Mircea Sorin Albutiu: Capturing The World Of Ballet From The Inside

Born in the fabled Transylvania region of Romania, Mircea Sorin Albuţiu took the unlikely path from a successful career in the construction industry to developing an abiding passion for photography in the tradition of the great photojournalists of the 20th century. After a major construction company bought his business in 2008, he took a 7-month break “just for photography,” and used the time to begin emerging as a serious photojournalist. Subsequently he created a moving behind-the-scenes documentary of the world of ballet, an ongoing project that has transformed his life. In April 2012 he returned to his position as Managing Director for the Romanian subsidiary of Harsco Infrastructure, but he is committed to continuing his creative quest with his Leica M9 whenever and wherever he possibly can, honing his skills and pursuing his dream. We talked to him at length about his work, techniques, and aspirations and here in his own articulate words is his inspiring story.

Q: How would you describe your ballet photography?

A: I try to get into my pictures the intensive atmosphere these people are living in, their emotions, their hard work, and all the moments, which normally remain hidden, before and after the performance.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression and as an art form? Specifically, what led you to take a break from your job in construction and shoot a photography project?

A: I have always been interested in photography as art. Just last year, after having studied the history of photography, and looking at many pictures done by the greatest photographers, I started to see photography in a different light. I actually took a break from my job for other reasons, and am now back in the business, so I had “only” a 7-month break between September 2011 and April 2012.

Q: Did your passion for ballet lead you to photography? Or did a passion for photography lead you to the ballet school?

A: Initially it was the passion for photography that motivated me, but now it is both. The idea of executing a project about the ballet dancers gave me a lot of confidence. I am very happy to join the ballet ensemble for the rehearsals and for the performances.

Q: We heard that you used an M9 for this project. What makes the M9 your camera of choice? Tell us about your experience with the camera.

A: For one thing “Jurnal de Culise” requires that I use a camera that is small, professional, silent, and has outstanding optical performance. I also have the feeling that the acceptance on the part of my subjects is a lot easer as well—they don’t react negatively to being photographed.

Q: How much time did you spend shooting at the ballet school?

A: The project started in November 2011, at the Choreography School. In January 2012 I moved into the Opera, to the ballet ensemble itself. Since then, shooting became timeless and I fell in love with these people. I used to spend about 5 hours there every day, 5 days a week.

At present I am there for the stage rehearsals and shows, about 4-5 hours per event.

Q: Can you talk about some of the similarities or differences you’ve found between construction industry and photography?

A: The time I spend in the Opera is relaxing for me and balances the business side, which is sometimes too heavy and demanding. As I said, photography is a joy-giving activity.

Q: How did you find the transition from the construction industry to photographing ballet dancers?

A: It was very interesting. Suddenly I had a lot of free time. I could spend many hours with the people in the Opera, and eventually we became friends, which is a crucial aspect that comes through in the images.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught?

A: Two of my close friends, both very good photography teachers, have organized a kind of school for photography. I spent about 1 year taking classes with them and I learned a lot. I am also fortunate to meet quite often with a very good artist photographer from Cluj, who is also advising me. I also attended a 10-day workshop in Brazil given by Ernesto Bazan, from whom I also learned many things.

Q: Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: Yes, I do love photojournalism, and Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Andre Kertesz, etc. are some of my very best “teachers.” For the ballet project, the first artist that came to mind was Degas whose work I’ve known for many years.  After a while, I was looking for some ballet pictures on Magnum, and there I found Gueorgui Pinkhassov.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: A good friend told me about the advantages you have using Leica, and I already knew that Leica has a reputation for producing optics of the highest professional quality.

Q: Do you plan on continuing your photography? Any next works planned?

A: The project “Jurnal de Culise” will continue for some years, I believe. This is my main work now. I organized the first exhibition inside the Cluj Opera in June 2012 and I will continue to present my work on my website and in future exhibitions. Also since I’ve been travelling a lot by airplane, I began a small photojournalistic project documenting airport terminals. I have also started a small series about a forest near our house.

Q: Although you don’t say so directly, apparently your construction work entailed building scaffolding and scenery for ballet and opera productions, and that led quite naturally to your opportunity and interest in documenting ballet from an “insider” perspective. Is this assumption correct? In any case, please tell us the back-story of how you made the ballet connection.

A: My interest in this work really started in September 2011. In Cluj we have a choreography high school, and my thought was to describe with photography the life of the young people who are studying there. The idea just popped into my head as an inspiration and has no relation with my job. The basic idea was to work in more concentrated, focused manner on one project. I started in the high school but after 2 months I moved to the Opera.

Q: Your ballet portfolio is a fine example of documentary photojournalism in the Leica tradition and many of the images are charming and provide an authentic and empathetic view of the intimate world of ballet performers. Do you think your background in infrastructure, or your study of classic photojournalists and Degas helped to form your vision of this project or enable you to articulate it, or was the driving force primarily your passion for the subject and the time you put into it?

A: Thank you very much for your appreciation. I think it is a bit of both. On the one hand there is my strong desire to evolve—I am keen to do a good job, and I spend time and attention and gain satisfaction. My deep interest in the subject is very important in my case. I am striving to a lot of ballet pictures going forward and perhaps this will help me to see and recognize the scenes that really stand out and say something.

Q: Which lenses did you use on your M9 to capture the ballet images, which lens did you use most often, and why did you select this particular focal length (or focal lengths)? Do you believe, as others have claimed, that there is something special and identifiable in the way Leica lenses render an image and is that important to you?

A: I started with a 28mm f/2.8 but I changed to a 28mm f/2 because the wider aperture is better for existing light. This is the main lens used for “Jurnal de culise”. The 28mm is the best focal length for such a project. The 35mm f/1.4 could be an alternative, but when I purchased the camera, I opted for a 28mm and a 50 mm. I still have a 50mm f/1.4 that I am using for portraits and in very low light conditions. I am very happy with these two lenses. Generally speaking, the images do have a special touch, the colors are very nice, and yes I believe that Leica lenses are the best choice.

Q: You mentioned that what you were striving for in your ballet images was to reveal “the intensive atmosphere these people are living in, their emotions, their hard work, all the moments that normally remain hidden.” Do you think you succeeded, will this project continue indefinitely going forward, and how did you establish a relationship of confidence and trust with your subjects?

A: I believe that this work will continue for some time to come; I feel so much joy in simply being there. The pictures will become also better with the time, I hope. They are starting to reveal the actual atmosphere inside the Opera, and in time, this will improve as well. Some friends have also asked me when I will finish this project, but I have no plans in this regard; there is no pressure on me.

My relationship with the people around me is very natural, and I believe they feel my joy and also that my interest for their work is not materialistic. It is pure love. Of course I gave them copies of many of the pictures I captured, and I’m sure they’re very happy to have such memories. I feel somehow, that I am part of the team now.

Q: Can you say something about your basic approach to shooting ballet behind the scenes? Did you just hang around and wait for things to happen, or make plans and focus on covering specific events and times? Did you shoot all these pictures using available light, and, if so what apertures and ISO settings did you typically use to get images of such impressive technical quality?

A: I started taking pictures in the study room but the results were not satisfying because of the light, location, and the design of that place, so I am now focusing on the rehearsals and performances. I am “hunting” for those special scenes I believe will really count at the end of the day, and very rarely I ask the performers to do something that works well with a specific background. I am alert, my attention is focused on the people all the time, and the music has a good influence on me as well. As for the technical details I am using only available light, and mostly shooting at the maximum aperture. I so try to keep the ISO setting at 1000 or lower.

Q: You noted that your passion for ballet started with photography, but that now you are now passionate about both art forms and were “happy to join the ballet ensemble for rehearsals and performances.” Have you actually joined them as an informal dancer or only as a photographer, and how do you think your ballet project has influenced your other work, such as documenting airport terminals or the woods near your house?

A: Good question! I really feel that ballet has influenced my overall view of photography. It is a good opportunity for me to work as a photojournalist. I joined the group just as a photographer, but I am now more like a critic, capturing scenes that are not necessarily influenced by the group’s artistic goals.

Q: Your “Journal de Culise” images were exhibited at the Cluj Opera in June 2012, and will also be presented in future exhibitions and on your website. Have you thought about publishing them in art or ballet magazines, or as a definitive behind-the-scenes ballet book? Do you think it might even be possible that you’ll change careers and become a full time professional photographer sometime down the road?

A: I am definitely interested in having my work published in art or ballet magazines as well, but maybe I have to reach out internationally since Romania is not providing many opportunities in this regard. If you have any ideas or proposals please let me know. Later, I will try to put these images together in a book; we’ll see there’s no hurry. Eventually I do plan to change my career but you have to prepare yourself financially to ensure that your income will be sufficient for a decent life.

Q: Aside from its classic virtues of being small, quiet, unintimidating and discreet and having excellent lenses, what is there about the Leica M9 that makes it ideal for your kind of work? Is it the rangefinder, the multi-frame viewfinder, or some existential quality that transcends its mechanical and optical components?

A: First I thought that the manual focus would be problematic, but now I believe that this feature is essential. The Leica’s manual focus system is very easy to use, and it does exactly what the photographer wants. The rangefinder system is perfect for photojournalism. As I said, there is also a special quality to the images.

Q: In your quest for ballet pictures on Magnum you mentioned that you “found Gueorgui Pinkhassov” but you didn’t say anything about his work. Was he a source of inspiration, and how do his images compare with yours in terms of their approach and style?

A: I was impressed with Pinkhassov’s ballet pictures even before I began shooting my own at the Opera. There were a source of inspiration no doubt, and I think his pictures are great.

Q: You made a very revealing statement about your practice of Sahaja Yoga Meditation, “I learned how to reach that state, and being thoughtless; the inspiration is there.” How do you think that periodically attaining a state of awareness without thought refreshes and inspires your creative process?

A: Well, I learned and practiced these things: that creativity is in a direct proportion to the silence in your head :) , that the more thoughts you have, the bigger the ego you face, and the lesser results you obtain.

Q: How do you see your work evolving over, say, the next 3 years and do you see yourself exploring any other genres besides the art of photojournalism, such as portraiture, landscape, or wildlife photography, etc.?

A: I am currently attending many jazz concerts, so I am looking forward to take pictures during sound checks, if possible. Here there will be excellent opportunities for shooting portraits. The series in the forest maybe has to go on another level; it depends on the amount of time I have for photography, which I hope will increase going forward.

Thank you for your time, Mircea!

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Mircea’s website to learn more.