Ballet Dancers in Random Situations: interview with photographer Jordan Matter
To say that Jordan Matter’s photos have been wildly popular is really an understatement. His most popular series and book, Dancers Among Us, is a New York Times bestseller and went wildly viral online. We interviewed him about his Dancers Among Us project and how it crashed a soft-core porn site, as well as his thoughts on his other popular projects, Athletes Among Us and Uncovered. [Our readers did a Facebook Q&A with him. Check it out here]
Your first passion was acting. How does that compare now to your second passion, photography?
Actually, my first passion was baseball, which I played every day of my adult life through college. I had a very successful collegiate career, and I transitioned into acting because I was hooked on the adrenalin of competitive sports and I needed another challenge. I enjoyed acting very much, especially the unpredictability of the lifestyle, but it was never a passion. I didn’t truly understand that until I picked up a camera and took a photography course. When I saw my first print come up in the developer, I suddenly realized how it felt to find my passion. It was a Hallelujah moment, and I’ve been a photographer ever since.
Where did the idea for Dancers Among Us come from?
The inspiration came to me one afternoon as I watched my son, Hudson, playing with his toy bus. He jumped in place, mouth open and slapping his knees, joyously reacting to a world I couldn’t see, but one powerfully present for him. What happens to this enthusiasm, this ability to be wholly present in the moment? Why are these pure moments of passion so often replaced with cynicism, boredom, and indifference? As I played with my son, I thought about creating photographs that would show the world as if through his eyes. The people in the images would be alive and in the moment, celebrating all aspects and emotions of everyday life.
Shortly after playing “bus”, I attended an extraordinary dance performance, and I knew I had found my collaborators. Dancers are storytellers. They’re trained to capture passion with their bodies. The often create a fantasy world or offer us a deeper look into familiar settings. They bring to life what we feel but what most of us, lacking their artistry and athleticism, are unable to express physically. I spent three years shooting dancers around the country, and I was humbled by their enthusiasm for their craft. I would tweet and Facebook when I would arrive in a city, and dancers would volunteer their time to pose for me, often traveling several hours to participate.
Give us your thoughts when the series Dancers Among Us became wildly – and that’s an understatement – popular online.
It’s surreal. Dancers Among Us has gone viral several times, and it’s always a surprise. It can happen suddenly and with no explanation. A popular blog posts an image from my website, and an hour later Dancers Among Us is #1 on Reddit and ABC is calling me for an interview. Many times I’m unaware of how popular the series is because the images are being shared uncredited. One of my favorite stories involves a soft-core porn site that grabbed EVERY IMAGE from my website and posted them without credit. The post drew over a million viewers and promptly crashed their site. So I have the distinction of crashing a porn site. My Facebook fans began writing letters of outrage once all their friends started sharing my uncredited images, and eventually the site added my name.
I’m very honored that my work has been able to cut through the mass of imagery out there. Social media has leveled the playing field to a certain extent. If you have photographs that resonate with people, you don’t need a publicity machine to promote your work. Social media has played a huge role in the success I’ve had. Dancers Among Us probably wouldn’t be a book without social media, and it certainly wouldn’t have become a bestseller without it.
Logistically, which was harder to shoot, Dancers Among Us or Athletes Among Us?
Athletes Among Us is much harder! I’ve been shooting Dancers Among Us for the past four years, and I’ve only recently begun Athletes Among Us. I find AAU to be much more challenging- accomplished athletes are more difficult to find, and their skill set is generally harder to incorporate into everyday life. With dancers, there is always the “Wow” factor- look how high he jumps, look how flexible she is, and on and on. A simple photograph can be very striking because of the awesomeness of a dancer’s technique. With athletes, however, their skills may be more subtle- one of endurance or speed or eye/hand coordination. Frozen as a still image, these skills have the potential to look unimpressive. This is the greatest challenge I face with AAU. It’s very exciting, because I know there is so much still to discover.
Dancers Among Us and Athletes Among Us both had passion as a central theme. What advice could you give to aspiring artists and other creatives struggling to pursue their passion?
Great question. I have two young children, and I’m always wondering about their path in life. One of my favorite books is, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss. Life is a series of consequences, and yet we have no idea how to manage them. The best advice I can give is simply this: If you’ve found something you love, and if it’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up and the last thing when you go to sleep, then it’s a passion and you should spend your life pursuing it. The positive consequences will far outweigh the challenges. However, once you decide to commit to this goal, you should be unrelenting. It’s no coincidence that many of the world’s most accomplished artists have no personal lives- it’s very difficult to make room for anything else when you’re driven to pursue a creative passion. If you want a balanced life with weekends and evenings off, a career in the arts is probably not for you. I love my family desperately, yet I work six or seven days a week and sleep five hours a night. I see them for breakfast in the morning and for a couple of hours after school, and I try to take a few days off a month. For an artist, that’s a balanced life.
Let’s talk about Uncovered. How did you come up with this concept and what was the most memorable moment in the six years it took to shoot?
Uncovered was my first photography book, and it began relatively early in my career. I was shooting headshots for lots of actresses and models, and I was struck by how insecure they were about their bodies. They would regularly ask me to avoid photographing their arms or legs, even though they looked great! At some point I read an article about a woman’s right to be publically topless in New York; it’s the only state in the country with such a law on the books. I began to ask these actresses to pose topless in public, and then to discuss their body image issues for corresponding text. The project really took off once I was featured on the Today Show and the BBC, because then I had access to women of all ages and body types. They would fly in from all over the country to participate. They seemed to experience a great sense of liberation and exhilaration during the shoots.
Early on in the project I photographed a beautiful young woman in Times Square. After the shoot, she immediately gave me a huge hug and said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve just done for me’. She had never been topless outside. Not on a beach, or in her backyard, or even on a porch. She felt too much shame. After being topless in the most public place on earth, she suddenly felt alive and free and beautiful. Her demons literally melted away. It was a defining moment for the project.