The majesty of dance lies in its ephemeral nature. It is a celebration of a current state of being – an effort to make visual the sensations of thought, feeling, memory, and time, through the exploration of the physical body, as it fleetingly passes from present to past.
Dance is often thought of as an interaction between the performer and the spectator what becomes of it when the work is translated through a lens? While the attempt can often flatten the movement, a skilled photographer can exploit his craft to enable the dance to take on a third life of perspective and volume within the frame. If you are one who has an eye pointed into the dance world, it is possible you have followed the work of choreographers such as Ohad Naharin, Pina Bausch, or Roy Assaf. So, it is possible you have seen a photo that sweeps you into their world.
There is nothing that can truly compare to seeing any of their evening length works in person. Through the images of Israeli-born photographer, Ascaf, the viewer is instantly transported into the life of the piece and a moment of movement transfixed in time. Originally born in Israel, Ascaf and his family moved to Mexico when he was just two years old.
20 years later, after his birthright trip to Israel where he experienced living in a Kibbutz and visiting the major cities of the region, he decided to move back to Israel.
There, he began his studies in industrial and graphic design. He always knew he had a stronger interest in the two-dimensional sphere. After one semester of photography, he knew the medium was for him. As the primary photographer for Batsheva dance company based in Tel Aviv, and having shot for many elite choreographers around the world, Ascaf’s images are often our first window into the world of the piece.
Whether it is a double-exposure, or a crystal image, his sense of timing and ability to translate the architecture and intention of a scene is impeccable. We sat down with him to learn how he merges the ephemeral with his lens.
Ascaf, where do you currently live?
I live in Jaffa. This is a small port city that is 4,000 years old. It is a place where Arabs, Christians, and Jews live together.
It’s not like the fantasy of coexistence, but there is coexistence which is the beautiful part of the city.
How did you find your way to dance photography?
During my last semester at school. I took a course in photography which inspired me to purchase an analog camera. Once I started to practice more, it confirmed I was not interested in industrial or graphic design. Many of my friends were dancers, so they became my raw material. I always wanted to shoot dance or dancers for my studies. So I was very lucky to have this circle of friends I could work with.
How did you become connected to the work of Batsheva and Ohad Naharin?
A few years ago, my wife Doron was the rehearsal manager of Batsheva. That gave me the opportunity to do two exhibitions for the company, like a student. Never could I have imagined that I would eventually become Batsheva’s photographer.
The chance to work in the theater and try to find the right moments of the dancers- every time is like a small adventure for me.
Dance photography requires a very specific sense of timing and understanding how a piece, or the body unfolds, what is your strategy for capturing movement?
Often, I don’t get to see a piece many times. Perhaps a general rehearsal, a premiere, and one more time after that. With years of experience, I’ve cultivated some techniques with lighting and positioning myself on the stage which has helped. I like to shoot low. I can drop my body to the floor and see the continuity of the floor to the ceiling and provide a different perspective. But when I put my input and composition in the camera, sometimes it doesn’t fit the choreographer’s point of view, who may be sitting straight on.
There is a play between capturing the piece for the choreographer and the art of photography. Most of the time the choreographers tell me to do what I like, and they like how I find the images.
I really love double exposure photography, but it doesn’t always work with the choreographers.
In your dance photos and personal work, I see strong inspiration in finding nature or the “animal” within the human form, is this a motivation for you?
Nature inspires me, and I love to combine them.
I began to be obsessed with leaves many years ago and began to print in their outline with photoshop to combine human and nature together in one portrait. So, I will bring families in or individuals to make something special for them. I still feel the magic every time the image comes together. My other inspiration is printing ‘Sun Prints’ called Cyanotype. Cyan as in the blue color. I use the negatives from photos of natural elements or hands and then expose it to the sun and wash it with a specific chemical which is sensitive to light and turns the photo blue.
Does living in Israel, or the Mediterranean influence your work in a specific way?
It’s so hot here and such a desert environment, that I try to bring the forest to people through my work with the Leaves. Now that I think about it, the Blue prints are in some way a praise for good, for health, for love, and a way to see an image every day that calms us down. Dance is my playground, the Leaves are a way to give something to the families that come to take photos, and the Blue is like my meditation. A thank you to the world and the circus that I live in. Israel is a very stressful place to live in.
There are many beautiful things to enjoy here, we have the sea and the beach.
But it’s also small with a lot of traffic. Israel is hot and people are a bit nervous and stressed. The Blue process is a way to find calm and ease.
Do you find a link to spirituality in your work?
I feel spirituality when people see an image and it touches them in some way, whether it’s a dance image, a portrait, or a print that I made. The Blue prints are really my spiritual moment. Through them I bless myself, and I bless others; I feel this blessing when I work on them and when I give them.
Photography isn’t essential to existence, but I believe for our soul sometimes we need to see the past, a different point of view from what we’re thinking, or just see something beautiful. Outside is hard, but here this image is beautiful.
Ascaf’s favorite places in Jaffa:
- Givat Aliya Beach– a beautiful small reef beach.
- Sultan Bakery- delicious bread.
- The Orchard of Abraham Kindergarten– A coexistence community that is part of a non-profit called Human First. A couple opened this school, the man is Muslim, and the woman is Israeli, and they opened a kindergarten initially with ten kids and now it has grown to 200. It’s amazing to send our kids there.
- Old City of Jaffa– the history in this 4,000-year-old city is incredible. I’ll drive an extra 7 minutes in traffic in order to pass through it.
- Pink Trees of Jaffa- during Covid, there were two trees that fell right down the road from my house. I decided to paint them pink, and they became the “Pink Trees in Jaffa” that people would come to see. They’re beautiful.