Interview with Joanne Savio

Interview with Joanne Savio

February 2017
Joanne Savio talks with her former student Roland Folkmayer about the retrospective of her dance photography and about what she seeks to achieve in a photographic portrait.

RF: What does it feel like having a retrospective of your work?

JS: It’s a very emotional experience. Each of those images have some kind of memory, some more than others. As I looked at the negatives down in my basement—surrounded by, you know, the washer, the dryer, the water tank–working on this very tiny, light table with an old magnifying glass—it wasn’t just picking out images for a show from thousands of negatives of dance, but it was also a visual memoir. I shed tears over some of those images. Some of these subjects are not with us anymore. Some of the assistants that helped me create this work are not here anymore. Awam Amkpa, a friend of mine who is a scholar and artist here, said, “Don’t think of it as a retrospective. Think of it as an introspective,” which I thought was excellent, you know, a good way to look at it.

RF: Absolutely. When you were going through your pictures, how did you know what to exclude, and what to include?

JS: In the film department, as you know, we have the expression “Kill the darlings.” And I had to do that for this show. I kept editing, editing, editing, taking things out, and trying to stand back in my mind, to see how these images converse with each other. Do they have something in common? Is there a gesture? Is there something that would make the images live together as a family? [Laughs.] I still mourn some of the images that I couldn’t fit into the show.

RF: So you were looking for—something more like an emotional attachment for you, or some other sort of quality?

JS: I had to say to myself, “Okay. Is this [image in the show] because I’m so attached to this person, and I’m really remembering that moment shooting them? But how will an audience react to this image?”

RF: Why did you choose this twenty-year time frame for your exhibit? Why not shorter, or longer?

JS: That’s a great question. One way to think about it is 1986 was the first dance project I ever photographed, of Merce Cunningham. And there was no budget. I had gone back to school later in my life, at 33, I had already graduated with a degree in English Literature–

RF: Great. [Laughs.]

JS: —and I was then studying at Cooper Union, which is an amazing art school, and engineering, and architecture school in New York. And almost all of the students there were appropriate college age but we became friends. There was one young man there who later became an extremely famous designer and writer, Abbott Miller, who ended up art-directing and designing the beautiful magazine called Dance Ink. He called me and said, “I have this project, a portrait. I think you’d be perfect for it. But there’s really no budget.” When he said the subject was Merce Cunningham, I said, “I’m ready. I’ll go.” And my husband, Jim, went with me as an assistant. So that was the beginning. And even though I didn’t stop shooting dance in 2004, it seemed like the bulk of my work, including my book Vital Grace, as well as most of the work I had done for Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance Ink., seemed to finish up at around that point. So it seemed like a perfect chapter to try to illustrate. But I intend to continue shooting dance and taking portraits for the rest of my life.

Portrait of Pina Bausch, Italy, 1994.
Photo by Joanne Savio

RF: How does dance keep you inspired? Why do you think it’s an essential and important topic in your life?

JS: Because for one thing I’m so clumsy. And these incredible, beautiful beings can do something that I cannot do. So the ones that are performance based, it was exciting to shoot. There is some kind of gut reaction about when to press that shutter. Someone who came to my opening said, “That’s a perfect moment with Baryshnikov and Trisha Brown. How did you know to shoot that moment?” But it was the instinct of seeing a beautiful form. I would hear myself gasp behind the lens. For that moment in time I also feel like I’m flying through the air, I am these dancers. But when I stop time for that second, it forces the viewer to study that image. So the image appears important, or it appears that it’s something that needs to be looked at.

RF: That’s very interesting. So you weren’t necessarily capturing a particular moment but could, sort of let it happen?

JS: I’m usually working with these people not as they’re performing for an audience. So I can say, “I want to make sure that I got that jump. Can you try it again?” No one’s saying, “Oh, you should get that.” You know, there’s just something inside of you that feels a moment you connect as human beings, something about that person that’s reminding you of yourself. Like, I’m looking at you now, how you’re holding your hands. I’m looking at your gestures, your eyes. If I were taking a portrait of you right now, I’d be looking for those moments where it would feel right to take that picture.

RF: When I look at these pictures, I wonder—how do you bring out the vulnerability in people?

JS: You know, the first thing is that you try to establish a sense of trust and respect between you and your subject. If it’s someone famous I do research before the shoot, because I want them to know that they’re not just another project to me, that I’m interested in who they are, what was there upbringing like, where were they born. I also feel when a camera is on you, you can feel vulnerable. And I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty. Also, I don’t rush them. It goes back to the class you took with me [“Sound, Image, Story”], when I tried to stress slowing our world down, looking at tiny moments of light, little gestures, a look in the eye, expressions on a face.

RF: How can we practice slowing our world down?

JS: That’s—I’m still— [Laughs.] I’m still struggling with that myself.

RF: Interesting.

JS: When I slow my world down, I don’t tend to fall as much. [Laughs.]

I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty.

RF: Your exhibition is called Grace, and your images were featured in a book called Vital Grace. So I wondered, what is grace to you, in your life?

JS: Even in this context, it’s not just grace in the sense of being graceful, but also in the sense of giving blessings and giving thanks to something. These photos are a way also to honor the people that were willing to sit in front of my camera and willing to show themselves to me. So it’s also a grace in the sense of giving back to these people a blessing of gratitude.

RF: Putting together this exhibit was a long process. What will you take away from this whole exhibition?

JS: I’m still processing it all but it does feel really good to see my work around me. Because it’s like being almost in the company of friends, subjects, memories in my own life. So I walk away from the exhibition feeling very grateful for the life I have.

Joanne Savio’s exhibition Grace: A Retrospective of Dance Portraiture and Performance 1986-2004 continues at the NYUAD Project Space gallery through February 25.

Top photo: Trisha Brown, archival digital print from film negative, 156 x 111.8cm. Choreography, If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994. Images courtesy of the artist.




Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness


Toward the end of October, I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi to teach a workshop, “The Process of Bearing Witness: The Photographic Portrait.” Fourteen students participated. They composed and orchestrated shots of each other and of themselves; they examined who they were in relation to where they were. Students worked in crews of two, sharing equipment and most importantly, time and respect. I was impressed with the camaraderie and spirit of collaboration the students exhibited. Trust and group dynamic became tools to create work that asked even more questions, hinted at secrets, revealed information or challenged the viewer. Their critiques became more constructive and their work more provocative.

The portraits shown here are but a sampling of the diverse images created during this time, and more of them deserve attention. I want to thank my students for the opportunity they afforded me to learn and join them on this journey. It was an honor to begin to explore Abu Dhabi together, and its unique vision for the Middle East. I look forward to returning for the Spring semester teaching the course, Sound, Image, and Story.


[Click on a thumbnail below. Captions identify the name of the photographer.]

Joanne Savio is Director of Freshmen Studies at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. She oversees Tisch’s first-year film and television program and teaches film-making and documentary film. A professional photographer, she has published several books and exhibited widely. Dance is a central theme of Savio’s work, and she has collaborated with leading choreographers, including Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Mikhail Barishnikov, Mark Morris, and Garth Fagan, among others. Savio received a B.F.A with honors at Cooper Union School of Art. Additional portraits will be posted next week.