Edited by Erik Aschengreen, Anne Middelboe Christensen & Kirsten Sørensen
Copenhagen May 2012
John R. Johnsen is one of the most important and inventive ballet photographers in Denmark, who photographed The Royal Danish Ballet and companies like NYCB, ABT, Ailey and Béjart during some of their key periods. He was a strong believer in shooting during live performance and is the creator of some of the iconic ballet pictures in Denmark and abroad.
His whole body of work is now a part of the national library (the Royal Library). Two Danish ballet experts Erik Aschengreen and Anne Middelboe Christensen have assisted the library in cataloqing the gigantic archive and has now publiched a monography of Johnson's works in both a Danish and English version together with Kirsten Sørensen. An exhibition in The National Photo Museum is just opened.
John. R. Johnsen came to photograf The Royal Danish Ballet, by way of meeting and photographing the Bejart Ballet, actually in the few seasons when Suzanne Farrell grazed the company. He also became the photographer who documented the string of international companies guesting TIVOLI during the Niels-Jørgen Kaiser reign, mainly NYCB and Alvin Ailey Company. In 1983, Johnsen published a book on the TIVOLI seasons (Ballet in Tivoli") dokumenting the different qualities of the guesting companies. The qualities of this much smaller and thinner book is very much in the selection of photographs and in the picture lay out, where everything is perfectly scaled and contrasted. Like "Dance in the Mirror" it is all black and white photographs, but as the earlier book shows, there can be a lot of nuances in greys.
Unfortunately these qualities in lay out, picture editing and nuances is what is missing in the larger monography. "Dance in the Mirror" is edited from the viewpoint of ballet history rather than based no photo quality and though the ambition of including what was important from a ballet historic view rather than from a photographic view, may strenghten the book as ballet history, it weakens the case for Johnsen as an artist. In the exhibtion the chosen pictures are presented well and in exhibition size, but in the book many of the pictures are too small to really register and there are scaling conflcts on many of the pages, which weakens the visual impact. It is a case where less would be more. There is dedicated no less than 16 pages to Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson", where a few selected pictured could have nailed the ballet better. From the ballet historian's view it may be important to tell the stories of who danced when and to include certain celebrities, but it does harm the greater story of showing why Johnsen is such an outstandiing ballet photographer.
Finding the Motive
The book also include one of Johnsen best shots, where he captured the essence of Bournonville's "The Conservatory" by not photograhing the dancing but the group of dancers waiting to take their turn, but the chapter on Bournonville is marred by putting too many pictures in to little space and not focusing on the really outstanding ones.
The editorial princip in the book is mostly collecting the photos by company and in the case of RDB in subchapters like Bournonville, International choreographers and commisions for the company which put the 18th centuy "Whims of Cupid and The Ballet Master"next to works by Kim Brandstrup! A casulty of this principle is Peter Schaufuss. In 1978 Johnson took a photo of Peter Schaufuss guesting in his mother company in Flindt's recreation of Bournonville's "The Toreador", The picture tells us everything we need to know about Peter Schaufuss as a dancer. He stands curved as a bow string, tense and showing his masculine physic and stance as the toreador. But because of the editorial principle Schaufuss also get a special chapter, where no photo capture him as well as the toreador picture and some are outright unflattering.
Anne Middelboe Christensen's contribution is a series of small essays where she tries and mostly suceed in bringing Johnsen's qualities to life. She writes about his fashination of the image of the mystery women in the white tricot.There are a number of photos that documents this trend but they are not tied to the essay.
What Johnsen does particulary well is capturing movements and also a third dimension into his photos. He is not only able to catch the lighter than light Ib Andersen in his RDB and NYCB repertoire. He has probably also taken the best pictures ever taken of Peter Martins, capturing his power and physique. The book also include a shot of Martins and Baryshnkow during a rehersal, mirrowing and maybe sizing up each other. You cannot really see their facial impressions, but yet you get their special qualities 100 procent by their stance. In all Johnsen's pictures of NYCB, do include some of best I have ever seen of the company in particular some lovely shots of "Dances at a Gathering".
There is therefore a lot of good reasons to buy the book and to visit the Royal Librarys homepage www.kb.dk and view the many digitalized photos in the data base.
The book will be available later through international ballet book stores, but can also be ordered directly from the publisher's homepage www.gad.dk
Photos copyright : Gads Forlag,