“a bit of sunlight at the right time” – justin slee on avantBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
When we heard that Justin Slee had spent the past five years photographing ballet dancers, we immediately thought of French painter Edgar Degas; like Degas, Justin has spent considerable time in dance studios observing the poses and pirouettes practiced over and over, on the bar, in time, with a partner, again and again, up until they fall under the spotlight.
“Photographers in general are never happy – we always feel like we could do something a bit better,” Justin tells us. “But on the whole I was pretty pleased.”
Justin is wearing a red t-shirt and a humble, chatty demeanour. He is by all accounts wildly approachable, which seems strange for someone who spends his days hiding behind a block of metal and an expensive lens. His website is clean, thoughtful, and unpretentious – he divides his work by commissioned and non-commissioned, and treats both to a pragmatic sentence or two by way of introduction.
Our favourite section is titled ‘Point’, which he describes as “an ongoing series created when I have a few moments in the day, and usually when the light is interesting.”
It is light – and moments – that drove him to spend five years photographing the dancers of the acclaimed Northern Ballet, culminating in an exhibition titled ‘AVANT’ at The Gallery at Munro House.
“Initially, I wanted to photograph them jumping in the air, the full-on dance poses,” he says. “Over time, I became more interested in how the light fell in the studio so I would focus on pools of light, and wait for someone to go into that light. I think that’s why I started doing a lot of pictures of feet, because of how they fell into bits of light.”
Justin began photographing the dancers as a creative project, documenting the company’s rapid growth and move to a purpose-built studio in the centre of Leeds. His work captured Northern Ballet’s attention, resulting in a partnership that would allow him access to the guarded spots of light that might otherwise go unseen.
“I’d pop into a class and rehearsals and just try to make myself hidden in the corners of the room,” Justin tells us. “I could just hang behind my camera and be very quiet, and after a few minutes they seemed to forget I was there.”
Like Degas in the ballet class! we think. But Justin’s lines are cleaner, journalistic. Justin has studied design and hates distractions – several of the photos have been re-filtered black and white, to maintain the focus of composition. He hates distraction, but is drawn to dereliction; he preferred the classes held in an old gymnasium, he tells us, because it had character and texture. There’s a photograph taken in that gymnasium – of a dancer in red, a scarf around his neck, balancing on the wooden wall bars that climb up the window.
Justin says he can’t decide his favourite, but he likes the one of feet, perched shoeless, raised in point. Clean lines, even the lines imprinted on feet from hours of ribbons pressed against moving skin.
“I’m drawn to this portrait,” he says, pointing to photograph of a dancer in costume posed against a white wall. “It’s tonal more than anything.”
You won’t see much of twirling and tricks at AVANT, which is marvellously unexpected, and a calculated choice by Justin.
“I got interested in the stiller part of the dance, because that’s usually when the moment was.”
What’s the moment? we ask.
“I suppose it’s a feeling I have: it’s a combination of everything that’s photographic. From the composition being right, the lighting being right – and to top all of that off it’s just a little something.
“It can be a look on someone’s face. Just that little look of concentration, or grimace, or effort. It can be a cloud in the right place, or a bit of sunlight at the right time.”