“People Love Baryshnikov. He Is Cool”: Robert Whitman on How He Photographed the Great Dancer
Between October 12 and January 22, the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow is hosting ‘Mikhail Baryshnikov: Body Metaphysics’, an exhibition of works by the American photographer Robert Whitman. Bird In Flight met Robert before the opening to talk about his friendship with the performer, the hippies, and why it is better to die young.
Is famous for his commissioned work for the world’s leading media outlets and advertising agencies: Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Women's Health, Travel and Leisure, BBDO, McCann Erickson etc, as well as for sketches of New York City, individual shoots of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Prince.
You brought Baryshnikov to Russia, although Baryshnikov himself did not want to come back. Does he know about the exhibition?
He knows that we are having an exhibition here but we didn’t really talk about it. He is happy for me that I can share these pictures with everybody. This is the second time when this exhibition is in Russia. The first time was in St. Petersburg, it was really popular. People love him. He is cool.
Is it difficult to work with a person such as Baryshnikov? Did you make friends with him?
The thing is that we are friends mainly because of my ex-wife Shelley Washington, with whom we are also still very good friends now. She has been a very famous modern dancer for many years. She worked with Martha Graham, ABT, Twyla Tharp etc. Baryshnikov and Shelley were very close. He knew I was a photographer and he is a great photographer himself. I think he liked me, especially when I started to date and then married Shelley. We met when he was rehearsing a piece with Twyla Tharp. Shelley was in the audience, and then I noticed Baryshnikov come down every few minutes and get corrections from Twyla. I thought that was kinda cool. This was how we met, and we had a lot to talk about, so we became friendly.
Could you say you are Baryshnikov’s visual biographer?
Definitely not, because he’s been shot by many great photographers millions of times. And I’m sure there are many photographers who shot him more than I did. But I’m different from many because I work without any assistant, without the light. Everytime alone. I have a lot of photos of him with his friends, on his trips. I was the only photographer who was at the rehearsal of Occasion Piece or took all those fragrance pictures for him, or shot him doing push-ups in this old gym. But I’m not his biographer.
Is he an intellectual? Cause you know there is an opinion that a dancer doesn’t have to be smart?
When I found out about all the places he has seen and the things he has done, I was just like: “Wow!” I mean he is amazing. He is one of the smartest people I’ve known. And the beauty of his body, his movements — it is unbelievable.
Joseph Brodsky once told Solomon Volkov that Baryshnikov’s ballet was pure body metaphysics. This is also what your exhibition is called. Do you agree with the poet?
I didn’t know a lot about dance and movement until Shelley introduced me to it. Since becoming aware of dance, having a relationship with a dancer and shooting many dancers, I have become enthralled with movement and dance. I’m just blown away by how horrible I am, how bad my body is. I’m very good friends with a lot of dancers now. I also work with a dance company called Pilobolus, we did this thing called VOTE together. And about body metaphysics, I just think that the human body is so amazing, what it can do is just blowing me away. If I could go back, I would be a dancer.
Is it easy to convey dance through photography? I mean the magic of dance, how is it possible to show it in a static image?
It depends, but it is not simple. When you are just shooting on stage or from the audience and don’t put yourself into the situation, I think it’s just documenting. And I think that the work that I’ve done with Pilobolus or with Baryshnikov is kind of my story with them. Because I’ve never just shot them from the audience. I’ve always been in their faces. And these pictures of Baryshnikov are not dance. It is him as an actor doing these different situations.
You have worked with Baryshnikov five times. Were they different? How has he changed?
It’s been over 20 years. He’s changed and I’ve changed a lot. I can not say that our relationship has grown cause we don’t see each other often. And all the time I was shooting him it wasn’t a dance, those were just little movements. I was lucky to capture it, but it’s not anything about dance.
I mean that, as I see it, Baryshnikov is not afraid of getting older. It looks like he loves his wrinkles and his body. In Russia, we do have a cult of youngness and it seems that people are afraid and ashamed of older age.
Oh I hate it. I’m gonna kill myself after the interview.
Why? Are you afraid of getting older too?
Yes. Of course, it is sad. This fear and this cult is not only about Russia, it is everywhere. And now I’m gonna start crying, I’m not sure if I can even go on.
But my point was that it is cool to have an attitude to oldness that Baryshnikov has. To like and accept yourself with all the age-related changes and not fear them.
Baryshnikov lives an amazing life, we can say that he lived a life. It is what it is. Everybody is getting older. And people think he still looks so amazing.
But what do you think about this cult of youth? You do shoots for magazines — do you think that old people shouldn’t have chance to be on the cover?
It is a very supervisual society and everything is about youth. I don’t know really. Being old is sad. We do live in a society when people kill themselves because unless you do die young, you get old. Being old is really not so pleasant. I’m gonna start crying again.
Alright, let’s talk about your youth. As far as I know, you wanted to study theater or something like that but you went on a long journey instead. Do you feel sorry about it, I mean that you didn’t study photography or any other art?
When I was a kid I was in theater. And at 19, or something like that, I decided that I’ll go to New York to try to get an agent. But then my father said: “Maybe you should travel?” And my grandmother died and left me some money. So I’ve decided to travel. I wanted to go all over the world. I’ve been to different countries for a couple of years. I didn’t want to be associated with America and American foreign policy because I was a hippie. I didn’t know what to do with my life and then I saw the movie called Blow Up. Because of my hippie way of life I didn’t want to work from nine to five, never wanted to wear a suit or a tie. I had really long hair and a big beard. Those were the days when you had to fit in to work somewhere. I didn’t know what to do with my life and then I saw the movie called Blow Up. And in Antonioni’s movie the main character was a cool guy and he was surrounded by women, and that is why I wanted to become a photographer. It’s not that I loved photography, it’s just that I got into photography because of the lifestyle.
It has been my dream to find myself in the US in 60s. But I also understand that besides the freedom and fun there was an aftermath because of the drugs and lifestyle people lived in those times. What about you? What is your aftermath?
I’m lucky that first of all I am alive. Because yes, we did a lot. But it also gave me the opportunity to decide that I really want to do something that I love all my life. Not just to follow what you suppose to do. Those times really gave me the freedom not to be normal and not to do what everybody did.
Do you miss those times?
Do you sometimes feel bored now?
No, but I wish I did some things back then. When you are young you can do a lot of stuff, but when you get older you should care. Old people fucked up by drugs, they don’t look so attractive. But when you are young you can do everything. And now I should be a little more careful.
In one of your interviews you said that you would never take pictures of war or poverty.
I wanted to be a war photographer when I was young. It was the very beginning and that wish was not with me for a long time.
Could you explain why? Why did you decide not to be a war or social photographer?
It is important to document all these kinds of things, but when I see someone shooting a homeless person, I feel like you took something from them. When I see that people shoot war or somebody dying in the street, I feel like I should go to the hotel and have a drink. I mean, it is important to show what is going on in the world, but for me it is also important to shoot the good life. This is my side. I got that from all my travels and again from being kind of a hippie. I’m about the good things in life: the food, the drugs, whatever. I kinda wanna go that direction.
Is it some kind of escape from reality? I mean not to notice such things?
No, I notice it in my mind, but I don’t think I should take a photo of it. I don’t think it’s cool.
How do you describe yourself?
Human with no ego. I’m very happy when nice things happen to me.
Are you a happy or a sad person?
Well I was happy until you told me of being old. To be honest with you, yes, I’m happy. I’m lucky. I have a lot of fun people who still like me.