Many assignments from my newspaper days at first glance seemed sure to be boring. In January of 1976, I was unsure of what to expect from an assignment to photograph a dance instructor – alone in his studio. When I walked into his downtown Topeka business, I saw a beautiful checkerboard floor that immediately lifted my hopes. Then I met Joe Domme.
Domme walked out of his office wearing a checked sports coat as he readied to prepare for an upcoming solo show he was putting on in the city. I realized I had stuck pay dirt. Domme was a natural in front of a camera and moved gracefully through his dance moves. The checked floor and jacket made the photograph.
Looking at this image now, I realize I would photograph Domme much the same way today, but with a completely different look. Today, I would light the picture. There might be more fill light in the background or a rim light on Domme’s body and hair. Soft light would define his face while a third light might brighten the floor. None of that, though, in 1976. The reasons were both theoretical and mechanical.
The first part came from the philosophy of “f5.6 and be there.” I came of age during a period where photographers frowned upon the use of lights. Nikon’s marvelous 35mm cameras along with the impassioned love for the esteemed Leica rangefinder advanced cameras to epic heights. Combined with Kodak’s venerable Tri-X black and white film, photography entered a time where photographers took advantage of what natural light made of the scene. Photographers working in journalism, for the most, did little to interject themselves into the moment.
At the Sports Photography Workshop where I teach and present every year in Colorado Springs, the legendary photographer Bill Eppridge joined the staff for a final time before his death in October 2013. His work with Life Magazine remains some of the finest work of his generation. From fun with the Beatles to the darkness of drug addiction, his dramatic work is worthy of your time researching his extraordinary photographs.
During his evening presentation in the Olympic Training Center’s auditorium, Eppridge fascinated young and old with a stunning array of work that included Sports Illustrated photographs from later in his career. However, it was the image of Robert Kennedy lying near death from an assasin’s bullet in a back hallway of a Los Angeles hotel that brought a somber tone to the presentation.
Eppridge never minced words with anyone. As he concluded his show, he brazenly declared, “I never lit a damn photograph in my life.” In the staff critiques of student’s work, Eppridge kept hammering away proclaiming, “Lose the f–king lights.”
This leads to the mechanical aspect. Advancements in artificial lighting make it so much easier to quickly and effectively light subjects today. The technical innovation allows more time to create a dramatic, well-lit photograph with so much of the guesswork eliminated. Just as Eppridge mastered his craft, today there are true masters of light. These advancements along with the guidance and inspiration from a few of the masters helped me transition to these brighter days of colorful photography, all the while trying my best to make the subject, not the light, stand out.
This leads me to what I hope is a smooth transition back to Domme. Domme spent his life mastering his trade. Born in Topeka, he grew up in Chicago where he took to dancing. A survivor of major fighting in the Pacific during World War II, Domme and his family eventually returned to Topeka where his dance studio thrived in various locations. The last I knew, Domme still could be found dancing into his 90’s. I am glad I photographed him that one day in 1976, lights or no lights.