Lee Cherry: Airborne

by Alice B. Miller

Lee Cherry

Meredith Miles

April 01, 2012

The former dancer turned photographer takes his subjects to new heights.

Capturing dancers relaxing on a cloud of air, leaning on invisible walls or tilting at impossible angles are among the extraordinary effects Lee Cherry achieves through his portraiture.

With a clientele including A-list performance entertainers, Cherry approaches his dance portraiture with a lightness and energy that comes from a rich background in visual arts and dance. When photographing dancers—some of the world’s best among them—Cherry’s own years as a dancer provide valuable insight and perspective.

“I can speak the language,” he explains. “At times, showing the dancers what I want becomes more effective because people often have an ‘If he can do it, I can do it’ attitude. As soon as I show them what I’m looking for, they do it.”

Illusion of Motion
Cherry says there is an art to capturing the look of motion with still images. “It starts with making a connection, developing trust and getting the dancers comfortable. I ask them to assume positions that are aesthetically unique to dancers but not necessarily ‘dancery.’ I like the shot to look as if I caught the subjects taking flight, just landing, or levitating above ground—so free that they can pose for you all day long.”

To illuminate his subjects, Cherry, who shoots with a Canon 5D Mark II, relies on his Profoto 7a’s and 7b’s, Elinchrom Octabanks, Profoto ringlights, a beauty dish, medium strips, gridded softboxes, spot reflectors and PocketWizards. Here, Cherry breaks down the setups and lighting behind some of his most memorable images.

Portraits in Flight
Recently, Cherry had a dance video shoot with RETV, the multimedia arm of Resource magazine. For one of the images from that shoot (shown in our online gallery), Cherry stood on a ladder to photograph dancer Kristine Bendul. “I was directing Kristine to assume ridiculous poses and she nailed it,” Cherry says. “What gives the shot its drama is the hands. I did nothing to the picture. I just captured Kristine’s awesomeness.” Cherry lit this shot using his PocketWizard, a big Octabank without a diffuser for the main light, Profoto medium strips for rim light, and a head with a spot grid for the background.

For an image of dancer Meredith Miles (above), Cherry says it was the last shot of the day and that he and his team only had 45 minutes left; drawing the ribbons up from Meredith’s shoes to wrap around her body took more time than expected. “With only two minutes to capture the shot, we had no time to redo the wrap, so we went with the random ribbon effect. It was one of those moments where magic happens.” Cherry chose Meredith because she looks like a model. He actually added some of her images to his Web site’s fashion portfolio, not the dance portfolio, because it’s an example of the kind of advertising job he would want to do for Dolce & Gabbana or Gucci. He used the same lighting for this shot as he did for the airborne image of Kristine Bendul—minus the ladder.

Feeling The Pulse
The Pulse is a group of award-winning choreographers whose individual portraits and group shot Lee photographed in 2010. He lit each of the solo shots with an Elinchrom Octabank without a diffuser, high to the left, Profoto ringlight and PocketWizard. For The Pulse’s 2010 ad, creative director Brian Friedman envisioned a David LaChapelle-esque photo. The result is this eye-popping, candy-colored composite. “I shot each person separately in this actual setting to get the best shot of each of them, then composited in Photoshop,” Cherry says. “The dancers were positioned exactly as you see them. Two exceptions: Gil Duldulao, far right, was away so I shot him on a different day in the same studio. Desmond Richardson, with the ballet bar, was raised to balance the composition. A production designer made sure everything was sound within the set.”

The Pulse 2011 ad, shot on the same day as the 2010 ad and kept under wraps until early 2011, was shot against a white seamless background using PocketWizards, an Elinchrom Octabank without a diffuser, high left, mixed with a Profoto ringlight and heads on umbrellas. Graphic designer Nike Chapman created the hologram effect and background in post. Portraits for Six-D, a U.K. dance music group, were shot on the set of the group’s music video.

Cherry brought his Profoto 7a's, PocketWizards, beauty dish, ring light for fill, and a couple of umbrellas pointing at the background to blow out the white.

To see Cherry’s dance video shoot by RETV, visit vimeo.com/m/37586106. For a look at the 2010 Pulse ad photo shoot, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5bYzaLDC3M. For more of Lee Cherry’s delightfully improbable portraits of dancers and his various multimedia projects, visit www.cherrymultimedia.com.


Alice B. Miller is the owner of Plum Communications Inc. (www.plumcomm.com), a Long Island, NY, editorial services and marketing-communications company that supports the photo industry. Previously the editor of Studio Photography magazine, Alice’s growing clientele includes photographers, manufacturers, publications and associations. She is the director of public relations for the International Photographic Council.

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