The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 18
Brian Slater - Lord of the Dance by Gillian Greenwood
Sydney Carter wrote Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he, And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he. It could be the theme music for photographer Brian Slater's life as a dance photographer.
Among the supreme masterpieces of the nineteenth century are Edgar Degas's pastels and oil paintings of the ballet and its dancers, which he painted at the height of his powers in the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties.
To attempt to capture the resonance of an image that is an unfettered expression of graceful movement on either canvas or film is in itself a paradox, a dichotomy.
Photographing dance, grasping the vision of that movement and transforming it to a motionless still without losing fluidity or fluency, is perhaps a task for a magician.
Theatre and dance photographer, Brian Slater is one such magician. He captures the effervescent energy of dance with vibrant brush strokes. Seamlessly and without effort, he catches moods, emotive gestures, mercurial moments of raw energy, and never loses the impassioned rush of motion, the heat of the tempo. He uses a palette of colours, the luminescence of light or the depth of shadow with the ease and vision of an Old Master. Each image is spellbinding, dazzling.
In many ways, like Degas, in his conception of design he is entirely individual. Perhaps like Degas too, the study and conveying of movement has become Brian Slater's chosen task.
How did you first become interested in photography?
I first became interested in photography around the age of thirteen. My father had small darkroom and an Elioflex twin lens reflex camera1. I remember a collection of dark heavy bottles filled with smelly chemicals! I did not understand much in the way of darkroom technique but I managed to print some my father's 6 x 6 negatives. My father had a great eye for a candid picture and I often think he could have been the Cartier-Bresson of North Manchester if he had persisted!
My first serious attempt at taking pictures was at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in the early nineteen-seventies. I used to love the pictures in the music press at the time, principally NME (New Musical Express) and Melody Maker. So I took the Elioflex when I went to see The Who, my favourite band to this day still. I was in the crush at the edge of the stage trying to frame and focus. I remember elbows digging into me and I kept losing concentration as I tried to catch one of Keith Moon's flying drumsticks. My best shot that night was of Pete Townshend's desert boots. Not a great artistic success, but the experience, the excitement and adrenalin opened a photographic door in my mind.
Did you receive formal training as a photographer or were you self-taught?
I studied photography as part of a degree course, and was able to absorb a lot of the technique I needed as a photographer. It was possible to work all night and into the early hours of the morning in the campus darkroom and the time spent there was a gift. I had a Pentax Spotmatic at the time and used to copy my 35mm negatives onto large sheets of Fuji lith film for photo screen-printing, or I used to contact print the lith onto Ilford black and white photo paper. I loved the high contrast.
What led you towards photographing dance as a medium of expression?
My first involvement in dance photography happened at university. The campus dance department was just down the corridor from the darkrooms. I used to photograph the dancers usually with the aim of producing a screen-printed poster to advertise a performance. However, in the process I became fascinated with trying to capture movement in stage lighting, and more often than not, low levels of stage lighting.
There were not any really fast films around at the time; TMAX 3200 and Ilford Delta 3200 were still years away and I used to push-process Ilford HP5 in a cocktail of developers, some more successful than others, but it was useful to experiment.
Following graduation, I moved to London to take a place on a post-graduate course at University of London Goldsmiths' College. My photography still had a screen-printing link, but I came under the influence of John Hunnex who led the Goldsmiths' photography course at the time. John's lectures and passion for photography convinced me I needed to concentrate more on taking pictures. Another great Goldsmiths' influence was Martin Durrant, still at Goldsmiths, whose meticulous approach to darkroom technique taught me a lot about quality and consistency in printing.
During my postgraduate year, I acquired my first Nikon - a pre-owned F2, which was a lovely camera and, of course, gave me access to the Nikon lens range. I continued photographing dancers at the Laban Centre, which was situated next to Goldsmiths at the time.
Even though I loved to photograph dance, there was not a career or a living in it then. It was the genesis of the British Contemporary Dance scene and I taught in a secondary school for a few years while taking pictures for dance companies and organizations in my free time. However, during this time, I took the opportunity to build up increasing experience as a dance photographer and my Nikon kit.
Fast lenses were crucial to be able to freeze moments without flash and in order to work unobtrusively. I had two FM2ns by then with MD-12s and some very nice lenses including the 50mm f/l.2 Nikkor which helped me take pictures in impossible light conditions.
By 1990 I felt I had enough regular photographic work and left secondary teaching.
How did your formal career as a dance photographer begin?
It was around 1994 that I met a representative from Northern Ballet Theatre's Education Department (as it was then known). I was photographing quite a lot of dance in education and still do. Through photographing the educational work of NBT (Northern Ballet Theatre) I met the company's head of P.R. at the time, Anna Izza. Anna was a positive and encouraging influence, and gave me an insight into the kind of pictures she thought would be useful.