I recently had the privilege of photographing the latest performance by artist Kira O’Reilly.
When I’m photographing people, expression and gesture are what I’m most interested in. I don’t believe that you can capture a person’s ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ with a photograph; it’s the bodyness of bodies that I like, and it’s that surface that I’m interested in when I take a picture. Photograph a look of contempt, and it’s the look that’s interesting, not the contempt.
So I was bound to enjoy O’Reilly’s latest work – Untitled (syncopations for more bodies) – which presents the poetry of human physicality at it’s simplest and starkest. She presents five bodies in a large plain space shared with the audience.
At the beginning of the rehearsal I was told roughly what to expect, but once the performance begins it ambushes you from all directions. The performers – singularly, or in pairs – emerge from the dark corners of the hall, slowly at first and I have time to plan my shots. But they close in, fracture, circle around me, reform in other combinations and very quickly I become aware that for every shot I take, I’m missing something else right behind me.
These are naked bodies, neither passive nor challenging. They are here to be looked at. Most of the time they don’t return your gaze, but sometimes they do. This pricks the comfort of voyeurism, and as I stood disoriented in the middle of room, I had the feeling that it was they who were converging to spy on me. This sense was amplified with mirrors, held by the performers and used either to look over their shoulders or throw a reflected spotlight on another body.
The light in the hall came from two rows of fixed lamps facing off across the hall, creating parallel bands of hard light. Like most theatrical lighting this was a friend and an enemy. When the performers paused in these zones I could drop the background to black and compose frames with nothing to distract or contextualise the extraordinary shapes the performers were articulating. At other times I had to get creative, make lens flare my friend, and test the ISO limits of the D3S (regularly hitting ISO 12800, which still seems like a crazy number to me).
One of the most striking things about this performance only hit me when I edited the pictures. The five women performing looked very distinctive when standing ordinarily in a line. But once those familiar shapes and stances were twisted, contorted or collapsed they became almost unrecognisable, so much so that it was often difficult to work out who was who. I don’t think I’ve ever seen bodies look so purely physical, so sculptural, so fascinatingly bodyish.
Untitled (syncopations for more bodies)
Kira O’Reilly with Hrafnhildur Benediktsdóttir, Lauren Barri Holstein, Nathália Mello, Amanda Prince-Lubawy.