Sunday, April 11, 2010

Degas' Dancer Photos

Kodak created the first handheld camera in 1889, and it wasn’t long before Edgar Degas had one in his hands.

He was looking for a way to freeze the fluid action of dancers into stationary poses. In 1895 he took a series of photographs that he used for reference.

Those old Kodaks didn’t have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze real dancers in motion. A model had to hold still for a relatively long period under the artist’s direction.

But the photos gave Mr. Degas what he needed. His paintings portray dancers adjusting their shoulder straps in gestures that appear spontaneous, though they are really painstakingly posed.

[Note: To make these pairings I’ve inverted the values in Photoshop and combined them with details of Degas’ paintings. If you go to this Princeton website, you can see what the original negatives look like. The appearance of full color is an aberration.]
The photo negatives appear on this website.
Thanks to the blog reader who told me about this.


Roberto said...

I have always been very impressed by Degas’ influence by the camera in the designs and compositions for his paintings: The way he crops his subjects, and frames and lays out his background elements. He also used the same poses and figures repeatedly, sometimes reversed, or flipped, throughout his career, yet they always look natural and spontaneous.

Don Cox said...

There is an interesting little book by Antoine Terrasse, "Degas et la Photographie", which reproduces a number of his photos. Most are badly underexposed - but there were no light meters in his day.

The excellent big book "Degas by Himself" includes some information, too.

अर्जुन said...

It is interesting how he explored variations of the theme/poses~
Degas, Trois danseuses, Christies Sale 1994
also see~
Larger file of Trois danseuses

Whether from life or photo, the aim should be to control it, as to conform to your goals.

Bob Mrotek said...

Well, now I don't feel so bad. I have been known to seek an assist now and then with my pitiful artwork through the use of photography but it always made me feel like a little kid sneaking a cigarette. Then I found out that Norman Rockwell made much use of a camera and now Edgar Degas. I imagine that if Leonardo da Vinci had access to a camera he might have been tempted as well. Phew! I am so relieved!

My Pen Name said...

i would imagine that back then the dancers had to hold their poses some time for the negative to expose....
so the 'action' we see in degas' paintings, in my opinion, is his handiwork, not the camera's

yes rockwell and degas and gerome uses photos but they were all excellent draftsmen FIRST.

My Pen Name said...

..and also, walk into every good atelier in New York City (or anywhere) GCA, Janus, NY Academy, - the class isn't painting from a live sized model photograph - though that would presumably be cheaper (and more reliable) than hiring models')

Rebecca Guay said...

Great post!
gets me musing on my favorite topic: interpreting reference and drawing from internal knowledge and imaginative interpretation as well as external reference.
I like to make note of how much Degas made of so little information( just as you say-he had what he needed). One of the things I think is so important is knowing that great images can be made without perfect reference- so long are you are bolstering the creation of the work with solid drawing/composition/anatomy skills and a mental library of images to draw from.
Thanks for sharing these Jim!

Nick said...

Thanks for this, James, very interesting! I was just trying to look for the original negatives on the Princeton site but the link seems to be broken. Do you know how I could access them? My girlfiend absolutely loves these reference photos, and has done for a long time, in particularly the second one with the dancer adjusting her straps. I've been trying to find somewhere you can buy prints of them from for her birthday, but that's proving impossible! So I thought I'd try to get one made up myself but I'm struggling to find a good quality version of the image that wouldn't pixelate when blown up. If you knew of anywhere to get hold of one I'd really appreciate it!



James Gurney said...

Nick, you're right. Here's another website that has some of the photos: