Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Between the HEARTBEATS

Photographer goes beyond rehearsed poses to capture ballet dancers in the moment

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Bruce Monk is part of the background at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet -- like music and sweat.


After a short stint as a company dancer in the mid-1980s, he has taught and choreographed at the RWB School for 23 years.

For all those years, Monk has also been a fine-art dance photographer, able to glide unnoticed through the wings during performances and capture images that probably no outsider could.

"I'm kind of invisible, because I'm there all the time," says the 56-year-old Vancouver-bred artist. "You stop being observed and just become the observer...

"You can catch those between-the-heartbeat moments when people, in some cases, are working so hard, they can't be anyone other than themselves."

Monk studied photography at the Ontario College of Art while completing his ballet-teacher training at the National Ballet School. His accomplishments behind the lens aren't well known here, but his work sells internationally through his website.

"There is more of my work in Hong Kong than there is in Canada," says the Osborne Village resident, who is married to former RWB soloist Gail Stefanek.

Monk's images have been used in ad campaigns for Leica and Hasselblad cameras. In the 2001 Hollywood movie Vanilla Sky, Penélope Cruz played a dancer/photographer and Monk's work was used for hers.

In the 2005 movie Two for the Money, the daughter of Al Pacino's wealthy character was into ballet and their walls were adorned with Monk photographs.

As the final event of its 70th season, RWB is partnering with Mayberry Fine Art to present Dancer's Camera, an exhibition and fundraising sale of Monk's black-and-white dance photographs.

The artist describes the onstage and backstage images as something of a "time capsule and self-portrait" of the company.

Half the funds raised will go to the David Moroni endowment fund to support the RWB School.

Tonight at the gallery, there's an elegant opening with a $50 ticket price that includes a wine-tasting and chance to buy prints before the public. The exhibition is on until May 21. The prints vary in size from 5 x 7 to 12 x 12 inches and in price, if unframed, from $575 to $1,150.

The gallery is waiving its cut of sales, says co-owner Shaun Mayberry, an RWB supporter. "Bruce has a fantastic eye for composition," he says, adding that Monk's work in the darkroom is "an artform in itself."

Monk chose 17 of his best images from at least 150,000 possible shots and platinum-printed three limited-edition prints of each. Platinum printing is an antique method that produces a one-of-a-kind print. "Each one is handmade, like a sweater," he says.

Dancer's Camera includes three Monk images that have earned a place in the permanent collection of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Most of the photos, dating from 1987 to 2003, were captured with vintage cameras. The artist uses his knowledge of choreography and music to open the shutter at precisely planned moments to capture remarkable, sometimes dreamlike effects.

Monk's photo credit is familiar to Free Press readers because he gets a stipend from the RWB to shoot performances and some publicity photos. But he hates studio shots, leaves that to others and has "zero regrets" that he's not a career photographer.

Monk says he has almost no interest in photographing stars in the spotlight. His eye is drawn to the art form's soldiers -- unsung crew members and lowly, nearly anonymous members of the corps. He often shoots figures in silhouette or shadow. "Personality is not important," he says.

In 1998, he won his greatest honour to date: first prize in an international competition run by Hasselblad cameras. He was flown to New York and lauded for the image, titled From the Gantry.

A gantry is a catwalk high above the stage where crew members toil during a ballet. From this vantage point, two dancers in tutus are seen from the waist down, while their upper bodies are seen in exquisite shadows on the floor.

"The personality is eliminated," says Monk, "but hopefully the humanity comes through even clearer."

Brush with greatness

Platinum printing, which Bruce Monk used for the show Dancer's Camera, is one of the earliest methods of photographic printing. It provides much greater tonal range than silver gelatin -- 255 gradations from black to white. "It's like a piano with 255 keys," says the photographer, who often speaks in musical metaphors.

Monk, who has been messing around in darkrooms since the age of 10, rents a basement where he makes the costly, labour-intensive prints. He has to spray the walls and floor with water to raise the humidity for the process. It uses toxic chemicals that can produce deadly gas. Nonetheless, "I really love the darkroom," he says. "Platinum printing is like playing chess with yourself."

Monk, who uses digital negatives and enhances the tones on a computer screen, applies platinum emulsion to the paper with a brush. After nearly 20 years, his failure rate is 50 per cent, usually because a microscopic defect in the paper creates a black spot.

Platinum prints don't deteriorate. They will last hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Monk made his first platinum print in 1991, the same year he had a bout with cancer. "If I'm not going to last, I would sure like some of my work to," he says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2010 D1

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