Jordan Matter’s photography began working its way onto my radar about two years ago. First, I caught sporadic glimpses of it online. His work cropped up on my Tumblr dashboard, and standby Google searches–dance + photography, dance + New York, contemporary dancer–yielded a few of his project’s early images. I remember pointe shoes, the mundane world, and the hashtag: Dancers Among Us. Several months later, Michael, my roommate at the time and a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, told me he was shooting with Matter and his friend Ellenore, who had been a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance. “Cool,” I said, blasé, mid-cereal, pre-coffee. Status quo for that guy. But the shots he came back with–Michael flying off a construction worker’s shovel around the corner from our apartment, Michael dangling from an overhead rail on the A train, Michael cradling Ellenore before a snowy fountain in Central Park, both darting off the red-carpeted steps of the Plaza Hotel–were exceptional, even for him. Each image seemed like it had been individually and effortlessly selected, as if the keeper of the thousand milliseconds Matter had had to choose from casually said, “Pick a card.” A magician may never reveal his secrets, but eventually I concluded that these couldn’t have been anything other than consistently happy accidents between an excellent photographer and two excellent dancers.
Unlike most dance photography I have seen, the work didn’t appear to take anything away from dance, a moving, living art form. Rather, I noticed that it gave back. It created a stage where there had been none, it formed an audience of any strangers who happened to be present (not to mention, of course, the millions who would see his photographs), and the single image Matter managed to snatch out of a zillion possibilities gave precisely the illusion each movement had intended. In other words, here was a photographer that got it.
Suddenly, several of my Facebook friends were updating their profile pictures to Matter originals. There was Aisha levitating in a shoe store, Lloyd laughing in a lake under a woman who was pinned to the sky, Allison, mid-développé, spilling coffee on an unfortunate subway rider, Tenealle doing the splits on the bar at the Carnegie Deli. Then, in what was to become the cover shot, Annmaria leaping through the rain with a red umbrella.
Naturally, when I heard that Mr. Matter would be releasing a book, my expectations were lofty. But within moments of opening Dancers Among Us for the first time, Matter surpassed them. Photography is a medium best experienced in print, not in the pixelated glare of a computer screen. The work is organized into chapters by theme: dreaming, loving, playing, exploring, grieving, working, and living. Each chapter is accompanied by a heartfelt spurt of narrative that welcomes the reader into Matter’s personal, rather ordinary life–his wife Lauren, his son Hudson, his daughter Salish–before launching him or her into the extraordinary world Matter envisions from his unique vantage point, a world in which dancers arch back off of scaffoldings, arabesque their way through coffee shops, and hover above city streets. Many of the photographs were taken in New York, where Matter and a good percentage of dancers live, but the work travels, too. Atlanta. Chicago. Vegas. Age-old proverbs and quotes from the wise, including Thoreau, Emerson, and Sartre, also sprinkle the pages, offering the work further articulation, inspiration, and a sense of timeless collaboration. Taken altogether, the book celebrates the many agenda of print, without ever eclipsing its titular form, dance, and the dancers among us.
As a dancer, this project brings to life my own daily, yet largely repressed, urges. When I see a crosswalk, I want to saut de chat through it. My desire to go upside down is rampant. A pier, a parking garage, and a pool table are all ideal surfaces for dancing. (An open-heart surgery, a toilet, a small table in a crowded restaurant: okay, maybe not.) Finally, though, in Dancers Among Us, Matter’s imaginative, relentless, and nationwide pursuit of so many variations on a theme, in combination with the striking fearlessness of his collaborators, have successfully begged the question, Why not?