Jordan Matter on photography, dancers and Dancers After Dark [Interview]

Jordan Matter is a New York-based photographer, best known for his 2012 book Dancers Among Us. His most recent project again uses dancers. However, this time his subjects were photographed in an array of locations around the world - at night and in the nude. Matter took some time to talk with’s Erin Huestis about his passion for photography, love of working with dancers – and how Dancers After Dark came into being.

Matter comes from a long line of visual artists. His family tree boasts such legends as painter Arthur B. Carles, painter and NY Studio School founder Mercedes Matter, photographer Herbert Matter, filmmaker Alex Matter and model Paula Feiten. Matter grew up around the likes of Alexander Calder and Willem de Kooning. Despite this, Matter stuck to baseball through college. Having enjoyed success in this arena, he then parlayed his love for high-performance, adrenaline and spontaneity into acting.

Matter did not discover his passion for photography until his 30s. Then, on one special day he was on top of a mountain. Matter wanted to properly photograph the landscape, but was aware he lacked the know-how. Inspired to learn, he enrolled in classes and began taking photos. Matter described watching his first photo develop as a ‘hallelujah’ moment. Suddenly it struck him that this would be his career. It’s interesting how sometimes things sneak up slowly in life and sometimes they hit you like a bus.

JM: Yeah, there’s always that question of saying yes vs. no to everything in life. I just meet so many people who say they wish they had gone a certain path. But when the opportunity came they said no rather than yes… it’s every step of the way as you’re trying to develop. You have this honeymoon period where you love the thing and you think you’re really good at it. ‘Oh, I have natural talent at this.’ And then after however much time of doing it you realize ‘I don’t know what the f - - - I’m doing.’ And now I have to either give up, or I have to actually put in the hours.

For me that moment came with Henri Cartier-Bresson. He is a French street photographer of great renown. And I saw an exhibition of his and I got both inspired and demoralized in the same moment. Because I realized: I don’t know how he did that, I can’t do it, I want to do it. It was that moment – Do I just give up, or do I try to learn how to do that thing. And that’s going to take years. In the meantime I’m going to be waiting tables and doing regional theater.

Fortunately, I said yes.

TCC: You have said you strive to photograph humanity rather than images. Can you tell us a little about that?

JM: That was also Henri Cartier-Bresson’s influence. Because he would find a spot and he would wait for what he coined ‘the magic moment.’ Which was the moment of the human experience that would resonate with every viewer. And I realized that my skillset, or my interest, was not in stumbling upon that, but in constructing it. I wanted to create a fantasy world where we could see real life in a different way – but I still wanted to be true to real life.

…Dance photography I think often lacks the humanity, in favor of the spectacle. How high can you get your leg, right? Versus, what would somebody actually be doing in this moment and how do we represent that accurately and emotionally?

TCC: What is it that drew you to dancers and the creation of Dancers Among Us?

JM: I had this thought – if I could construct a world as if seen through the eyes of a child, that took these everyday moments and made them magical and beautiful. To live a long and satisfying life I think you need to appreciate the small moments. Otherwise, you’re not going to have enough big ones to stitch together an exciting life. But if every moment is exciting, my God, you’ll feel like you’ve lived 200 years. That’s what it’s about. 

TCC: How did Dancers After Dark come out of Dancers Among Us?

JM: I photographed this one circus performer and we both looked at each other and said ‘This would be beautiful at night, nude.’ I had no idea why. I had no interest in shooting nudes. If there’s anything that’s been overdone, it's nudes. And I’m always trying to find something new...

So she came and we did one shot under the street light. And I loved it. I never imagined it would be a book though… So I just kept shooting it and posting the pictures online. And at one point they [my publisher] said ‘Were you ever going to tell us about this, or what?’

TCC: Do you think that having Dancers Among Us come out first changed how trusting the dancers were?

JM: Oh, yeah. I mean, if I had come out of the box with Dancers After Dark, I don’t know if I would have gotten anybody.

The thing that excites me about it is; I have never seen it before. And I’ve seen nudes before, I’ve seen them in public. I’ve seen nudes of dancers. I haven’t seen them all mixed together in a way that is not objectifying or sensational. I am trying to create imagery that transcends the idea of the nudity. So that by the time you’re finished looking at the book you’ve forgotten they are naked.

And the nudity is just an attempt to celebrate the effort they have put into their passion and their career. Because whatever my passion is – which is photography – you can’t see it anywhere on me. How do I photograph my own passion? I can’t, right? But with a dancer, it’s etched into their bodies. And when they are stripped of their clothing you see every muscle and every ligament. The thousands of hours of effort they put into that. You see it, right there.

The other thing I love about it is that in the act of creating these images, you had to be fearless. It’s illegal. And it’s emotionally vulnerable. And that same fearlessness is really what you need to pursue a career in the arts. I mean, you’re nuts if you pursue a career in the arts. Especially dance. You know your career is over by 35. You know, no matter how successful you get, you’re not going to have any money when you’re done… That’s fearless. That’s driven beyond any rational thought. And that’s what I’m trying to say with the book. These people are fearless and they’re driven and committed and you see it in the images.

TCC: What were the challenges of shooting Dancers After Dark?

JM: It was the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on – everything was a challenge. First of all, it’s illegal everywhere. So every time you go out, you don’t know – are we going to jail? So that’s just the first thing.

Secondly, how to do the photos in a way that was not sexual, or too overtly nude, but more subtly suggestive of nudity was very hard. Then also, to make it even harder, I chose to shoot it all at night. So then you have to light it. But you have to light it without any permission to do any of it. Then to make it even harder, I would often choose to do it in very crowded places – like the middle of an avenue. So now you’re having to construct a pose that covers a lot of their ‘parts’ in a way that’s beautiful. And lighting it. Without getting arrested. While cars are speeding toward you.

TCC: Did you get a lot of aggressive or negative reactions from people?

JM: The irony was, in the City of Love, one guy got a beer thrown on him. And then another evening we had beer bottles thrown at us. The irony is, the most aggressive reactions were never by the police. The police were like ‘I do not want to do this paperwork, just don’t do this.’… It was always passersby. A lot of people got angry... I lost the modicum of respect I had for men as a gender through this process by how so many men reacted to seeing this. If it was naked men they’d get angry. If it was naked women they’d get gross.

TCC: Now that Dancers After Dark is published, do you have thoughts about what you were seeking with this project and what you got out of it?

JM: I think what I was looking for was a couple things. A way to photograph fearlessness. How do you photograph risk? [And] A way to celebrate a passionate life.

And what I got out of it was such a strong feeling of inspiration from the sacrifices that they make. And yet I can’t remember anybody that seemed to regret the choice they made to pursue their career. I mean, they are about the happiest people that I’ve ever been exposed to as a group. And also, the most supportive of one another. Which is a contradiction to the intense competition that exists in the dance world… And it’s because they all have this shared common experience of struggle and suffering and torture and pain and resilience. So I found all of those elements to be very inspiring: How they treat each other and how they go about their careers.


Dancers After Dark Cover Shoot from Jordan Matter on Vimeo.

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