In early November, William Munoz was crouched next to the stage in the Masquer Theater on the University of Montana campus, waiting for the next piece in the UM Dance program’s annual “Dance Up Close” performance, which features student choreography.
Five lights were hung above the stage, which quickly became the only thing illuminating the dancers as the main stage lights shut off. Munoz scrambled to find settings on his camera that could pick up the dancers’ moves in and around the stark bulbs.
“Sometimes the lighting gets a little dark,” Munoz said last week, looking at his framed photographs from the performance. “Which makes it tough.
“You just bump up the iso [setting] and hope for the best.”
The final shots from that specific piece are shown in a series called “One Light,” featuring Katie Conrad’s face lit up by the bare light that also casts a river of white on the dark stage.
The images are in black-and-white, which gives them a monochromatic depth that easily works with the stark lighting and glimpses of body parts reaching out and away from the bulb.
Munoz shot in color — his usual practice when photographing dance at UM (many of his images end up being used as promotional material for the dance program) and was disappointed to see his photos after the fact.
“The color was miserable,” Munoz said. So he turned the saturation all the way down, nudged up the contrast and had a very different photo.
“The black-and-white is working,” he said. “Which is interesting, because that’s not what I was thinking at all.”
The six-photo series “One Light” is accompanied by one more shot from that performance — where more dancers came onto stage. “Amber” shows Amber Laiche standing in between two of the bulbs, light illuminating her frozen face as blurred dancers twirl around her.
The final two pieces depict Tiki Preston and Alyssa Enright frozen mid-movement, their arms and legs stretched, fingers dramatically spread.
Although it sounds frustrating, Munoz said the challenges of shooting dancers live contributes to his passion. It forces him to think on his feet and, sometimes, just choose the best camera settings he can and cross his fingers.
Munoz photographs some of the UM dancers often enough he feels he can predict their movements, which gives him an edge.
Pieces like the low-light performance pictured in his “One Light” series illustrate the multitude of choices Munoz has to make. Apart from camera settings and angles, he also has to decide how he captures the action— does he photograph a frozen dancer, or a blurred one? — as well as balance his interest in dance with taking pictures.
“On one level [the performance] was absolutely stunning,” he said. “On another level it was confusing, 'cause there was a lot going on.”
When Munoz is looking through dancer’s movements picture by picture, he picks up on subtleties that live audiences may not.
In the photo of Enright bending backward, one arm is stretched far past her head with fingers reaching, while the other hand pushes away off the air.
“Dancers are telling their story with their hands,” he said. “It’s not as compelling if they’re not using their hands.”
Munoz has been a photographer for nearly 40 years and has photographed dance since around 2009. He was drawn to it out of his love of motion, and he admires dancers’ athleticism, discipline and willingness to experiment.
He especially likes shooting live performances, where he’s forced to work around the choreographer and lighting designer’s constraints.
“This is more real,” he said, gesturing toward the “Dance Up Close” photos. “This is what I’m interested in.”