Photographer Jordan Matter has a motto: "It's better to ask forgiveness than permission." In recent pop culture history, this concept has had mixed results - see Kanye West's outburst during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon versus Kanye West's outburst during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Yet Matter's trespassing and finger-crossing sure work well in his lovely, gravity-defying new book, Dancers Among Us: A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday (Workman Publishing, $17.95, paperback).
A lot of us can't fathom ballet dancers interspersed "among us." They are an elegant, ethereal, obscenely talented, perfect-bodied species in a vocation seeped with romanticism and tragedy - final acts, closing nights, devastating injuries, abbreviated careers, obligatory retirements. We are clock-punchers, slobs, mortals. Matter reconciles the schism. He's not a dancer, he's an observer. "They bring to life what we feel but what most of us, lacking their artistry and athleticism, are unable to express physically."
The book's conceit takes professional dancers offstage, dressing them as civilians who arabesque, elevé and grand jeté amid unsuspecting audiences or unexpected backdrops. We see Tenealle Farragher do a modified split atop Carnegie Deli's meat counter, reaching behind her to grab a slice of pastrami. At a tattoo parlor, Francisco Aviña tries to run while his upper body stays parallel to the floor, his arm tethered by ink and needle. Onloookers gape as Octavio Martin and Danielle Brown break from their beach picnic - he lifts her skyward to feed a soaring seagull. A simple idea expressed in 160 color photos, Dancers Among Us adds magic and style to a TV formula Candid Camera made stale and Punk'd made repellent.
The men and women photographed never grimace as they risk life, limb and livelihood to attain such challenging poses. Some dancers required just one shot, others hundreds. No one benefited from trampolines, wires, or digital fine-tuning. Therefore, each page is a little patronizing, though in a peculiar pleasant way: really, how'd they do that?!?
In the back of the book, Matter explains some tricks employed to capture illusions on film. For example, in "Surrender," Rachel Bell arches her back and dangles her arms and neck over the edge of a canon high above the streets of Baltimore, even more dangerous because her right leg forms a right angle. Turns out a "very strong man" held her left leg out of frame.
Dancers Among Us debuted at number 29 last month on The New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction, undoubtedly boosted by Matter's publication-day appearance on The Today Show (he tried to help butterfingered Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford master the art of digital portraiture in under a minute). During the segment, Matter credited his creativity to genetics. His paternal grandparents, Herbert and Mercedes Matter - a very successful photographer and painter, respectively - were friends with Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock; his father makes films; his late mother modeled.
What the author (understandably) failed to mention - as did Kotb and Gifford - was a recent artworld scandal involving his father. In 2002, Alex Matter came forward claiming possession of 32 original Pollock paintings, found in Herbert Matter's Long Island storage unit (Herbert died in 1984). As reported in a 2007 New York Times article, Alex was backed by one prominent Pollock scholar, but after much deliberation, the Harvard University Art Museums determined "that some paints and pigments used in the works were not patented and probably not available until long after Pollock died in 1956." Matter cried foul, yet the paintings were never authenticated. In a 2010 story titled, "The Mark of a Masterpiece," lawyer Ronald D. Spencer told The New Yorker's David Grann, "In terms of the marketplace, the Matter paintings are done. They are finished."
Meanwhile, Jordan Matter has produced an energetic, funny, sexy and occasionally haunting book of photographs. In "Condemned," a hurricane-ravaged blue house with a wounded roof still stands in New Orleans. Dancer Kristina Doiron blends completely into the foreground, her body hammocked between two pillars, her blue sneakers untied, her head in her hands.
Here are the only suggestions I would have liked to see in Dancers Among Us. Each photo should have taken up one full page; Matter fills in blank spaces with sentence-long inspirational quotes, treacle affirmations that detract from the striking shots. Also, a basic index of names, dance companies, and page numbers might have been a plus, possibly including bios.
Under each photo's title, I wished for more context than the locations "New York, New York" or "Los Angeles, California." Where's that familiar intersection? What's that bookstore called? A couple images were hackneyed, like the re-enactments of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square and Marilyn Monroe atop a subway grate. And there were a few shots on train tracks, with subjects eclipsing oncoming locomotives, sort of glamorizing the idea of almost getting hit by a train. Even the author photo depicts Matter and dancer Erin Clyne playing on train tracks! That made me squirm.
My last pair of critiques. First, Matter's seven chapters each begin with a short anecdote about his wife and children. Nothing against his family, but introducing this scrapbooky vibe competes with the overall universality of a beautiful portfolio. Second, the much-anticipated final photo is...the author jumping with his camera. Therefore, Matter took every single shot in the book except one. It's a shame, because the second-to-last image is a true triumph. Tap dancer Evan Ruggiero, smiling, arms wide, leaps gracefully before touching down on the metal post that replaced his amputated leg following five surgeries for bone cancer. Ruggiero landed safely all 22 times.
Editor's note: The original version of this review stated that a photo in the book depicts the author and his son playing on train tracks. That is incorrect; the person accompanying the author is dancer Erin Clyne, who is not his son. We regret the error.