John Whitaker: Black and White Swan


Last year I walked into my local deli in Manhattan and saw that a new girl was working behind the counter. She had pale skin and an unusual radiance, and she was wearing a fedora. My first impression was that she could be a star in “The Wizard of Oz.” I imagined her as the Scarecrow, dancing on the yellow bricks with the Tin Man. I didn’t say this, though. I said, “I’ll do the salmon with a side of broccoli.”

Some weeks later, I learned she was a ballerina about to begin her first summer performing with American Ballet Theatre. For years I’d been doing human rights portraits, and I was eager for a change of pace. The prospect of photographing a ballerina seemed refreshing — something that would work a different part of my brain.

Her name was Carolyn. I asked if she might be interested in doing a portrait to mark this time in her life. I envisioned it as a simple photo in the West Village or at the fountain outside the Metropolitan Opera House. But when I saw what she could do, that she could strike poses that would shatter the hips of most yogis, I realized it was an opportunity to do something different.

We began on the roof of my building, with her holding her leg straight up in the air, the Empire State Building rising behind her. I was captivated by the effortlessness and grace with which she executed the seemingly impossible–a grace that stemmed from thousands of hours of training, and from having ballet in her blood. (Her mother was a principal dancer with Boston Ballet and danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1970s.)

I read a little about ballet as well. Originally it was all about etiquette — knowing how to enter and exit a room, how to show one’s status through posture and movement. Something Jennifer Homans wrote in her ballet history, “Apollo’s Angels,” struck a chord with me. The 17th century French poets and intellectuals who developed the art, she wrote, believed that beneath the chaotic surface of life “lay a divine harmony and order — a web of rational and mathematical relations that demonstrated the natural laws of the universe and the mystical power of God.” Ballet was envisioned as a means of transcendence, a method through which a dancer could learn to obey these laws and attune his or her body to celestial harmonies. As a photographer I thought it’d be interesting to try to capture an element of that transcendence.

The idea for “Double Pedi” came soon after we’d done “Espresso Fix” — a portrait of her drinking espresso while doing a split in a coffee shop. A friend loved “Espresso Fix” and was seized by an idea. “You know what I’d like?” he said. “I wanna see her in a split, getting a pedicure on both sides.”

I thought the idea was interesting, and I ventured into a nail salon near where I live. The manager was skeptical at first, and concerned that her employees would be identifiable. They had to remain anonymous, she said with a look that begged the question of what was going on there. But she agreed, as long as I paid her for two pedicures. “Double Pedi” turned out to be the first photo I ever sold.

The project was a blast to shoot. The Leica Store New York Soho featured it as their winter exhibit — something I remain incredibly grateful for.

I shot exclusively with the Monochrom — the only digital camera I work with. For lenses I used the 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux, the 50 mm f/2 APO-Summicron, and the 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux FLE. For years I shot with the M7 and Kodak T-MAX 100, and the Monochrom was the only digital camera that could approximate that look. In fact, I had the strange sense that Leica had made it just for me.

Carolyn — who has just joined the San Francisco Ballet — was amazing to work with. We’re hoping to continue the project, to push it in other directions.

Next up, at least in my imagination: Carolyn in a standing split, leaning as if she’s about to fall, with the Tower of Pisa in the background.

- John Whitaker

John Whitaker is a writer and photographer based in New York. Originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he studied comparative literature at Princeton and later received M.S. and M.A. degrees from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. His previous work has focused on human rights issues in Russia, Bosnia, and Egypt. His photography has documented the life of one of the three living survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, and the efforts of the displaced Bosnian Muslim population to survive in the wake of ethnic cleansing.

You can see more of the project at BlackandWhiteSwan.com.