Monday, December 21, 2009

Editorial: Raising the Bar on Photographing Street Dance

How will the next decade look like for our street dance generation? Almost two weeks remain in this year of 2009 before we enter a new chapter. What are the challenges that we should take on? What is our vision for bringing change to this thriving community that stretches across the globe? This week, we're focusing on editorials that explore how we can take control of our dance journeys in new ways. One critical method is improving how street dance is filmed and visualized in online dance videos and movies. Many eyes are awaiting the debut of The LXD project from director Jon M. Chu and his collaborators. But, how about the rest of us who are simply posting videos or making documentary-like featurettes of our regional dance communities? How do we raise the bar for ourselves? (Photo above is from a Google Image search for Paris 1962 by Jerry Schatzberg.)

If we want others to better understand our dance culture, then we need to take steps towards visualizing our culture in more meaningful and highly skilled ways. Look at what Style Wars did for the graffiti scene. Take a peek at how Planet BBoy has inspired a new generation of bboys and bgirls in its wake. But on a simpler level, many of our Youtube videos and local projects are not up to par. We're familiar with the visual language of these clips. Often, there is minimal thought put into composing the shot. We might see a static camera sitting on a tripod or computer as a dancer performs in his garage or bedroom. Or there is a wide static shot of a contest from a local jam. Rarely, do we see the camera moving. And the editing is usually non-existent or is synced with fast-playing beats in the soundtrack. But this kind of fast-paced editing somewhat distracts from the dancing and might even diffuse the soul of the dancer's performance.

Finances and available resources are a huge factor in this dilemma. Sure, we may not have the most expensive cameras to use. Or the camera we're using is landlocked to our laptop or desktop computer, so it's hard to move around. And it isn't easy bringing video cameras to high profile jams when the promoters are charging $20 a pop for a camera. It should be clear to promoters who are trying to still make event DVDs that the age of buying event videos are over. Handheld photo cameras and smaller HD video cams have democratized the video-making process for dance as well as the reception of it via Youtube. While the quality may not be up to par, the videomaking landscape is clearly different than it once was in 2005 and beforehand.

Visualizing street dance at a higher level is crucial because it shapes others' perceptions of our world. Can we grow past showing awesome moves in videos and photos? What about showing the subtle textures of our community through observing the human behavior and rituals that go on? After all, our street dance culture does operate on commonly shared traditions and rituals. For inspiration, let's turn to renown fashion photographer and film director Jerry Schatzberg. His book Paris 1962 depicts a turning point in the 1960s when the haute couture of fashion was at the brink of seeing Yves Saint Laurent's new collection unleashed to awaiting eyes. If you take a look at the book, you'll find photos that are oddly framed, sometimes out-of-focus, and strikingly frank in its depiction of the behind-the-scenes life at the fashion show. They're cinematic, graphic, and very telling in its capturing of little moments between models, designers, hanger-ons, and aspiring artists. Schatzberg's cinematic eye encapsulates an era that no longer exists but that will live on forever in these still images.

Can we do the same for our street dance community? Can we see a renaissance of thoughtful, insightful documentary filmmaking and photography that will bring light to what happens even in the smallest corners of our culture? We'll need trained photographers and filmmakers. Or at least, we'll need passionate ones who have a vision beyond just recording an event. We're in a unique position in that we have the tools at our fingertips to do this. But if we don't take a stand, if we don't seek to capture what happens within our walls, then the stories and moments we live will be lost forever. Is there a Jerry Schatzberg among us?

Perhaps we will see this in the next decade of the 21st century. As our visual language and understanding of media increases at an exponential rate, our once underground culture will occasionally cross paths with the emerging global network of image-making and exchange that is becoming part of our way of connecting.

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