This is a repost of an interview that appeared on the Country Dance and Song Society blog.
Doug Plummer has taken some of the greatest photos and videos of contra dance out there. This year, in conjunction with CDSS, he’s put out the 2012 Contradance Calendar, which collects some of his photography into a beautiful wall calendar.
I’ve been using mine and every month makes me smile. It’s a truly wonderful holiday gift for dance family and friends. Order it at the CDSS store. (Order by December 20 and get a free upgrade to expedited shipping.)
I love both Doug’s photos and this calendar, so I asked Doug a few questions about how it both came about.
- Max Newman
What inspired you to start taking photos at dances?
DP: I’ve been photographing contra dance as long as I have been a dancer, which is to say, decades. As a newly single 30-something, I I fell into the Seattle contra dance scene in the mid 1980′s, and it came to be my primary social life. I was starting my professional photography career then too. I was moving out of being an assistant to commercial photographers and starting to get my own clients. I’d always shot personal work, and dancing was the most compelling event in my personal life. It was inevitable that it would be a major subject for me. By now there are probably 60,000 dance images in the archive.
Why did you decide to do a dance calendar?
DP: The calendar project came about because of my friend Joanne Lauterjung Kelly, a designer and a dancer. Back in 2010 she asked about using my work in her annual calendar that she sends out to her clients and friends. It was a small, modest project, but I ended up declining the offer (she really likes cropping photos, and I wouldn’t let her crop mine). Nonetheless, we talked about producing something I could live with for the next year, and that’s how it began.
We posted hundreds of photos on a wall in her office, and we winnowed the possibilities down to what seemed like the ones that could survive scrutiny for a month. I kept the semi-finalists posted in my office and, over a couple months, found the ones that survived my scrutiny. And then I looked for the small photographs that supported the large image. I tried to have each month be a theme, often about the location of the dance. So there’s a Nelson month, a Concord month, and an Asheville month. Unavoidably, there are several Pacific Northwest months, but I tried to have them look different from each other. There’s a close-up-of-hands-on-musical-instruments month.
There's a gazillion details about calendars that you never think about until you design one. How big a date box do you want? What about previous-subsequent months on the same page? Which holidays? And when do they start? My mother-in-law has a rant about how calendars never get the Jewish holidays right (I punted—Passover “Begins at sundown” on 4/6/12, but Yom Kippur is on 9/26/12. There's a logic there, really.). I like knowing the moon phases, but decided full moon and new moon were sufficient. They're subtle, white and black dots, except for August. Figure out what's special about August.
Why do this project in conjunction with CDSS?
DP: I’ve been talking with CDSS for years about some sort of joint project with my photographs. I’ve wanted for a long time to do a book of my dance work, and I’ve been approaching publishers about this (no takers yet, and I have not been willing to self-publish.) A calendar, however, seemed like a lower risk venture that I could fund myself and that would have a well defined audience. CDSS seemed like the obvious gateway to that audience, and I wanted to structure the finances so that it would benefit them and their local affiliates. We discussed the project early in the year, jointly arrived at a price point that they thought would work, and what the potential audience might be for it. I wanted the imprimatur of CDSS as a way to say, this is more than about me and my photographs. This is about the community of dance, and a way to share and support that.
What’s your approach to taking dance photos?
DP: There’s a kind of bifurcated quality to my approach to dance photography. On the surface, it’s obvious that I’m making a document of a particular kind of social event. But the real drive for me were the photographic challenges to find and make a compelling, coherent image in a complex, dynamic environment. This, now, was back in the days of slow transparency film. It was a big technical challenge, and I figured out a style that included combining ambient and strobe lighting, movement, and a visceral attentiveness to the compelling moment. I remember seeing one similar body of work in an issue of Aperture Magazine on swing dancers, but I don’t think anyone else was mining this particular landscape for photographs the way I was.
Now, of course, you can’t go to a dance without seeing a whole lot of people taking photos or making videos. I was at the Peterborough Fall Ball a couple months ago, and the number of people wielding high end DSLR’s, with strobes, was startling. Every dance has multiple Facebook albums of it posted the next day. Photographs are part of the social currency of the dance scene now.
DP: The subject of how to take better dance photographs and video is a long one, and I have a lot of suggestions and opinions. Let’s save that for another blog post.
What are your hopes for future projects like this?
DP: What I hope for the calendar is that this becomes a regular fixture in the community, that I will produce it every year and it can help support the community and support my travels to document it. This year’s calendar I have to view as the initial steep slope of the learning curve and as an investment in a longer term project—which is another way of saying that it’s going to lose money. Next year I’ll probably launch it as a Kickstarter project and fund it in advance.
One ancillary benefit that I hadn’t anticipated is that I discovered there is a demand for high quality photos and video to promote events. I went to the BACDS American Week and posted photos and video on Facebook every day while I was there. I’m the ePublicity person for next year’s camp now. I’ve gotten invitations to come to other dance camps and do the same thing, and they’re putting me on staff to do it. This is how I’m going to get the content for the 2013 calendar.
And what else are you working on?
DP: I’m doing a lot of video work these days. At the moment I’m working on a series of 8 short documentaries for Northwest Folklife Festival documenting various music and dance communities in the Northwest. They’ve ranged from Scandinavian to Hindu to Hawaiian to Gospel to Old Time to Shape Note Singing. They’re about to launch a new site just for these, but for now you can go to Northwest Stories.