When did you start shooting dancers and what was your inspiration?
I first started photographing dancers as part of a portrait commission about seven years ago for The Economist’s culture magazine Intelligent Life, now called 1843. They used to have a regular piece called “Man in a Suit” and the portrait could have been of anyone, from any field of endeavour. They commissioned me, and my long time collaborator Olivia Pomp, to shoot Edward Watson, Principal dancer of The Royal Ballet. The portrait needed to be relatively simple and it was incredible to have a sitter with such charisma. After the shoot, he asked me if I’d like to see him dance. It was breathtaking. To be so close to someone who is amongst the best at what they do in the world was an absolute privilege. It was then that I knew it was a personal project that I wanted to explore, and it’s since become an all-consuming passion.
Do you have a favourite subject?
I’ve photographed Edward Watson many times now, and he has become the most wonderful muse for me. His generosity of time and spirit, as well as his incredible athletic prowess and emotional intelligence, is unsurpassed; he inspires me every time we work together.
When you approach a portrait, how much of a sense of that dancer’s strengths do you have or hope to portray?
I’ll discuss the aim of the portrait with the dancer before we shoot. For the series entitled What Lies Beneath, we discuss the supreme effort and spirit it takes to perform at such a high level, whilst their art form deliberately conceals the effort that it takes to create it. They can the show me something of their sacrifice, or the defiance of spirit that has got them through. I'm obsessed with how their journey has shaped their physicality and is literally etched into their bodies. Ultimately a portrait should be a complete collaboration between artist and sitter, a magical moment that is created between you. My main task is to create a safe atmosphere in which my subject can offer up some sort of emotional gift for me to capture.
Do the dancers pose to music when you shoot?
Sometimes we have music on, although often the uncomfortableness of silence can help the atmosphere too.
Your work is now part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery. How does that feel?
Frankly it’s really weird; having eight pieces in their collection now is one thing, but having three of them on display is incredible. So much of my inspiration hangs in the NPG, particularly the Tudor portraits, that I’m completely overwhelmed to see my work there.
It’s such a short journey from exhibiting the work for the first time here at the Club to acquisition and exhibit at National Portrait Gallery. What comes next?!
Next is more; many more and varied subjects from the dance world. It’s fascinating to photograph more contemporary dancers now, as they tend to have a different process; not having a character or role to hide behind, they can tap into an emotional intelligence that is often more open and closer to the surface than those in the classical world. That being said, I’m still in awe of the physical extremes and prowess of classically trained dancers - they’re like Arab stallions. I have several projects on the go right now, for The Royal Ballet, for Sadler’s Wells, and a large show next summer as part of a new dance program for The Grange Festival curated by Wayne McGregor. The greatest joy is sharing a window into this incredible world of dance and dancers, so that perhaps people can fall in love with them as I have.
Selected work from Guest's What Lies Beneath collection are currently on display in the National portait Gallery, London.