Watching a piece of choreography, one sees image after image, animated through movement, brought to life by a performer. But distilling dance to a single picture is an art form all its own. From just a few movements, an audience can immediately discern a story, an emotion, or even identify a choreographer. The flexed jazz hands in Bob Fosse’s work in Chicago, the kick line in Michael Bennett’s work in A Chorus Line, and more all take on a life of their own when isolated from the larger body of work.
New York City-based photographer James Jin has made it his mission to do just that: make still art from dance. Jin sees his photography as not just about getting a pretty picture—working with dancers from Broadway and beyond, Jin hopes to communicate inner emotions with outward movements, thoughts channeled through shape and form. Playbill sat down with Jin to talk about his journey with photography, his process of capturing dance, and staying creative.
You are known for your dance work in New York City, but initially how did you discover photography as an art form?
When I first picked up the camera, it was when I was in high school, around freshman year. I feel like a lot of things that I do now were shaped by wanting to be noticed and wanting to feel special. I picked up my dad's film camera and just started taking photos at school. I would always have my camera around, and it ended up getting me to [photograph] for high school newspaper. That's when I grabbed a digital camera and started taking even more photos.
It sounds like you had a passion for photography as a medium in general. How did you eventually narrow in on dance photography as a specialty.
I was interested in the arts, but I never saw it as a career [for me] so I ended up going to going to college for business. But I started dating my wife, who is a dancer, and she inspired me to pursue dance photography. She was part of a dance studio in Atlanta, and I started taking photos of her and her friends. Working with them, I realized I'm good at it. I mean, looking back at those photos now, I'm like, “What was I thinking?” [laughs]. But I think when you feel like you're good at something and you feel that kind of confidence and self-worth , it allows you to take a little more chances.
I had been following this [business school] path that was set out, but photography made me realize there are other things that I could do. We knew that after college we were going to get married and go to New York. But that's the hardest part, right? You move here and you're like, “OK, I'm going to do great things.” Or at least there's a hope that you're going to do great things. And then you realize, “oh, like nobody knows who you are.”
I was here [in New York], and I had to make a living, and I had no idea how I was going to do that. You think, “I'm going to do headshots, I'm going to put out headshot day fliers at Ripley Grier,” and then, no one shows up because there are so many other photographers. I remember going to Ripley and seeing the bulletin board and realizing, “Oh, there's so many people doing the same thing. How do I stand out?” I think that's what pushed me to pursue different opportunities.
It was a lot of ups and downs and questioning: Am I doing the right thing? Did I make the wrong decision? But I think the more I [photographed], I would ask those questions a little less frequently. It was definitely a journey.
Clearly that persistence worked, and now dance photography is a touchstone of your career. What about working with dancers appeals to you?
I think in general artists and dancers are a little more open to the idea of the unknown. I think the possibilities are endless there, and that’s exciting. I think what drives me the most is the idea that I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what kind of images we’ll get.
I see that exploration in your work paired with shape and form from movement. Can you talk about your process and how you collaborate and create?
When I work with anyone, my goal is to give you a blank piece of paper, blank slate, blank canvas. There's no mold that I'm trying to fit you into. I just want you to fill it with your own colors. I trust that if you just give it your best and give it your personality, then like, that's going to look totally unique.
I don't really care about your technique. I just don't. I don't think that's the most important thing. It's about how do you feel and how do you connect that with movement. We start out in this big [explorative] cloud, and I start to put little more boundaries on it. We start to dive into a little bit more specific intentions. For me, it's not about the photos or the outcome. It's about the process and the way we work—the photos are souvenirs of our time together. If we have a good time, then [we'll make] some great photos.
During this time with the pandemic, a lot of artists—performers and studio artists alike—are having trouble feeling creative. Do you have any bit of advice for how to find inspiration or stay creative?
I would say go where it feels uncomfortable, because that is usually where interesting things are. And I know it's hard right now, right, especially with everything that's going on [in the world]. It’s hard to add on more discomfort. But I think once we pass through that threshold of discomfort, oftentimes I think you find a greater self-worth. Not everything is going to work out. I'm not promising that. But still, [pushing yourself creatively] is a chance worth taking.
Follow Jin's photography journey on Instagram.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.