Interview: photographer Lisa Tomasetti

Lisa Tomasetti

Award-winning stills photographer Lisa Tomasetti currently has an exhibition in Sydney, entitled “The Australian Ballet on the International Stage.” Addy Fong has a chat to her: 

Hey Lisa. Congratulations on your exhibition. It’s on from the 18th – 25th Nov. That’s really short!
It is short. Luckily It’s a really good time for the gallery and a great bonus because the Australian Ballet company are in town. It’s really important to me that the dancers can come and have a look if they want to. They do a 2 month residency, 3 ballets I think, performing their Sydney season from October to December. Hopefully we’ll do another one next year which will be a bit longer.

Is the new exhibition similar to your previous work?
There’s some stuff that people would have seen online. Half of the show is from New York and Tokyo which I think people might have online and the other half is from Beijing and Los Angeles which people haven’t seen so it’s a good mix.

Tell me about your association with the Australian Ballet, how much direction do you give the dancers in how you get them to pose, or is that something a choreographer does?
No, it’s just me and them. When we go overseas for their tours it’s kinda like me grabbing them in between rehearsals, class, or technical runs at the theatre. We might have at most half an hour so they just get in their costumes and then we hit the streets. It depends on how they’re feeling, if they’re feeling really tired then I don’t ask them to jump or leap. You’ve got to be careful, sometimes we’re on concrete and I don’t want to injure them.

I find the location and get the dancer to perform there. Basically it’s a collaboration. They’ll say, ‘maybe I could do this’ and then they do it and it’s usually fabulous. They look amazing so pretty much whatever they give me I accept willingly because they’re pretty extraordinary athletes and they’ve got this kind of beautiful strength and elegance to them. Some of them will do leaps for me. I love the Grande Jatte leap, so that’s great. It really depends on each individual dancer.

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Your subject matter tends to revolve around the singular, the female, centre of frame with a contrasting background of the harsh cityscape, the gritty urban environment. It feels like there’s a sort of reoccurring theme throughout your work if that makes any sense?
Yeah, it does actually. You might have struck something. It might be something that I instinctively do. My visual artworks always have a lot to do with the feminine and revolve around childhood and memory.
I’m usually studio based so it’s very unusual for me to actually do on location shooting. I think that’s why it’s quite freeing to shoot the dancers out in the streets. It’s kind of wanting to get that iconic cityscape, the urban reality of New York or Tokyo and then contrast that with a beautiful classical dancer in costume in the middle of it which feels pretty surreal.

I don’t know if you’ve seen but there’s a shot I did in Swan Lake (New York) where there were four signets, four swans. I had about 20 minutes from the theatre to 6th Avenue and I have the dancers in the middle of 6th avenue doing this leap and all these buses and yellow cabs come roaring down the street.

Though my own work is usually studio based and conceptual, with the dancers it’s just much more on the seat of your pants really. The collaboration is very instinctive. It’s kind of freeing up for me what I’m doing with them. I don’t want to waste their time, they’re giving up their time for me which is wonderful of them. I source locations that are either close to the theatre or the hotel so we can do it very quickly because their schedule is pretty jammed, we don’t have much travel time to and from places.

Do you use a tripod to set up your shots?
No, I don’t. Tripods really bother me even for studio work I don’t really use it a tripod. Sometimes I do but I just feel like they bother me, I feel like they get in the way. I like being much more able, I just feel like not having to be fixed to anything.

When shooting we have to move fast not having a tripod means that I don’t have to lug things around. It’s usually just me with the dancers in costumes. They might have a coat on and a pair of warm ugg boots and I’ll have my camera slung around my shoulders.

You’ve worked as a stills photographer. What is a stills photographer?
They shoot images for the film posters and all the publicity images for the film as well as production stills, the ones you see in the paper with reviews. They work closely with the publicists and producers. The publicist and the producers pick out the best scenes that they want you to cover and give you a brief. You have to try and match the mood that they’re trying to get for the film.

In that sense you’re working more closely with them but you try and replicate the mood that the cinematographer’s doing as well.

Replicating mood, is that something done on set during the filming process or through editing?
No, it’s as you go. You’re shooting the actors as they’re performing. You’re trying to get the mood and trying to make sure that technically you’ve got the right shot. You can’t use flash at all you just replicate what the cinematographer is shooting because you’re on set with them. I think there’s places or circumstances where you can use flash but I’m not a big fan of it. When people use it well it can look really great like used in fill but that caught in the headlights look is a bit unreal.

The stunned movie star? The stunned dancer? Sometimes photographers and filmmakers need to be a fly on the wall. Is that something you need personality and career wise?
[Laughing] Yes. You have to be able to engage with the performer and create some kind of relationship with them. There’s a trust there as well, you want to be out of their eyeline and sensitive to their performance, quiet but at the same time not be too invisible.

I think there has to be a balance. There’s a completely different mindset from being a commercial fashion photographer to what I do. I think fashion photographers are studio based, it’s kind of their set, they are the boss whereas I like collaborating with people, not saying they don’t, I think you have to have a good sense of knowing when to have your ego and when not to have your ego, knowing what to ask for and what not ask for and being able to fight for your artistic creativity as well.

It’s about honing in and trusting your perception, your senses. I think it’s just an experience thing where overtime you can read the mood of a set and the mood of people, when to leave them alone or if people are really exhausted. You get a sense of going ‘I think they might be incredibly exhausted I won’t make this a moment to go up and ask them if they’ll come and do a shoot’.

It’s a really great way of sussing out human nature to trying and not offend people, you can’t be pushy but you’ve got to be a little pushy but not obnoxious.

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With a lot of aspiring artists, especially those who freelance, there’s a multitude of work for audiences to look at, everyone’s kind of creating these days…
I think it depends on what you want to concentrate on. People might do great documentary style photography but they might not be able to relate to others.

It depends on what you’re like with getting a brief and following it. Everyone’s creative but we’re in an environment where you have to please a lot of people.

In film, actors and agents have to approve the images. You’ve got to be able to fill the brief for producers, publicists, actors, and agents, if they don’t like your images they won’t approve them and they can’t publicise the film.

Lots of people think they can take photos but when they do it as a career it’s a different reality. Not saying that they won’t improve over time but I think people tend to think it might be easier than it really is.

Mobile cameras take some pretty amazing shots, you don’t have much control over settings but the images look pretty decent. What do you think of phone photography?
They’re pretty amazing and the resolution is pretty good. I think it’s got its place. The thing that worries me though is if people have that mentality of ‘that’s how you take a photo’ then they lose out on all the things of taking time, setting up something and understanding what light does. Sometimes it’s a bit of a worry, the iPhone, because all those shots, everyone just looks gorgeous all the time but there’s a slight sense of non-reality going on, everyone just looks fricking amazing whenever they post these images and it’s like wow! I don’t really look like that do I?

What do you think about really photoshopped images? Do they take away from a subject’s character?
I think if people want to use that for themselves and that’s how they want to portray themselves then that’s fine. What I feel lucky about films it’s very much the actors want to still look like they’re acting so you can’t tweak it too much otherwise you’re just running the risk of them looking robotic or looking like everybody else.

That’s what I love about stills photography in film but it would be different in fashion photography where it’s all about beauty. It’s a bit sad that we can’t have beauty in things that aren’t gorgeous as well even if that may sound a little clique or cheesy.

I love being on the film set when there’s a really emotional scene and the actors let you capture that. It’s really raw and I feel lucky that I can get to do it. I think it would do my head in if i had to just constantly photograph beauty. It’s a new world!

Yeah, it’s a new world! There’s this movement of filming on cameras to portable mobile devices, from the technical to really portable lightweight on the go equipment.
Yeah it’s quite extraordinary isn’t it? I shoot on the canon 5D and as you would know people make films on them now. I feel like sometimes I’ll be on a film set thinking, ‘am I the only one in the camera department using this camera for stills?’ That’s an amazing quality of the camera but days in the past where people would have to lug huge cinematography cameras are gone. I mean they’re still around but it’s much more portable.

It’s great you can just grab and go, it’s like what the old American street photographers used to do and where that phrase ‘shooting from the hip’ was coined. To get the most candid shot they’d just literally keep the camera down near their hip and click. They’d get the most amazing shots of people not knowing they were being shot.

It’s really good being able to just grab your camera and shoot. I’ve got some wonderful lenses but when I go out on the streets with the dancers I just use lightweight lens so that it can be very quick shoot.

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In relation to street photography and strangers who feature in the background of your shots, did you interact with them or were they quite distant?
It depends on which city you’re in. There’s an image in the exhibition that’s taken in Shinagawa station, Tokyo, which is massive and there’s so many people. The Japanese are so polite, they kept on wanting to get out of my way and I kept on wanting them to be in the photo! In New York no one cared about this, people were delightful waving and asking for autographs, this taxi driver called out as he rounded the corner and saw the dancers, ‘You’ve made me so happy!’

There’s never been a problem. Sometimes I ask for people, there was a beautiful old man in Beijing that kept on walking past, clapping the dancer as she was doing this leap. I asked him if he’d just stay there and so he’s left of frame which is lovely.

I think the minute you pull out a beautiful dancer in a tutu people get really intrigued and that’s the whole point of the project. It’s just incongruous to see this classical art-form in the middle of the city.

People are incredibly respectful, they think you’re going to do a performance because the dancers there are in pointed shoes and they leap which in some sense is a performance. They just hover around like they’re watching something which is great.

You know when you watch live news and someone runs in the background of a shot shouting, ‘Hi Mum! I’m on TV!’ What do you think of people who photobomb or disrupt a shot?

Those people that love photobombing. It’s like ‘bless them’ but I wonder why. I never am in photographs. I don’t understand why and it’s also kind of a weird, and I don’t mean to sound judgmental, it’s a weird kind of disrespect too cause it’s like if someone’s framing up something and you’re deliberately doing something to stuff it up. I find with the dancers I actually like the kookiness strangers bring to the photograph so I don’t mind it at all.

The only time it happened was when we were in LA last year for the tour and there was this dude on venice beach. This gorgeous dancer was doing this leap on venice beach, it looked amazing, there was a sunset and then I saw him, this guy on the side who turned around with his peace sign but I actually liked that, I don’t mind it they come in frame.

A couple of times if it’s really crowded and the dancer can’t move we ask if people can move aside a bit but usually they’re pretty good. We were on Brooklyn Bridge in New York which is an amazing, beautiful wooden bridge, and there were thousands of people there. We asked if people could stop for a minute and they were incredibly patient and nice about it. I try to be mindful, you don’t want to hold people up.
There are just some areas that are too hard to negotiate and too busy, you don’t want to make it stressful for the people who live in the city or for the dancers. I’ve been really fortunate, it’s been really enjoyable every single time so it’s been good.

LISA TOMASETTI – “The Australian Ballet on the International Stage” runs until the 25th November
at M Contemporary -37 Ocean St Woollahra, Sydney. Sunday between 2-4pm is “Afternoon tea with the cygnets”. Find out more about Lisa and the exhibition here



Interview by Addy Fong