights to use. In this exclusive Master Photographers Q&A, however, the master of behind-the-scenes dance photography explains how to shoot not the dance … but the dancers.


Harvey Edwards photographer

©Harvey Edwards


What do we mean by "shooting dancers but not dance"? What's the difference?


When I was young my cousin, Bruce Marks, was studying to be a dancer. I saw the sweat and grinding work that it took. That was visually embedded in me. I couldn't forget all the work, emotion and dedication that went into becoming a working dancer. Bruce later danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and then American Ballet Theatre before becoming artistic director of the Boston Ballet. He was my inspiration. 


When people think of ballet they think of the on-stage performance, which looks so easy but that's far from the truth. It takes years of hard work and dedication for just those few minutes of beauty and grace onstage. I decided that I wanted to show the emotion, dedication and love they have for the art without any knowledge of whether they will make it or not. I also wanted to capture it in a way that I could visually share with others. 


Most of my work focuses on the core of the subject -- capturing their emotion and strength in an almost abstract form. I find that this is more powerful and effective in conveying the image and is more powerful and provocative than showing "the dance," which tends to be flat and emotionless. 


Harvey Edwards ballet photos

©Harvey Edwards


What's the best way to approach one’s local community dance company or local college dance department to seek permission to shoot? Should one show them a portfolio? Offer to give them prints they can use for publicity? Something else?


When I first started to shoot dance I would approach the ballet master of the studio and ask if I could observe a class and take a few shots during it. But first I observed and made sure that I would not get in the way or disrupt the class. I just watched and watched and watched. Patience is key. I told him that I wanted to capture powerful images that most people never see. At that time the only images that portrayed dance were created by the artist Degas, and the photographers hired by dance companies to be used for advertising purposes. I wanted to go deeper into the dancers’ souls and show what it takes to become a "Dancer". 


The ballet master was interested in what I was attempting to create, so for months and months every day I would watch and occasionally shoot. Watching the students over and over was key to selecting the visual expressions, even if it was a small area within the human form that showed the power, grace and beauty of the dancer. The ballet master wanted me to take the class so I would also experience the pain and suffering that a dancer goes through. I took several classes, and boy did I feel that pain! I realized I would be better behind the camera than in front. 


I always give some prints or posters that were published to the studios or companies that I have used for my images.


Related to that, once one has permission, how does one keep the dancers from becoming self-conscious of the camera? Do I talk to them, or just let the company head introduce me and leave it at that? How do I keep them at ease? How do I handle it graciously if a dancer refuses to be photographed?


The best way to capture these images, for me, was to make myself invisible. Because I was there so often and usually just observing and taking some notes I became part of the background. I never got in their way or distracted them from what they were doing. 


When I first approached the ballet master with my intentions, he introduced me and told the class to just ignore me, and it worked. During breaks I would talk to the dancers so I became "part of the class." After a couple of months of shooting them, I brought in some prints to show them my point of view. They knew I "understood them" and they were happy to have me there then because they knew I wasn't exploiting them but rather I was validating their world. 


I never force myself into a situation, but rather waited for their acceptance. This holds true when shooting in public as well. I always ask first and if a person objects I just say thank you and move on. You never want a reputation of being hard to work with. You want to make a shoot enjoyable for everyone. People tend to relax when they are enjoying themselves, and you get the best shots because then it's easier to share who they are with you.


What are good things to focus on? "Leg Warmers" is a great example of "the telling detail," in which the ragged leg warmers and shoes tell a whole story in and of themselves. What other kinds of things can help one tell the story of what it's like to be a hard-working dancer?


As I said earlier, I feel that in order to allow the viewer to see what I see, it is easier to portray the energy or emotion within a particular subject matter. With "Leg Warmers," it's the wear and the tear and the tape on the slippers holding them together that shows the struggle and sacrifice that a dancer endures. With "Hands," you see the strength in the arms holding the dancer. With "Red Shoes," you see all the rehearsal shoes a dancer goes through for that moment of glory when they put on the red shoes for the performance. You must strip the story down to its essence. That philosophy holds true for any subject matter.


"Leg Warmers," which is known worldwide, was captured one day in 1978 during class when, sitting by the sidelines, I noticed this one dancer wearing worn and tattered leg warmers and one of his ballet shoes with duct tape. It hit me like a bolt of lighting: That one partial image said it all. It encompasses all the work and dedication a dancer goes through to achieve that one great performance on stage. It doesn't matter what they look like at class -- it matters how they can express their inner emotions through the art of dance.


Technically speaking now, I imagine one should not use flash, which can distract / annoy the dancers. Or is that not so? Can one use flash? What types of settings work best for such indoor shots, which may or may not be well-lit? Is a tripod a good idea, or is that also distracting?


When I shoot I only use natural lighting. I feel the light should flow over the subject and life should be captured in a way that nature intended it to be. Shooting with flash usually distracts from creating the image and jars the subject, which in my opinion, can ruin the image. My goal first and foremost is to create a work of art that expresses inner emotions, and, secondly, to move other people who view it. As dance is movement, a tripod would be anti-productive unless I'm shooting a still life such as "Ballet Shoes".


In terms of setting, I always bracket all my shots since sometimes the image takes on a more moody look or, if it's lighter, highlights can give it a more romantic mood. By bracketing, I have a choice. I usually use a fine grain due to the fact that when enlarging my prints to 24-by-36 inches it remains sharp and has detail.


Finally, how do I know when I've got the story? 


Being a good photographer is very similar to being a good writer. You must be able to tell a story. A 35mm camera is excellent to show movement and spontaneity, and is relatively unobtrusive. For still life, I use a Hasselblad medium format. Different cameras allow you to tell different stories.


Personally, I like film for its tactile nature: You hold it, touch it, feel it. Today's world is too harried, too fast. Film allows you to slow down and enjoy the experience. And then when you see your images, when you see the contact sheet, you feel it -- you know when the story is finished.






Hasselblad H2 film

Canon EOS for film 

EOS-1Ds Mark III      



Assorted Hasselblad lens

Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L IS

Canon 24-70 mm f 2.8 L

Canon 35 mm f 1.4L

I have other lenses but these are my primary ones I use the most.



Fujichrome Velvia 50

Fujichrome Velvia 100



Gitzo Studio tripod

Sekonic L-358 light meter

As far as lighting, I use natural light usually by a window, or reflect it from a 40x60-inch white foam-core board.

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