by Sara Christoph for Norte Maar
The career of Julie Lemberger has been, and continues to be, one defined by movement. This may seem like an oxymoron—a photographer being preoccupied with motion—but hers is a specific niche that hovers between the worlds of photography and dance. Through her 25-year career as a photographer, Lemberger has built a portfolio that reads like a who’s who of modern American dance.
Beginning on April 5, Norte Maar will hold a retrospective of her work, a first for Lemberger. “Two Decades of Documenting Dance: The Photographs of Julie Lemberger” will feature 80 photographs hand-selected by Norte Maar’s founding duo Jason Andrew and Julia K. Gleich. Among the legendary dance makers gathered on the gallery walls will include luminaries Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, Gus Solomons Jr, and Twyla Tharp, as well as those near and dear to New Yorkers like Ann Carlson, Sean Curran, David Dorfman, Doug Elkins, Desmond Richardson, Edisa Weeks, with a rare portrait of UK transplant Christopher Wheeldon. The dance companies featured include Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theater, Ballet Hispanico, Dance Theater of Harlem, Lucinda Childs, Limón Dance Company, and Stephen Petronio Company, among others.
“It is just such a joy to see the body in motion,” Lemberger said in a recent interview. “But what I am trying to capture in my work goes beyond athleticism. What I look for is meaning between the dancers, real human experience being communicated between two people.”
In the tradition of the great dance photographer Barbara Morgan (1900-1992), Lemberger’s work has served primarily to preserve performances that would otherwise have been lost to history. Just as today we often experience the electrified gestures of Martha Graham only through the photographs of Morgan (a collaboration highlighted in Jason Andrew’s recently closed group show, To Be a Lady), one imagines a young dancer of the future looking to Lemberger’s photographs to distill a bit of spirit from the forgotten performance. Both Morgan and Lemberger seek the ephemeral drama of dance, pressing pause for the ages.
Lemberger’s involvement with Time Lapse Dance, a company founded by choreographer Jody Sperling, continues this photographer-dancer collaboration made famous by Morgan and Graham. The relationship between Lemberger and Sperling has been a long standing one, growing since the company’s opening days over a decade ago. It is Lemberger’s dramatic images that have captured the fleeting, Löie Fuller-inspired grace that characterizes much of Sperling’s work for Time Lapse—photographs of which will be on view at Norte Maar.
Yet to privilege the documentary dimension of Lemberger’s work is not to rule out the pleasure of looking, as her photographs are often stunning. An ex-dancer herself, Lemberger brings a unique sensibility to her vocation, capturing the body in moments of vivid articulation. “Dance is one of the most ethereal of all the art forms,” Norte Maar’s Jason Andrew says, “on or off a proscenium stage it is live art in its greatest form. It takes a gifted eye to capture these fleeting moments and Julie Lemberger has a trained eye honed to perfection. Each of her images captures a moment that not only becomes a moment in dance but an artifact of it at the same time.”
Choreographer and co-founder of Norte Maar Julia K. Gleich remarks, “I have been privileged to have my dances documented by Julie, but the real privilege was to go through her archive and have an entire history of dance in NYC revealed. To see images of great performers and choreographers caught in their element. Each image is a historic moment captured in contemporary time. This exhibition is a joy, over flowing with history.”
Remarkable, too, is the scope of transformation Lemberger has experienced throughout her career as a photographer. After breaking from her own career as a dancer, Lemberger picked up a camera in the 80’s while in art school. She began taking pictures the traditional way: shooting in black and white, developing her work in the darkroom/bathroom, and then submitting her photos to print publications. This lead to a steady build-up of clients, eventually allowing her to freelance for The New York Times.
Now, not only does she work solely in the digital format, she rarely sees any of her photographs in print. But Lemberger is quick to counter any grand implications one might draw from such a transition. “Dance itself is an archaic art form; it is, by definition, a celebration of life,” she has stated. “Its just the way people view it that has changed.”