Hilary Shedel - dance & movement photographer, Melbourne

PUBLISHED: 14:31 28 April 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Hilary Shedel

Hilary Shedel

Ashley Franklin meets the Melbourne-based dance and movement photographer.

With ten million people regularly tuning in to BBC TV's Strictly Come Dancing, it isn't surprising to learn that dance's popularity is increasing faster than that of any other art form. Indeed, nearly five million of us now dance for leisure, pleasure or in performance - everything from swing to salsa, tango to tap. With advertisers always looking to tap into trends, there's been a concomitant increase in advert imagery depicting dance, callisthenics, exercise or movement. All this has been very encouraging for Melbourne resident Hilary Shedel: Hilary is one of the UK's leading photographers specialising in dance and movement. Clients as varied as Holiday Inn, Samsung, Bodyshop, Muller and Legal & General have employed Hilary's expertise and experience over the years.

Hilary is also sought out by top dancers and dance companies. You can see why as soon as you step inside her studio workplace, set in the quiet cultured surroundings of the Ferrers Centre of Arts & Crafts behind Staunton Harold Hall. The stumble of my steps up to her studio is in marked contrast to the images festooned on the walls, all perfectly captured stills of grace, poise, posture and balance. As I walk into her airy studio space, I see that pride of place amongst her images is a stunning poster for the Royal Ballet showing principal dancer Leanne Benjamin striking an immaculate pose emphasising the beautiful geometry of the body; one long leg on pointes, the other reaching for the sky. To have captured that singular dance position has called for crucial timing. In photography terms, it's known as 'the decisive moment' and this is what thrills Hilary particularly about her craft.

'Dance is special to me because I love the way it shows what the human body can actually do,' she enthuses. 'Dancers are such absolute athletes who also do everything with so much grace and style. To be able to capture all that on an image is exhilarating. But it's the further excitement of producing something that you don't see with the naked eye. You can capture something in a split second that wouldn't be there the next second.'

It was a split second moment that brought Hilary to photography. She seemed destined for the world of theatre, training as a stage manager at London's Central School for Speech and Drama. However, the absence of the member of staff who normally snapped shots of the School's shows led to Hilary volunteering. 'I don't even know why I offered,' she recalls. 'I hadn't used a camera very much before but from that very first show I just took to it. When that staff member saw how much I was enjoying it, she made sure she was "ill" every time a show needed photographing!'

Before long, Hilary started taking all the Spotlight publicity pictures for the drama students as well as photographing fringe theatre productions, and she was soon printing her own photographs in a darkroom set up in her student flat. Flushed with enthusiasm, Hilary was dancing into a different career. In ballet terms, however, this leap into photography was but a cabriole. Hilary's Grand Jet was yet to come: 'I'm not sure why - maybe it was my childhood love of ballet - but I put a notice up in one of the London ballet schools asking if any dancers wanted photographs,' she recalls. 'I would make individual requests, too, if I'd been to a ballet productions and seen somebody I really liked. That way I built up a portfolio.'

Since then Hilary has found a niche in advertising products using dance and movement. What's more, in dealing with clients, Hilary found herself one up on her rivals - 'rather than use models as many photographers would, I insisted on employing proper dancers,' states Hilary.
Her product shots for Kinnarps, one of Europe's biggest office furniture manufacturers, illustrates Hilary's meticulous craft and vision. Prepare to be amazed: audience members certainly have been, after Hilary has delivered photography lectures explaining the intricacies behind a seemingly simple commission. 'Once people realise what goes into an advertising shoot, many of them tell me they'll never look at an advert in quite the same way again,' says Hilary. 'I don't just turn up for the shoot and start firing away. It took several weeks just to prepare that shoot because the client will need to show me the layouts so I can assess what skills the dancer needs. I would then set up castings for that shoot, seeing up to 70 dancers sometimes - and that's after considering age, hair, build, ethnic origin. Then I'd need to discuss clothes with a stylist - what colours, time of year, whether they need to be up-to-the-minute or fairly timeless.'

With the Kinnarps commission calling for agile, acrobatic movement, the clothing consideration went beyond look and style. Because Hilary was using acrobats to leap across the floor or balance on a chair, she had to ensure that their shirts and trousers were outsized. 'When an acrobat moves,' she explains, 'their arms and legs will stretch and so shirts and trousers at the exact size will actually look badly fitted. So all the shirts had elastic and they were also sewn into the trousers. Ties also were sewn in. We had to adjust the clothing after every movement, too. All in all, that shoot was about three week's work.'

As the shoot for a new Samsung mobile phone involved dancers leaping from buildings, Hilary was on a collision course with health and safety czars, so had to employ over a dozen assistants in order to meet rigorous risk assessments. Offer the suggestion to a dance and movement photographer like Hilary that considerable time, money and anguish could be saved with a spot of digital airbrushing and you'd have to move pretty swiftly yourself to avoid her daggers glare. 'You wouldn't be the first to say that,' Hilary points out. 'In fact, some people who come into this gallery and see the guy doing a handstand on the railing assume it's all been done in Photoshop. I adore Photoshop but I would never do anything like that. There's no digital manipulation in my dance and movement photography - and no strings either!'

So, if it's all down to the photographer capturing dance and movement 'in camera', what's the key to that capture? 'You have to predict what's going to happen,' states Hilary. 'I have this maxim I always pass on to students who come on my dance and movement courses: "if you've seen the shot through your viewfinder, you've missed it." You have to anticipate that decisive moment when you press the shutter. And because I use flash and it's just one burst of light, you have to get it right with one shot - I don't take several frames per second. The other key is dealing with the dancers themselves. You don't need a great vocabulary of dance moves but you do have to understand what is possible because you have to know when you can push them a little way without asking them to do something anatomically impossible. You need to totally respect them, too. Their safety is paramount. If it's a matter of catching a dancer or your camera, you catch the dancer.'

Hilary and her partner Steve Bond dispense a great deal of advice on the many courses they run at their Ferrers studio. However, it's only recently that Hilary has returned to work after a year-long battle with breast cancer. Happily, she's winning, her long-term prospects are very favourable, and her experience has deepened her appreciation of both her life and career. 'Not being able to work had a huge impact on me,' she declares, 'and now I'm better, I value my health and my work so much more. I've also become less stressed about the basic things.'

What's helped Hilary enormously is the love and support she's had from partner Steve who is himself a photographer and has now stepped up into the business, sharing the load of the multifarious courses they run. There are accolades aplenty from students who have attended Hilary's dance and movement workshops. 'Hilary Shedel's enthusiasm for the subject is inspiring,' enthused one student, adding: 'She is extremely generous in passing on her expertise and her warm personality soon puts all the students at their ease.'

Hilary and Steve moved to Melbourne four years ago. Although Hilary's main client base is London-based, she believes she's made the right lifestyle choice. 'We love this area, and I like the fact that Ferrers is an arts centre rather than a business one; it makes it a lovely environment to come and do a course. We're very central here, close to motorways and East Midlands Airport, and London is only two hours away. As it is, if you specialise as I do, then I don't think it matters where you live. If a client wants you, it shouldn't matter whether you live in Inverness or St Ives.'

As Hilary re-surfaced from her illness, she found herself becoming more reflective about her work, and is now looking to publish a book of her dance photography. It's sure to include images of her favourite dance: flamenco. 'I just love the passion of the dancers and the attitude that goes with it,' declares Hilary. 'You need a fiery nature and a bit of arrogance for flamenco.' Indeed, just look at the defiant pose struck by Anna Leon and the sensuous strut of the great Spanish dancer Mercedes Ruiz. The book will also show that Hilary is equally skilled at freezing the motion of group dancers, and you will doubtless see also the fruits of her favourite shoot: capturing Capoeira dancers in Brazil. However, there is still one dancer who Hilary would dearly love to photograph. 'It's Darcey Bussell', she declares. 'She would be the ultimate kind of dancer that the camera loves; someone who has spent the whole of their working life looking at themselves and being critical. It means that when they come to you for a shoot, they're absolutely determined to do an excellent job. For models, it's just a job of work but for dancers - acrobats, too - there's passion and pride in what they do. And I like to think I'm the same.'

Hilary Shedel's next Dance and Movement photography course is on 2nd February with a Dance Special on 1st March. Hilary and Steve also run courses on Digital, Taking Better Photos, Photoshop (levels 1,2 and 3) and Flowers. For more details, email Hilary on hilary@hilaryshedel.com or contact 01332 694525.

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