Stealing back life

Photography by Luis Pons

Sometimes in life you find yourself in a dark place or squander an opportunity and wonder, why? It’s only later that you realize the valley, the lost moment were just stations on your way to becoming what you were meant to be.

That’s how dance photographer Luis Pons sees his life. Two years ago, he experienced a mysterious illness that left him in a state of clinical depression and anxiety that ultimately led to a brief addiction to Xanax. But it was also at that time that the information technologist took up the Nikon D3000 he had bought himself for Christmas 2010.

At first, the Riverdale resident sought out solitary subjects amid the swirl of New York City, much as the painter Edward Hopper had done.

“I was looking for people, moments, landscapes attuned to what I was feeling,” he says. “If someone was disconnected, I would snap his picture. I also would photograph couples, because at that time, I wasn’t myself and I felt disconnected from my wife. I learned that to be an individual street photographer makes you a voyeur. You’re stealing moments.”

These black-and-white images, then, stole small yet eloquent moments – a scruffy man smoking and thinking against his bookstall, a little girl sitting on a street looking solemn-faced at the camera, an unusual Pietà in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in which Pons’ view concentrates on the clasped hands of Mary and her dead son.

Yet it wasn’t enough. Pons – who has played piano, violin, cello and classical guitar and written poetry about dance – wanted to create visual poetry, visual music.

“The dancer is striving to link mind, body and soul in one perfect moment,” he says. “My struggle was to realize those aspects of me.”

He began with one dancer – the flamenco artist Glenda Sol, who let him photograph her and her class. In his pictures, she stands in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, all erotic hauteur, displaying the floral-print black shawl before her like a toreador tormenting the bull with the fluttering red muleta. It’s no accident that the inverted V of the shawl mirrors the Gothic arches of the beloved landmark. Pons is fascinated by geometric lines and reversals, as in his photograph of Madison Jayne Cole leaning back on one of the glorious male nudes that crown Columbus Circle – her outstretched arms supported by his, her raised right leg and pointed right foot echoing the line of his planted left leg as if they were engaged in a pas de deux that only she were aware of.

Other photographers have “choreographed” dancers in New York City. Balletomanes will remember Richard Corman’s photographs for a 1998 New York City Ballet advertising campaign, in which poses from such works as George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” “Prodigal Son” and “Jewels” were set against some of the city’s most iconic landmarks.

What makes Pons’ photographs different is that juxtaposition of grit and glamour, as in the images of Sara Ezzell posed in the long tulle skirt of the Romantic era like a latter-day Giselle come back from the dead amid the wild verdure of Yonkers’ abandoned greenhouses.

This is street photography at its finest, requiring a kind of stealth approach. Packing a Nikon D600, a full-frame digital camera, Pons heads out early in the morning for a shoot so as not to interfere with the IT job he calls his “patron” or his family – wife Elizabeth, who has her own day-care business in upper Manhattan, and kids Alana and Devin. Pons and his dancers – who have included students of the New York City-based Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet and the Ellison Ballet – discuss in advance what the dancers will wear. There’s no Vogue magazine-style entourage. Makeup is minimal so as to keep the look natural and not distract from the pose.

On that, Pons may defer to the dancers.

“I’ve gotten smarter on ballet terms, but they know their craft. They know their line.”

So it’s just Pons, the dancers, the camera and a moment – often in a busy, sometimes off-limits environment that forces the team to act like a flash mob. Pons will hoist a dancer atop a monument, as in the picture of Cole in Columbus Circle. Sometimes it’s the dancer who offers support. For the enchanting photo of Bryn Michaels kicking her leg up and flashing a grin as she balanced on pointe in a cobblestone SoHo street – hardly the easiest thing to do – Michaels had to watch out for Pons, who had his back to the traffic.

The result is a fascinating depiction of balletic grace in the concrete jungle that finishes with a flourish of hands and feet. (“I’m always looking at the ends.”) That urban beauty is an interest born of Pons’ childhood in Washington Heights during the 1970s and ’80s, the so-called “Bronx is burning” years.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, there was always glass on the street and cracks in the sidewalk.”

Pons’ musical abilities earned him a scholarship to Mannes College The New School for Music in New York City. But Pons says he “squandered” that opportunity by failing to appreciate it fully.

Perhaps or perhaps it was just the means to this end. He is now selling prints of his work on his website. He’s started a relationship with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Most important, while maintaining his IT job, he’s begun to think of himself as a dance photographer, realizing that as you see yourself so others will see you.

Pons knows, too, that his work is a metaphor for his life as he shoots through the urban undertow to that light at the end of the tunnel.

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