Charlie Naebeck’s Energetic “Kinetic” Project Takes Dance Photography to New Heights

All images by Charlie Naebeck. Used with permission.

After more than a year of shooting, scouting for collaborators, editing photos, and putting everything together, Charlie Naebeck is finally set to release a book to culminate his Kinetic project. This series, which is an exploration of the energy of dance, is his own take on photographing the graceful movements of this art form through long exposures and multiple exposures. Early into the project last year, we’ve given a preview of his experimental and non-conventional approach to photographing the dancers he collaborated with. Now, he’s gearing up for a worldwide launch of his Kinetic book and an accompanying music album on October 20th.

To catch up with him and learn more about his project, we recently had a chat with Charlie, who shared in great detail the processes, motivations, and ideas behind Kinetic, as well as some information about his upcoming international launch.

If something feels comfortable to you, it is not worth doing – If you push boundaries past your comfort zone to the point where you may possibly fail, it is worth doing to learn that you are capable of such things. Your work improves tenfold when you take risks and get outside of your comfort zone. One of my students summed it up nicely when he told me that I am a photographer that turned the camera into a paintbrush.

What was the last leg of completing Kinetic like for you?

I had started the project with this crazy idea in my head that I wanted to photograph 200 dancers total before I finished. I had set an open-ended date pretty early on in the project until I reached that goal. Early 2017 rolled around, and I was at 70-something shoots in, and I started looking back through the work one night and asked myself – Do I really need 200 dancers to say what I want to say?

This was the beginning of the idea that the last leg was in sight. I did not really need 200 dancers to complete this project, and I think that if I had to sum it up that it was very refreshing to set the final shoot dates and to start to formulate a plan to cull through over 13,000 images that I had made for the project to that point.

When it came down to the final 69 images that are in the book, I think that I literally screamed YES at the top of my lungs in my studio. Seeing the first prints in my hands, and getting the first test copies of the final book in my hands simply lit fuel to the fire. I quickly finished mastering the 17 track Kinetic album shortly after which is based on experiences that I had while shooting Kinetic with the dancers, and I am into the pre-release and promotion phases right now before the Oct. 20th release date. The entire thing for me was 109 sessions photographed in over 30 different styles of dance. I am very excited and happy about it all, but exhausted!

Given that this body of work is a lot different from what you typically do as a portrait photographer, what is/are the best lesson/s that Kinetic taught you as a creative?

It is very different from traditional portrait photography for me, and that was really my whole intent with this project from the start. I tell all of my photography students when I teach that literally anyone can pick a camera up in their hands these days to make a reasonably good image, but the more important part is the intent and communication of an image to me. I think that a couple of the things that I am personally taking away from this project before heading into others is:

1. If something feels comfortable to you, it is not worth doing – If you push boundaries past your comfort zone to the point where you may possibly fail, it is worth doing to learn that you are capable of such things. Your work improves tenfold when you take risks and get outside of your comfort zone. One of my students summed it up nicely when he told me that I am a photographer that turned the camera into a paintbrush.

2. I really enjoyed mashing up worlds in this project personally, and that was a big take away for me to see how differently that creatives can influence each other – me as a photographer, and then the dancers, of course. Every single dancer that I shot with changed how I see the world, and I am very grateful for that experience, as I was not a dance photographer before this project.

3. I think that deep down honestly when I went into this project that I was very fed up with the whole notion of social media where people think they have to be “perfect”. When I went into this, I wanted to focus more on the in-between moments and the subtleties of gesture, light, line, color, shape, and interactions than caring if someone “liked” the photo or not. As long as my dancers and I were happy, that is all that mattered to me. I think that a lot of people make content without actually having anything to say these days. When I looked back at the work, it was more about trusting gut instincts a lot on feeling the communication come to me from the work this time instead of a lot of the technical stuff – even though there is a lot of technical stuff going on too in the work.

What do you consider to be the most challenging aspect of this project? What about the most rewarding?

The most challenging aspect would definitely be finding the time to sleep!

The most rewarding is seeing people’s reactions to the work that have seen it so far in person. Social media simply does not do it justice like the printed book and the large-scale prints that I am making. The whole thing started as a question and a dream of what dancers looked like in motion for me. To be able to use photography as a language to communicate with people has been very cool. I had someone that cried when she saw some of the work so far. I had a lot of responses of how the power and graceful beauty of the dancers have come through in the work too.

Was there ever a time that a shoot or editing the photos for this project made you feel that it’s not going where you want it to be? How did you remedy it?

Yes, definitely! I think that for any photographer or artist to say no to that question, they would be lying. Probably in mid-November of 2016, I almost gave it up completely after I was having a much slower period of shooting for the project. I felt that no one was interested in joining to produce this kind of work, and that the project was failing because no one was answering me to shoot. Later down the road though, I think back and remember that it started to happen right around the holidays. I just got really down about it though because I thought that the project was in a rut at that point. For future, I will probably schedule a bit differently around busy times of year.

How you were able to scout/connect with the right people for this project?

Right before Kinetic in 2016, I was photographing behind the scenes for my good friend and fellow photographer, Jordan Matter for his Dancers After Dark project. I was with Jordan in Times Square one night, when I happened to glance at the camera to see him freeze the dancers motion on every shot. In that very moment, I asked myself what would it look like if she were captured in motion instead of frozen?

Scouting/connecting for me spiraled out from there as Kinetic was born in my head on that night. Jordan is a great friend, and introduced me to a lot of the dancers that are a part of Kinetic now, and then those dancers helped spiral out my connections from there via word of mouth and social media.

When it comes to the right people too, I have to admit that I have had the pleasure of collaborating with one of my favorite dancers several times now both for the project. I saw my friend/dancer Janelle Issis on Season 9 of So You Think You Can Dance, and from the very first audition that I saw on TV, I told her when I met her in person this last year that I knew some day that we would be shooting. Serendipity was a big part in finding the right people I think too because somehow word spread through the grapevine of what I was doing, and Janelle contacted me via e-mail to join my project before I ever contacted her. So sometimes you put an idea out there into the world, and the world hands you opportunities. I am very grateful to have met and collaborated with so many super talented individuals that I now call great friends!

You mentioned on your project’s FAQ that one of your goals with Kinetic is to “embrace the imperfect” and show how it’s a beautiful way to see and experience images. What aspect of this concept or look of the photos do you think best represents the imperfection you had in mind?

Yes, I am very interested in the imperfect vs. whatever the warped notions of “perfect” are on social media these days with anyone that projects themselves instead of being transparent. The book starts with the concept of gesture. It is very non-traditional in the sense that the dancers are not posed in traditional dance poses/movements, they are not posed like models, and they are not posed like traditional portraiture. They are simply being human. In these moments that I call “gestures”, often times we would be having a conversation wherever we ended up shooting. I would ask them to start by free styling their movements, and then either the space or something that we talked about would spark key words that I would give them to react to and I would pull the shutter for the decisive moment. The whole goal was spontaneity instead of projection to get that raw communication to come through in the work.

Later in the book, the work goes into a series of long exposures and multiple exposures, which embrace the idea that the moment cannot be re-created by either dancer or photographer in exactly the same essence ever again with some feel of non-control. I started thinking about this because photography to me is really something where when you push the shutter, it is capturing a moment that immediately becomes the past. I am personally very technical in my work, so I wanted to give myself a chance where something like this could have the potential to fail and not work out like we set out to produce. A lot of times in this work it would end up being an experience where both the dancer and myself were both moving at the same time to create, which leads to those imperfect, yet human moments. The lines, forms, colors, and interpretation would all overlap to become more of an experience instead of an image to me.

In the final section, the imperfection turns into the essence of freedom and chaos where I embrace light painting and manipulations of the focal plane to test what can be. Often times I would take the dancers into a rehearsal space or studio and they would wrap themselves in lights so that we could do different captures of the movement. I used a couple infrared filters on the final image that ended up being the cover for the book also. It is funny because that was from the very first Kinetic shoot, and in the back of my head, that chaos and freedom from that shoot was everything that I wanted this project to be about with those imperfect moments that can be so beautiful.

Lastly, can you share with us your next steps now that Kinetic is complete?

Certainly! I have finalized details for both the Kinetic book, and music album at this point. Both will be available worldwide on October 20th (book from my website or in person, and the music has a greater distribution so far on places like iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, etc.).

I am going to be pretty busy in the next 6 months promoting as much as I can both online and in person. I am a big fan of talking to people in person about my work also, so I have started a thing called “Kinetic on the streets” where I am literally taking the book around to complete strangers and asking them if I can show them my work to get it in front of as many sets of eyes as possible. The response has been really great so far, and I have gotten to meet a lot of cool people from around the world that I would not have had the chance to meet if I did not communicate with them through art.

I decided that I am going to do an online release party for this project to embrace a brand new concept for me personally. A lot of my dancers, friends, family, and supporters are strewn through out places around the world these days, and my dream is to have them all in one spot to share the work. However, it is not possible for several reasons. I came up with the idea to do an online release party though because I have been streaming live on places like Instagram stories, YouTube, Facebook live, and Twitch.tv recently. It is very cool to see all of the connections that you can make by streaming live, so my goal is to continue this for the release. People can literally join me from the comfort of their homes or wherever they are in the world all at once to watch a special presentation that I have planned for the release.

I will also be inviting as many dancers as I can that posed for the book and supporters that have helped me along the way to join me for the live online release on Oct. 20th, and I may throw a few other celebrations down the road as opportunities unravel so that I can place printed copies of the work in as many hands and meet as many amazing individuals that I can.

If anyone is out there and wants to support and follow the project, you are welcome to do so at any of the following sites or social media channels that I update daily:

Charlie Naebeck: http://www.charlienaebeck.com

Donations to support Kinetic: http://www.paypal.me/charlienaebeck

Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/charlienaebeck

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/c/CharlieNaebeck

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/charlienaebeck

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pg/CharlieNaebeckNYC

Twitch TV: http://www.twitch.tv/charlienaebeck