Lachlan Monaghan was the winner of the Peoples’ Choice Award at the 2019 RBSA Open Photographic Prize Exhibition and is a soloist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. His exhibition, Backstage, is on display until 21 March. On 21 March, Lachlan will give a talk at the gallery about how his photographic practice developed while working with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
I’ve lived in the UK for ten years but was born in Australia and for as long as I can remember I’ve taken photographs. I was the child with thousands of photos that never really got sorted through after a family holiday. What has always inspired my photography, is the longing of trying to capture the feeling of a moment or memory.”
I don’t focus entirely on perfect composition or perfect light, or in relation to ballet, not even perfect positions – in fact, I tend to find the imperfect or unexpected shots the most interesting. This stems for me, from my career as a dancer. I have been a professional ballet dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet for eight years and throughout that time have discovered how individual each performer is and what different things they bring to the role.
In any profession we are all striving for perfection, knowing fully well that it doesn’t exist, yet knowing that is exactly why we continue with our passions. As a dancer, the day I learnt that no performance will ever be perfect was when my career changed for the better – I stressed a lot less, I enjoyed the performances more and, ultimately, I began to dance better.
This thought has extended into my photography. I always want to get that perfect shot when the stars align and a dancer is in the perfect position, the perfect light, and I have my camera settings set exactly how I’d want them for that scene. Unfortunately, that isn’t reality and the moments I want to capture come and go so quickly that I’ve learnt to love and actually search for the imperfect yet genuine moments.
I love to travel and always wander around with a camera or two (I absolutely love shooting film as well) strapped to my hip. It was only two years ago that I became interested in backstage portrait photography. I took a few images of friends during curtain calls at the end of a performance and then a couple more of dancers backstage preparing. These images, especially the moments of preparation, have become the things I love to shoot most – and from this moment of realization I have found being able to merge my career with my passion for photography incredibly fulfilling.
The backstage world at the ballet, or any theatre in fact, is a bizarre and fascinating place. It is an environment that has become my second home, with bright stage lights no longer feeling as bright after eight years and the buzz of an audience that now fills me with anticipation rather than anxiety.
It is also an environment full of incredible costumes, lighting and people. A place where a man wearing makeup sits watching the performance while holding his golden curly wig on his lap, or where another man lies on his back in the interval wearing trousers double his leg size that nobody even bats an eyelid at, and I haven’t even mentioned the ladies who slide into the splits backstage to ‘rest’ while they have some down time in the wings.
Dancers often do unusual but amazing things backstage and also have such unique pre-show routines and habits that I’ve become very drawn to attempting to capture these moments – people doing things they don’t even know they do (Figure 3).
Technically, lighting can prove difficult backstage, with most images I capture being taken in the wings and therefore in not very much light, but sometimes an opportunity can open up, other times I make do. There’s a quote I’ve read of Richard Avedon’s that says ‘Subject first, technical last, don’t overcomplicate.’ This quote, along with his photography, is something that has inspired me immensely.
At Birmingham Royal Ballet we can perform as many as fifty shows of a certain production on tour, but despite this repetition of shows, seeing the same unique moment appear twice throughout that time is near impossible. Because of this my images are rarely staged but having a moment captured is better than not catching it due to technical imperfections.
Using these backstage elements, I always hope that my images paint a story of the world behind the curtain and provide a peek inside, what is for us dancers, a very normal day-to-day part of life and an environment where careers and dreams are made.
On stage and off, I stand by the same thought; that it isn’t technical precision that stands the test of time, but the artistry of a performer or the story of an image – how you make people ‘feel.’
By Lachlan Monaghan
The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) is an artist-led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through a range of exhibitions, events and workshops.
The RBSA runs an exhibition venue – the RBSA Gallery – in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, a short walk from the city centre. The gallery is open 7 days a week and admission to all our exhibitions is free.
Find out how to reach the RBSA Gallery here.
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