In Conversation with Christopher Duggan Photography: Shooting Dance

by | Jan 9, 2024 | Warm Note

I went live on Instagram with my long-time collaborator (who also happens to be my husband), Christopher Duggan!!

Christopher is our go-to photographer here at Nel Shelby Productions. We love having him on shoots (he always gets amazing b-roll, even on his iPhone)!

We discussed Christopher’s first dance shoot, growing alongside one another as videographer and photographer, how much we love being in the theater and the studio… and more!!

We first met when I was just getting started as a videographer

It was a year after I finished my dance videography internship with Jacob’s Pillow. Christopher was a budding photographer, and he was just excited that we had something in common: documentation.

I filmed a friends’ wedding in which Christopher was a groomsman, and he also took some photos. Later, he asked me if I wanted to use some of his photos in the wedding film… and the rest is history!

Christopher’s first dance shoot

While we were dating, I got a gig to film a small split bill evening performance at a studio space in Manhattan. Coincidentally, Christopher had rented a digital camera for the weekend to do a portrait shoot.

Christopher recalled,

I remember saying to you, Nel, “Do you think the choreographer would allow me to shoot the show?” I didn’t really understand what I was asking for at the time, but they said, “Sure! If you share the photos with us.” I remember it being a long space, and my angle was a very hard one. I got like two photos that I was SO excited about…

 

…There was one photo of this really explosive moment… was it representative of the choreography? I don’t know. But I loved it. That was my spark.

 

…I remember thinking, If this is something I could learn to do, I’d really love to learn to do it.

Growing as a videographer and photographer

I asked Christopher how he has grown as a videographer and photographer over the past decade. When I was a one-person operation (that feels like forever ago!) I taught him how to shoot the wide-camera so I could do two-camera shoots.

However, as NSP has developed, Christopher’s video work has become much more about capturing behind-the-scenes content.

He has such an eye for b-roll! We call him “the BTS guy.”

So I asked him, “what are you looking for when shooting b-roll? How are you just so great at it?”

Well, it’s a combination of things.

 

One, I do it a lot, so I get a lot of practice. At a wedding, I’m constantly honing in on the story, what’s happening, the emotional moment, who is connecting with who… Those antennae are always up, so when I feel something is happening I can capture it.

 

Two, I have been working with dancers for a while. I have a sense of the arc of the way a dance gets put together… how things build, the shift of the music, and where the dancers are entering, etc..

 

The third thing is giving myself permission to get close! I tell the people I mentor that you have to get close to the action, you can’t stand in the middle of the theater with your wide camera. 

It’s so clear that Christopher’s talent and skill comes from his goal of telling a story with his work. He wants the viewer to feel like they are really apart of whatever is happening in the video or photo, to feel like they are in the room.

It’s great that Christopher and I are still excited about this stuff. We’ve been doing it for a long time.

We love being in the theater and the studio

There is something about walking into the theater or studio that never gets old.

Christopher said something that I really love:

With dance, there’s nothing happening until you create something.

It’s so true!

We have the honor and privilege of working with some really amazing choreographers, and seeing them in action is fascinating to Christopher (and me)!

One summer at Vail Dance Festival, Michelle Dorrance was creating a new work for the NOW Premieres and he was in the studio during rehearsal. There were a bunch of different dancers—tap, ballet, and more—who didn’t really know each other, and over a just few days, a beautiful new work came together.

Christopher never tires of witnessing that kind of creative process in action.

Inside the Pillow Lab and BTS Documentation

During the IG Live, a viewer asked Christopher, “Inside the Pillow Lab is a kind of more formalized process of behind-the-scenes. How do you approach it differently than your other work?”

(For those of you who don’t know, NSP collaborates with Jacob’s Pillow to create Inside the Pillow Lab short films that document artists’ Pillow Lab residencies.)

We film these short films documentary-style, and for Christopher, it’s very different than shooting regular BTS.

He has a list of different shots he needs to get, like an outside view of the rehearsal space or long clips of choreography. He also needs to get as close as possible, but not be disruptive. Christopher always tells people he’s mentoring:

Until they kick you out, you are not close enough.

That’s interesting, because as a dance documentarian, I’m always telling people, “we’ll be a fly on the wall, you won’t even notice us.” But with Inside the Pillow Lab, we always tell the artists that we’re going to get close until you tell us to back up. It’s a big shift for me, but it’s closer to Christopher’s way of working. It’s one of the reasons we work so well together, and we’re always learning from each other!!
I feel so fortunate to collaborate with such a talented photographer and videographer who also happens to be my husband.

Watch my full conversation with Christopher on Instagram @nelshelbyfilms !!!

And follow Christopher @cdugganphoto !!!

Nel Shelby is Owner & Filmmaker for Nel Shelby Productions, her New York City-based company dedicated to dance videography and editing. Nel shares her mission to preserve and promote the art of dance with her husband, Christopher Duggan, a dance and wedding photographer. They collaborate on projects with dance companies of worldwide renown, up-and-coming choreographers, dance educators, dance schools and more. Nel is Video Producer at Jacob’s Pillow and Vail Dance Festival and is also the proud Director and Producer of PS DANCE! — a New York Emmy-nominated documentary about dance education in NYC’s public schools.