What is the task of the documentary photographer? To pursue truth? To turn the wild extremes of human experience into something that resounds and resonates? To respond to what captivates them in the most authentic way they can? One thing is for sure, Brendan de Clercq’s behind-the-scenes images of the Dutch National Ballet tick all the boxes.
Brendan has a long history of admiring dance and dancers. “When I was a kid, I was into breakdancing,” he reveals, “and when I became a photographer, that grew into a more aesthetic appreciation of movement. Today, whether it’s in my documentary work, fashion, street images, or even portraits, I’m very conscious of how a person moves, how they stand and walk.”
Which brings us to the ballet, a spectacle of precise movement and technical vocabulary. Not that Brendan wanted to create a series of archetypal dance images. “I'm not the guy who wants to take photographs on stage, or even make pictures that are staged to perfection. I want to see what’s behind the performance. The training and the stress, and the struggle of the performers. But I want to show their grace, too.”
So, what then does perfection mean in documentary photography? “It’s a picture that connects you to the story,” Brendan answers, “and that means it doesn’t matter if it’s a little unsharp, or my shadow’s in the shot, or the lighting is harsh. It simply needs to communicate. I was very lucky to get the opportunity to photograph the National Ballet in this way, because normally you’re not allowed to shoot backstage, and they require multiple stages of approval. But they understood this is what I do, and that if they left me to it, it would be beautiful.”
Part of Brendan’s approach is to create a connection with his subjects, and nowhere is that clearer than his picture of Maya, who was the lead in the company’s performance of Swan Lake, sitting in quiet contemplation in a corner at the side of the stage. “I know how to talk with people, and I can quickly connect with them. That’s why I'm a portrait photographer. Maya and I already had a good rapport, so in this image, I just asked her to sit and think about her journey.”
“A bit like myself,” he continues, “she’d moved to a new country as a kid, but she also had the weight of all the ballet training in her mind, too. Even sitting there, her body instinctively poses itself and points her toe. So, when she stared into the distance, thinking about her own story, that’s when I took the picture. The quiet moment when you can see her grace, and her turmoil.”
Working mainly in monochrome, a style that both simplifies and adds authenticity, Brendan was aware that this effect would be enjoyed by his subjects as much as himself. “I was brought up in a darkroom with my father printing black & white, and looking at Magnum photos, so the monochromatic style is part of me. But it’s also part of the performing arts. It’s James Dean and Marylin Monroe, it’s The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and for ballet dancers it’s Nureyev and Fonteyn.”
Beyond that, the nature of documentary means you’re rarely in full control of the location or the light, and this was certainly the case for Brendan. No matter, though, if a photographer has cameras and lenses that can adapt. “You don’t pick when moments happen,” he agrees, “but you need to be ready. For this project I was using the Sony Alpha 7R III, and even though I have since upgraded to the Alpha 7R IV and Alpha 7R V cameras, it’s the combination of resolution and AF that keeps me coming back,” he continues. “I can crop in or print big and know that there’s tremendous detail there, and in situations like the ballet, I know the camera will deliver the kind of quality that these moments deserve.”
Even when working with moving subjects, and in low-light situations, “there’s a requirement for sharp focus on the eyes,” Brendan says, “because that’s where the story is. Fortunately, that’s what these cameras’ eye-detection AF systems are engineered to give you, time after time, even if the dancers were in shadow, or spinning away in a movement.”
To help in these situations, Brendan uses fast Sony lenses including the FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM and FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA. “More light means faster focusing,” he explains, “and these lenses’ large apertures deliver it. For me, I love the versatility of the 24-70mm with its constant brightness. That’s the lens I’d always have in my bag. And with the 35mm, you can shoot in the dark and the backgrounds just melt away at the maximum aperture, meaning you can make the subject look iconic almost anywhere.”
“For me, projects like this put the love back into photography,” Brendan finishes. “It’s a chance to reflect the passion of others through my own photography, responding to their own talents, their emotions, their losses and their achievements. I want to look into people's lives and preserve their stories, and my Alpha gear is a very important part of achieving that.”
"One day I will make the most perfect portrait. One that captures emotion to the fullest. That is the reason I raise the bar in my photography every day"