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BEST OF 2013, Allen Birnbach
Denver, CO
Project: Limelight image series with members of Colorado Ballet for exhibit at Month of Photography Denver.

© Allen Birnbach

© Allen Birnbach

Allen Birnbach combined his love of 1940s Hollywood lighting and 1830s calotypes in Limelight, his latest collaboration with the Colorado Ballet. The series debuted at the 2013 Month of Photography, Denver. Archival prints, posters and greeting cards are also available for purchase, with a percentage benefitting the ballet.

“My photography process was highly collaborative, as I could share the results of each capture before the next attempt,” says Birnbach. “Shooting digitally has transformed my relationships with dancers because they see the work in real time. That builds a sense of trust and partnership, resulting in stronger images than ever before possible.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Allen Birnbach: 40 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

AB: 40 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

AB: Lifestyle, location, dance and personal fine art projects.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

AB: Intuition.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

AB: Whatever the theme, I’m looking to make an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject.

ASMP: You’ve worked with the Colorado Ballet for the past seven years, creating their advertising images. How did you establish a relationship with the company? Had you photographed Colorado Ballet dancers prior to working with them as part of your commercial photography business?

AB: I had created a body of work with dancers for a personal project called “Defining Eden,” about the spiritual connection between the human and the natural world. I mentioned this to an art director at an advertising agency, and explained that from this series I had begun to shoot for dance companies in Los Angeles. Six months later, when they got Colorado Ballet account, they contacted me.

ASMP: Do you have additional experience photographing other dancers outside of your work with the Colorado Ballet?

AB: I love the physicality and emotion dancers bring to anything they do, so they are perfect collaborators for who I am as a photographer. I’m always looking for opportunities to create new work with them. Some of it is in studio, much of it on location.

ASMP: Your goal was to exhibit these images in the bi-annual Denver Month of Photography. What led to your decision to participate in this event? Had you exhibited during previous Month of Photography events? If so, what types of images/subject matter?

AB: I had seen Month of Photography exhibits in other cities, and thought it was a wonderful idea to raise awareness about the diversity of vision in our field. When my friend Mark Sink decided to launch that kind of event in Denver, I was all in. The work I showed in that first Month of Photography was from my “Defining Eden” series mentioned earlier.

ASMP: In this shoot, you combined your love of 1940’s Hollywood lighting (is this where the series name “Limelight” comes from?) and 1830’s calotypes. Are either — or both — aesthetics that you utilized previously?

AB: I had used 1940’s Hollywood lighting for a series of annual report portraits in the past, and for some of my personal work with nudes. The romance of calotypes had always appealed to me, and this was an opportunity to blend the two.

ASMP: Have you ever created calotypes using traditional processes?

AB: No, though I had done some platinum/palladium printing in the past and was intrigued by the older processes.

ASMP: How did you pitch the Limelight series to Colorado Ballet? What was their initial reaction, and what was the timeframe for getting the needed approvals to schedule shoots?

AB: I’m fortunate to have a strong and highly personal connection with the artistic director and executive director. They know that my unwavering commitment is to bring visibility and a greater audience to the company. I contacted them about the possibility of reaching a lot of people by having images of their dancers in a public space during the Month of Photography. When I suggested it, the approval was immediate and enthusiastic.

ASMP: The dancers were photographed over a period of three weeks. How many dancers did you photograph in all, and where did you photograph them?

AB: The company was in rehearsal for two major, and quite physical, shows at that time, so it was a gift that eight dancers participated in my project. We had to shoot on Sundays or Mondays when they were not in rehearsal, and all the work was created in my studio. Sessions lasted anywhere from one to three hours.

ASMP: How many different poses did you try out with each model? Did you have a specific idea for the action you wanted going into each shoot or was this worked out spontaneously with each model?

AB: I had some ideas we would begin with, and from that we would evolve things together.

ASMP: Over the course of your photo sessions, did individual poses build on each other or evolve from one to the next, or was the decision making discrete from one session to the next?

AB: As the series took shape, I looked at how they would work together as a series. So in that sense, yes, there was intent in what we did as time went on.

ASMP: As you worked with each dancer, they were able to view the images so to collaborate on the movements. Did you show images from any of the previous shoots you’d done for reference, or did you use any outside sources of dance photography as inspiration for this project?

AB: I was shooting with a Pentax 645D, so the dancers could always give feedback as we were working. I did not bring outside sources of imagery to the sessions. I did not want our work to be limited by looking at other photographs.

ASMP: Did you limit your photography for this series to a single dancer in each image? What was your reasoning for shooting individuals rather than two or more dancers at a time?

AB: The decision to shoot individuals was driven by availability. I do plan on shooting more images in the near future with duets.

ASMP: Please talk about your process in directing and collaborating with the models to get desired gestures and poses. Does your direction differ significantly when working with a single dancer vs. a pair or group?

AB: When I work with an individual dancer, I start by asking what they think their strengths are. Based on that, we began our collaboration and evolved poses accordingly. Working with a pair of dancers is done in a similar fashion.

ASMP: Please describe the equipment and setup that you used, particularly the lighting. What, if any other, photographs have you lit using the same techniques?

AB: A large umbrella was used for the key light, and there was a fresnel light positioned high and to the side to create the shaft of light. V flats were used for fill.

ASMP: Did you work with assistants or other technical team members on this series?

AB: There was an assistant on set for all the images to adjust lighting as we worked. On three of the sessions, I brought in a choreographer to help with posing from both an artistic and technical standpoint.

ASMP: Did you use hair and makeup stylists or did you rely on dancers to do make up and styling themselves? How much input did you have into hair, makeup and costume styling?

AB: The dancers did their own makeup, and I checked it before we started shooting. We decided on hair based on the pose and adjusted accordingly.

ASMP: At what point during or after the shoot did you begin post-production?

AB: I did post-production as soon after each shoot as possible, since we had a tight time-frame for the exhibition. After selecting the top images from each shoot, I would send a link to the dancer for his or her feedback. Once the final images were selected, files were converted in Lightroom, processed in Nik Silver Efex and Adobe Photoshop.

ASMP: How did you create the calotype look?

AB: The calotype look comes from the work in Nik Silver Efex. Each image was manipulated individually. On average, post for each image took about two hours.

ASMP: How did you prepare the images to be printed as four-by-five-foot murals for the exhibit? Did you outsource this printing or do it in house?

AB: I worked with a company that does vinyl banners and billboards. Fortunately, the customer service contact was someone I had worked with for years at one of the photo labs before it closed. He understood my goals and did an amazing job in overseeing the printing.

ASMP: Please describe the printing process used for these prints. What substrate were the images printed on? Why did you choose that substrate?

AB: The exhibition space was quite large, and I felt that traditional prints at a size big enough to command attention would be extremely expensive. Since I have not sold prints larger than 30-by-40 inches through galleries over the years, I looked for a process that would be economical and still give the viewer a great viewing experience. The prints were made on an HP large-format printer using vinyl banner material.

ASMP: How did you hang and present the images in the exhibition?

AB: The images were hung on eight-by-eight-foot display panels, two images to a panel, over six panels, for a total of 12 images. The panels were laid out on the floor and then I began to sequence based on how the images related to each other, and as a series.

ASMP: What were your expectations for doing this exhibition? Did the exhibit meet these expectations?

AB: I had two expectations. The first was to create a new, evocative series of images that broke from past photographs I had created with dancers. I certainly feel like I accomplished that, and I am planning to shoot more for the series.

Second, I wanted to create a vehicle for donations to the Colorado Ballet through sales of prints, posters and greeting cards. We are in development now for those items, and early response to a mailing list at the show is extremely encouraging.

ASMP: Do you exhibit your photography on a regular basis or have existing relationships with galleries?

AB: I have exhibited in galleries for many years, both within and outside the United States. The effort has been sporadic, depending on where I am in creating personal work. Since I have a major project underway now, I am researching galleries that can represent the documentary I expect to complete in 2015.

ASMP: At what point did you decide that a percentage of image sales would go to the ballet company?

AB: A nanosecond after I came up with the idea for the series. We have a mailing list of interested parties, but because the company was on hiatus, no sales have been made yet. With the company back, I’m sure things will move forward quickly now.

ASMP: In addition to the exhibited mural prints, you also offer these images for sale as greeting cards, posters and in three sizes of archival prints. How did you decide on this specific product line?

AB: It seemed wise to create a product line that could fit into many price points.

ASMP: What sizes are your archival prints and how are these prints made?

AB: Limelight Pricing, effective March 18, 2013:

Size Edition Price (unframed)
11x14 Open $ 600
15x20 25 $ 950
18x24 25 $1500
22x30 15 $2000
30x40 10 $4000

All prints are signed, archival carbon pigment prints.

ASMP: While you were working on this project, how did you manage the other aspects of your business? Do you have dedicated staff members? If so, who and what do they do?

AB: I juggled.

ASMP: What impact, if any, did the exhibition have on your commercial photography business? On your personal fine art?

AB: Although I cannot yet point to a specific result in either the commercial or fine-art arena, the experience of creation keeps me vital in every aspect of my life. Whether anything can be attributed to this or not, it is simply an evolutionary step in where I am headed as an artist. That, in itself, is reward enough. What I will say, though, is that the path that started 15 years ago with using dancers for a personal project has led to many assignments using dance as a metaphor for focus, discipline, energy and excitement. I didn’t start with that commercial application in mind, but it’s fun when personal work leads to commercial successes.

ASMP: In addition to your photography business you also teach workshops. How long have you been involved in teaching? Are there things that you’ve learned about photography from teaching others that have been a revelation or otherwise positively affected your business?

AB: I’ve taught through workshops and mentorships for many years. Looking at the images created by working professionals and photo-enthusiasts during the courses is a tribute to the immense creativity in all of us. It’s a privilege to help advance the vision of another artist, and acknowledge the infinite opportunities that there are for self expression.

I’ve never been one to work from formula. I always look at each image as a brand new opportunity to play. Workshop participants are wonderful reminders of that for me.

ASMP: Beyond the exhibition, will you be using these images to help market your photography business?

AB: Based on the overwhelming response to the work, I plan to shoot more images for the series. I’m thinking that there may be another exhibition and possibly a book in the future. Time will tell.

ASMP: What projects do you have planned for the future? What are your goals for the next five years?

AB: I’m working on a project documenting the challenges facing ranching in the West. The images will be both still and motion, and the goal will be gallery and museum shows, a documentary film and a book. I anticipate completion in 2015.

Goals for the next five years? Complete the ranch project, of course. Continue to evolve my commercial work and teaching opportunities and look for the next project that will fill me full.