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SOHO New York City 2004

Lyon, France 2006

Becket, Massachussetts 2007


     Welcome to Mike van Sleen Photography. Most of the photographs you see in the Image Gallery section of this site are the results from five summers of photographing visiting artists at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. Jacob’s Pillow has a fascinating history as the longest-running dance festival in America, with thorough photographic documentation dating back to its beginnings in 1933. The rich history of the festival had been dutifully recorded on film by various photographers who found inspiration in its bucolic setting and wealth of artistic guests passing through every summer. My working relationship with the festival began in 1997 in the capacity of Audio Supervisor. During my first four years with the festival’s production department, I was continually drawn into the history of Jacob’s Pillow by the collection of historical photographs on display in the studios, theaters, and archive exhibits. Eventually I realized the potential to revive this tradition and decided to take advantage of the informal proximity one has with the artists on a daily basis. So I bought a camera and began soliciting the artists for portrait sessions during the downtime between rehearsals and performances. This led to a position as Photographer-in-Residence for the festival and consequentially, the body of work presented in this site’s image gallery.
     I’ve always been fascinated by photographs, particularly those of people. Especially portraits of subjects whose personality is predominantly known by virtue of their public exposure, whether it be stage or screen. To stare for long periods of time at this kind of photograph is essentially being allowed a privelaged, insightful opportunity. A fixed image is very patient. One has the luxury of time to observe and absorb details that might normally go unnoticed in a brief encounter. I find the practice of studying photographs to be creative, imagining what might have taken place just before or after the micro-moment of the camera’s firing shutter. And just as in well conceived fiction, it is often what is not told that most invigorates the imagination. Furthermore, a black and white image has a powerful quality which never seems to diminish with the advance of technology and ever more realistic methods of reproduction. A black and white photograph leaps out from the natural background of the million hues of reality and alerts our senses that within that image something is not normal, that it is an anomaly, though never the less what we are seeing is still linked to our humanity. Grayscale is a limitation, a constraint which allows us to fully explore a tonal range’s boundaries giving a sense of finite discovery.
     I have worked with both digital and film cameras over the years. Each of these tools has it’s own advantages and disadvantages to offer. All of the images presented on this site were made on silver-halide film. Shooting with film requires a distinct trust in the mechanics of a camera, with the inherent acceptance that nothing is guarantied until the process of printing is under way. Working under the pressure of a half an hour afforded by the artist for a shoot requires developing a very special relationship with one’s equipment. To finish a shoot and have a couple of rolls of film in the camera bag and only the memory of images as seen through the viewfinder is like witnessing a spectacular event that was over before you knew it. It is exhilerating to know that those mental images will be revealed once again at the end of a processing session. There is a certain organic quality to film grain, which when viewed under a grain magnifier resembles a biological microcosm of spattered ink. There is no apparent geometric form or order to the grain yet when viewed at the intended distance this chaos becomes an image in which we can recognize ourselves and our civilisation, serving as a record of an actual moment lived.
     My transition from sound engineer to photographer has been natural due to the harmonious properties of sound and light. Working with audio signals as they are processed by electronics and reproduced for the ear is very much the same as capturing the reflection of light and reproducing it for the eye. Many of the laws of physics are shared by these two physical phenomena. On a non-technical level, fifteen years of working in live performance has also honed my appreciation for the potential drama and tableau-like nature of fixed images. Dance choreography, theater and performance art, even musical concerts, are often structured around nodes of fixed images that are meant to bring time to a brief standstill, creating distinct recollections that are often what we carry home with us long after the curtain has dropped. It is the meticulous refinement on the part of the choreographer, director, or composer, accompanied by rehearsals and talented performers, which provides the enduring memory of what was said, done, or shown. This is an extremely influencial observation I acquired from my years spent in the wings and in the auditorium, as a puller of strings and an audience member alike.
     Live performance continues to fascinate me and every photo shoot is like a little show in and of itself. It is for me an ideal situation that my subjects are performers, as they are well accustomed to being directed in what to do, as well as having an acute awareness of the position of the audience. In my case that would be the camera’s lens. The fact that many of my subjects are at the top of their field in performance creation, with worldwide credits from the most prestigious ballet companies of our time, makes me feel honored to be given the artistic freedom to interpret their image in my own way.

Mike van SleenMike van Sleen , 2005