Moving through Still | Silver Rebellion

Watching her move it’s impossible not to notice that Valerie carries within her bones a living story of dance.

Valerie Madonia dances fine art photo shoot with photographer Jennifer Koskinen

Whether she’s sipping tea, laughing in a moment of warm friendship, or rolling around in a pile of tulle on the floor, I’m always aware of the soul of her story — a story grounded in a lifetime of creating art. A story she wears effortlessly, cradled within her bones and expressed with a peaceful confidence.

Her movements are accompanied by an inner strength that has clearly been earned over time.

You see, this incredible woman has celebrated fifty seven orbits around the sun, during which she has collected dance, artistry, motherhood and the kind of wisdom that is only born of experience. She has gathered it up and absorbed it on a cellular level.

Her body is home to a lifetime of dance artistry. It lives and breathes through her...

our Denver studio space for this session - where the magic happens!

our Denver studio space for this session - where the magic happens!

. . . as if every dance she’s ever performed has woven itself into the very structure of her bones.

. . . as if the collective musical scores she has known intimately over her career are searching for ways to speak through her movements. 

It’s a quality that a younger dancer has yet to earn: to radiate that kind of story with ease. 

Valerie was plucked out of school as a young girl to train as a ballerina. She went on to dance professionally all over the globe with the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet and more (see her bio below).

But time, as we know, dances forward as well.

And so, it’s expected that, after “a certain age,” even the best dancers must quietly leave the stage.

It’s expected that they’ll find something related to dance to occupy their time. Perhaps open a studio and find students to train. To pass the baton to the next generation without question.

Expectations are a funny thing though. 

Perhaps you, too, sometimes feel an urge to break them? To show the world - or just yourself - that there’s more to a story than “expectations” might allow?

Valerie Madonia dances in nest of tulle for fine art photo shoot with photographer Jennifer Koskinen

It took some time for Valerie to fully embrace the fact that I wanted to photograph her BECAUSE of the extraordinary beauty I see in the history that she has earned in her 57 years on earth.

That I wanted to celebrate her FOR her age. As part of a story I have been wanting to tell: 

You see, I want to reshape the narratives we have come to accept on aging through photography.

To empower women so that we may fiercely own our stories at any age. Earned smile-lines and all.

To burst through societal expectations and celebrate this metamorphosis into something even more beautiful. Something gifted only to the very lucky.

And as it turned out, this idea indeed resonated with how Valerie wants to live.

To start writing a new chapter. To keep moving and to keep sharing that celebration of life with others. 

To keep moving. To keep making ART.


Some backstory behind these images.

A year ago we arranged our first session, photographing inside the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. It was a powerful place to start, framing Valerie as she danced with these life-sized abstract paintings.

BELOW: A sample of our first dance photography session at the museum — you can view the full STORY HERE.

Photographing Valerie inside the museum was deeply seductive. The first breakthrough came when I watched her leap into works of abstract art, dancing with the paintings in a way that created new art inspired by Clyfford Still’s giant canvases. I was captivated by her expressive language. Together we were making photographs, mixing disciplines and creating beautiful art out of art. It felt amazing.

ABOVE: We went back for a second session a few months later which led to a new collection of beautiful images. 


Photographing inside the museum was incredible, but as much as I loved the images, I felt an inexplicable desire to move our project to another location: What could we learn, beyond the gallery? What might we discover without the paintings to spark the initial conversation?

It was a bigger leap than either of us realized, to explore what kind of statements might emerge if we looked inward and placed the focus for our third collaboration on the pure expression of the knowledge and history which lives within her body. The story which might resonate beyond. I watched some behind the scenes iPhone video my son had taken while she moved and it hit me that we didn’t need the paintings. Val’s expressive movement had a narrative voice of its own.

So we shifted our focus on the expressive and mysterious nature of an experienced dancer’s movement. The collective memory which pulses through her.

This time, our session became more about writing a story that was uniquely OURS. But a story which might also be universally understood by anyone who has a body and aspires to keep moving once his or her treasured youth has evolved into something new. A new chapter which carries a new kind of grounded beauty and grace.


Heading to the studio that morning I had a pretty serious case of nerves. Turns out we were both nervous.

Valerie later noted it was like we were both preparing for a performance. And my camera was our audience.

I’ve often told myself that when I stop getting nervous before sessions it’s time to find something new to do in order to keep pushing my own creative edges. My son’s dad once calmed his nerves before a show by saying, “it’s ok to be nervous, it just means you care!” And wow — did this session give me the “I care” butterflies!

We started out photographing Valerie dancing in different flowing dresses. An antique blue velvet gown she’d worn to a gala. A simple nude leotard and some silk fabrics. A bit of shadow-play... exploring… searching (photos above).

But it was when we pulled out the pile of tulle that something magical happened.

In her movement. In my heart.

In the light that was being captured by my camera.

Leading up to this session, I’d been thinking a great deal about the role of narrative in photographs. Especially inspired after viewing large Richard Avedon photographs as part of the Dior exhibit in Denver, I thought about the opportunity to communicate something about Valerie’s story in what she was wearing. The real question was how to do this in a way that didn’t come across as cliche or too literal.

I hadn’t come up with anything yet, but as soon as she wrapped this home made tulle “skirt” around her nude body and started moving, it became clear that the volume and flexibility of this particular pile of fabric — with its own history in the world of dance — opened a doorway into the very story I was hoping we might tell. One that became abstract and full of art as she explored its edges.

I watched the tulle come alive as she pushed and pulled. It seemed to take on the ghostly spirit of every costume and tutu Valerie had ever worn. Collectively, the tulle with her improvisational movement told an entirely new story.

It told many stories in fact. At one point Valerie mentioned that she’d just felt the role she danced in Swan Lake inform a particularly bird-like expression.

Chills.


Part of the impetus to book time in a studio was to have a safe space to experiment with artistic video recording on my Canon dSLR.

Val had been wanting to add this to our narrative tool-kit, but I’d had no experience with video — despite the fact that I’ve been dreaming about adding artful videography to my skillset as a visual story teller for years. This seemed like the perfect time to learn (and was, no doubt, another contributing factor to my nerves that day).

I watched several tutorials the night before and then dove right in as soon as we arrived on set, failing many times before getting results which, to my pleasant surprise, nearly perfectly matched my vision.

Holy moly there’s a lot to learn but I’m thrilled to have taken the first leap, and quite proud of our first results.

Exploring movement of tulle and expression of body was a great place for me to dig deep as an artist and learn a new medium.

Experimenting with manual focus to create a sense of mystery and discovery for the viewer; learning to shoot at a high frame rate to be able to convert the video to slow motion; learning to edit these “moving pictures” in Photoshop to match the still photographs and create a cohesive story — it was all enormously gratifying.

I’d love for you to check out our first short video story below:


Valerie and I have approached each of these “art for art’s sake” sessions, importantly I think, without expectation or attachment to outcome.

Our goal has been discovery... pure creation. And as a result, each session has unfolded in an entirely organic fashion and taught us new things about our collaboration. And ourselves.

Two artists improvising. Exploring. Learning.

For me, this creative journey is deeply expansive. It taps into a different part of my brain to have no agenda beyond being receptive to the moment. Similar to a feeling I get with learning a director’s style with live theatre photography (I come to instinctively anticipate where to be to capture depth in staging), when we do these sessions I feel myself fall into a dance with Valerie as I travel the space with my camera in anticipation of her movement.

Watching, breathing, feeling the rhythm of the improvised dance. I direct her only minimally, and almost always in direct response to something she has done. “Ooh can you do that again facing the window so I see light on your face” or “I’m feeling bird expressions here, can we expand on that?” Or in our museum shoot, “Oh my God you just leapt and became part of the painting in the frame! We need to play with that!”

Improvisation. Capturing on instinct.

It’s a dance of a different kind: the dance of the photographer.

Wherever this goes, both of us feel ourselves opening to something new through this work. It feels vulnerable and intimate. While at the same time profoundly liberating and expansive.

Moody, mysterious, layered and expressive.

Like a dancer moving into her second act.

Valerie strikes triumphant pose in flowing tulle during photo session with Denver dance photographer Jennifer Koskinen

Most satisfying with this work are the moments you don’t plan. Moments of pure serendipitous magic. Do you see her eye in the tulle below? It’s a photograph which captures the spirit of my very favorite expression brought to life:

Work hard, and you’ll get lucky.

Valerie Madonia dances for fine art photo shoot photographer Jennifer Koskinen

ABOUT VALERIE MADONIA (DANCER): Valerie Madonia began her dance training with Maris Battaglia at the American Academy of Ballet in Buffalo, NY and left home at the age of 14 to continue at the National Ballet School of Canada, graduating in 1979. She was a recipient of the prestigious Peter Dwyer Award for Dance Excellence. She danced professionally with the National Ballet of Canada 1979-1981 (under the direction of Alexander Grant), at American Ballet Theatre 1981-1986 (under Mikhail Baryshnikov) and at the Joffrey Ballet 1987- 1997 (under Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino).
 
Ms. Madonia began as a member of the corps de ballet eventually establishing herself as a leading ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet. She had the honor of dancing as a company member with Alonzo Kings Lines Ballet, Armitage Gone! Dance, Complexions Dance, Configuration Ballet and as a guest artist with Alaska Dance Theatre, Russian Ballet Theatre, Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet, and at Le Gala des Etoiles numerous times in Montreal and Greece. She performed the role of the Princess in Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2001 and with the New York Philharmonic in 2005, conducted by Alan Gilbert and accompanied by Pinkus Zuckerman. Madonia appeared in six PBS Dance in America Specials and is featured in four dance books, most prominently in, Classical Ballet Technique, by G.W. Warren. She performed the role of Madge in Colorado Ballet’s 2015 production of La Sylphide and as the Queen in it’s 2017 Swan Lake.
 
Her choreographic credits include the full length Ballets: Cinderella for Louisiana Delta Ballet, The Nutcracker, Polar Express and Appalachian Spring for Telluride Dance Academy and Ames Conservatory, Shapeshift for Boulder Ballet in addition to new works for the NYC Dance Now Festival, Sunday Salons and Les Patineurs for Colorado Ballet’s Pre-professional Division, Solo works for professional dancers in Colorado Ballet, YAGP competitions, Ballet West and Dayton Ballet. In 2016 she staged staged Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain Pas de Deux for Colorado Ballet.

ABOUT JENNIFER (PHOTOGRAPHER): After a ten year career as an architect, Jennifer is currently an Award Winning, Denver based photographer, specializing in actor headshots and high school senior portraits. She is also an accomplished theatre and dance production photographer, having worked with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Denver Center Theatre Company and Denver School of the Arts. She specializes in creating a positive experience and helping clients find their value through photography, fostering a sense of connection in her work, and bringing out personality in her clients while celebrating THEIR work. Her published theatrical photography work has run all around the world, and has appeared in American Theatre Magazine, The New York Times, Playbill.com, Broadway World and the Denver Post, to name a few.

ABOUT THE TULLE: A very special thanks to Catherine Kelly for donating the amazing tulle skirt which she handmade for her senior portraits and donated to me after her session. If you’re curious to see the skirt in its original form, check out her story.

Moving through Still | Dance Photography and the Paintings of Clyfford Still in Denver

The arts run deep in my family. 

Growing up, I thought it was really cool that my grandfather was an artist. I earned an Art & Art History major in college before becoming an architect and eventually a photographer. Within a few generations we have a concert pianist, an interior designer, a jewelry designer, painters, writers, architects, actors and a photographer. 

I've always felt most alive with a creative tool in my hand -- a pencil, a camera, even a computer (to write or design) or a paintbrush. Creative spaces of all kinds excite me -- museums, galleries, theaters, libraries and studios.

Artists and creators are my muses, my subjects and forever my inspiration. 

I mention all of this because several people asked both Valerie and I why we were doing this project. And the answer is quite simple: it was born in this space -- this love of creativity.

We just decided to make art. Art for Art's Sake.

And I mean really: Art combined with dance and photography… it sounds like a dreamy mix, doesn't it?

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My creative collaborator -- my "partner in art" -- for this project is my treasured friend Valerie Madonia, an accomplished dancer in the world of ballet (seriously accomplished -- check out her bio below).

I have known Valerie since our days of living in Telluride and have wanted to photograph her for years. When I first approached her I only knew that I wanted to photograph her, but the details were still murky in my head. I wanted to create striking images that involved her dance background and her graceful presence as an accomplished, poised and beautiful woman. 

Enter the Clyfford Still Museum. My background as an architect made me quick to fall in love with this unique space when it first opened in Denver. Huge abstract artworks on display in a building designed specifically to show this artist's paintings. The museum is impeccably detailed with beautiful proportions, overlapping spaces, strong architectural materials in natural earth tones, and architecturally designed to take advantage of Colorado's consistent natural light to illuminate the artwork.

When I learned we could photograph inside the museum (with special permits), I suspected I’d finally found the location for our first shoot. Valerie and I toured on one of her visits to Denver. We set it up with proper permits and got to work planning our photoshoot, still not altogether clear on an end goal -- other than to make art for the fun of it.


BEFORE I CONTINUE... A FEW WORDS ON ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM: If you're not familiar with the roots of abstract art, this genre of art is non-representational. Expand the photos below (from inside the Clyfford Still Museum) to see the evolution from more representational art to abstraction in both Clyfford Still's artwork, and in the larger context of art history.

In these demonstrations (which I photographed at the Clyfford Still Museum), you can see that while elements of abstract art are often derived originally from figures, landscapes and more traditional still life subjects, in their final form the compositions may be openly interpreted by those who experience the art. 

It is this idea of artistic interpretation that most excited me about photographing Valerie in this space.

I anticipated that her breadth of experience as a dancer and choreographer, along with her vision as an artist would all lend themselves to compelling choreographed movement in her reactions to the motion she felt in viewing Still's paintings. My own instincts on this were not wrong...

As I moved around the space with my camera, watching her move, I asked simply, "what do you see?" and directed very minimally, only reacting for compositional or framing purposes. Together we moved through the museum, creating and capturing, from painting to painting. My perspective kept switching from the physical space and relationships between gallery, painting and dancer, to the framed composition within a photograph.

During my years as an architectural photographer, this interplay between three dimensional design and two dimensional photography always excited me, but the opportunity to play with these parameters -- now with a moving dancer -- was creatively satisfying on a whole new level. 

My heart leapt right with Valerie's movements as I watched her improvised choreography transform the artwork before my eyes. Paintings came alive in ways I hadn't previously perceived as she danced with them. Sometimes in quiet contemplation.

Other times it was as if she leapt right into the compositions and became a part of the paintings themselves.

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In this block of creative, "art for art's sake" time we were transported into a world of imagination, color, movement and the beauty of dance. A world of where dance choreography meets improvisation. 

This is a world where three dimensional space can flatten into a framed composition in a celebration of the human body and art -- where photography allows something frozen in time to remain full of life. 

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After finishing this shoot, Valerie and I sat at a coffee shop and scrolled through the collection of images. Exhilarated and filled with satisfaction and inspiration, we realized this would most definitely be the first chapter in a larger dance photography project...

So stay tuned...


ABOUT VALERIE MADONIA (DANCER): Valerie Madonia began her dance training with Maris Battaglia at the American Academy of Ballet in Buffalo, NY and left home at the age of 14 to continued at the National Ballet School of Canada, graduating in 1979. She was a recipient of the prestigious Peter Dwyer Award for Dance Excellence. She danced professionally with the National Ballet of Canada 1979-1981 (under the direction of Alexander Grant), at American Ballet Theatre 1981-1986 (under Mikhail Baryshnikov) and at the Joffrey Ballet 1987- 1997 (under Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino).
 
Ms. Madonia began as a member of the corps de ballet eventually establishing herself as a leading ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet. She had the honor of dancing as a company member with Alonzo Kings Lines Ballet, Armitage Gone! Dance, Complexions Dance, Configuration Ballet and as a guest artist with Alaska Dance Theatre, Russian Ballet Theatre, Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet, and at Le Gala des Etoiles numerous times in Montreal and Greece. She performed the role of the Princess in Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2001 and with the New York Philharmonic in 2005, conducted by Alan Gilbert and accompanied by Pinkus Zuckerman. Madonia appeared in six PBS Dance in America Specials and is featured in four dance books, most prominently in, Classical Ballet Technique, by G.W. Warren. She performed the role of Madge in Colorado Ballet’s 2015 production of La Sylphide and as the Queen in it’s 2017 Swan Lake.
 
Her choreographic credits include the full length Ballets: Cinderella for Louisiana Delta Ballet, The Nutcracker, Polar Express and Appalachian Spring for Telluride Dance Academy and Ames Conservatory,  Shapeshift for Boulder Ballet in addition to new works for the NYC Dance Now Festival, Sunday Salons and Les Patineurs for Colorado Ballet’s Pre -professional Division, Solo works for professional dancers in  Colorado Ballet, YAGP competitions, Ballet West and Dayton Ballet. In 2016 she staged staged Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain Pas de Deux  for Colorado Ballet.

ABOUT JENNIFER (PHOTOGRAPHER): After a ten year career as an architect, Jennifer is currently an Award Winning, Denver based photographer, specializing in actor headshots and high school senior portraits. She is also an accomplished theatre and dance production photographer, having worked with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Denver Center Theatre Company and Denver School of the Arts. She specializes in creating a positive experience and helping clients find their value through photography, fostering a sense of connection in her work, and bringing out personality in her clients while celebrating THEIR work. Her published theatrical photography work has run all around the world, and has appeared in American Theatre Magazine, The New York Times, Playbill.com, Broadway World and the Denver Post, to name a few.

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FINALLY: A special thanks to the wonderful staff and curators at the Clyfford Still Museum for a lovely experience. I highly recommend a visit to this unique museum in the heart of Denver's growing arts district.

Photographers, please note that a photography permit is required in advance to photograph subjects in this space.

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"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

- Pablo Picasso

Art for Heart's Sake

Today, I got to make ART.

For the sake of art. In the spirit of collaboration and creativity.

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Even better, I got to make art ... in a museum ... with a treasured co-conspirator in the arts.

My muse was my gorgeous, extraordinarily talented friend Valerie. A life-long dancer with unparalleled grace in her movement through life. Someone who shares the calling to create art with her life's work... and sometimes purely for the sake of art.

We got to make art that was inspired by art. Giant, abstract expressionist art came to life in a whole new way before us as Valerie danced.

We made art inspired by the “life-lines” that run vertically through so many of Clyfford Still’s vibrant paintings. Inspired by the movement we found in his colorful canvases and the sumptuous light in this special space, a museum designed specifically to house this one artist’s prolific body of work.

Downloading the photos tonight brought me intense happiness (I may or may not have shed a tear) -- watching what we had created come to life image by image on my monitor. What a liberating experience it is to create art for the sake of seeing, for capturing a moment, feeling depth of color and composition with no agenda outside of discovery, and possibly a desire to share (if anything ends up being worth sharing). The act of sharing would be like icing on the cake. For what it’s worth, after today, I'm so excited to share what we found in there that I'm here with a sneak peek, something I hardly EVER do.

SNEAK PEEK: this is a low quality iphone photo of my monitor, highlighting a few unedited images as they downloaded from my camera tonight. Final Images are yet to come... watch this space!

SNEAK PEEK: this is a low quality iphone photo of my monitor, highlighting a few unedited images as they downloaded from my camera tonight. Final Images are yet to come... watch this space!

My heart is full. And I'm left with a strong emotion that, especially given the uncertainty and unrest in the world, we all need to remind each other to make moments for those things which make our hearts full. Discovery, creativity, adventure, love.

Thank you, Valerie, for your beautiful heart, for your life’s art, and for coming to Denver to share this crazy idea with me. And for letting me collaborate with your dance today. I can’t wait to share the final photographs!

Grace | Cheers to Celebrating to STRONG Girls with Portraits

Celebrating STRONG GIRLS... That’s what it’s all about.

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Strength: overcoming challenge, maintaining positive outlook, self advocacy. These are all examples of grace to me, and this girl exemplifies these qualities beautifully. What's extra cool is that I also always find myself thinking, laughing and feeling happy in her intelligent and fun-loving company.

Naturally, when asked, I jumped at the opportunity to create portraits of this amazing young woman for the American Physical Therapy Association. These portraits of Isa were commissioned for a campaign they launched recently, featuring inspiring stories of strength, healing, and second chances reached through physical therapy. As a passionate young dancer whose life was transformed by her injury and process of recovery, Isa’s story was particularly compelling. She has since shifted her focus to theatre arts, but you can just feel how her former dancer and experience with injury has given her poise, strength and perspective.

The session itself was a blast. We had planned an urban session, featuring her dancer poise and flexibility subtlely, but to really place the portrait emphasis on HER and her own strength as a person.

I MAY have mentioned this once or twice… but wandering the streets and alleys of downtown Denver with an adorable person to photograph is seriously one of my favorite things to do. Finding light, texture, color, interesting compositions (and even reflections to mimic a dancer studio!) AND having a beautiful young woman to pose… it’s really a dream for me!

The APTA purchased all rights to their favorite 2 images (which is always nice for a photographer, but means I can’t show them here)... but I’m happy to be able to share some of the “outtakes” from this incredibly fun and rewarding photo session, showcasing Isa’s strength, both physically and as an incredible human.

sorry... gotta add one final fun photo with my assistant!

sorry... gotta add one final fun photo with my assistant!

Here’s to your bright future, you absolutely beautiful, intelligent and strong young woman -- we are so happy to know you!

I’m a Denver based portrait photographer specializing in empowering sessions for my clients, as well as drawing out personality and natural expression. Portrait sessions are always custom designed and styled around YOU, and are immersive, fun and empowering experiences, to boot. Let’s talk about designing a photo session for you!

Best Friend Photo Session in Downtown Denver | Senior Pictures

Ah... this photo brings me indescribable joy. It also happens to be one of my most shared photos ever on Pinterest. So I thought I should share a few more from this amazing urban best friends senior photo session in downtown Denver (as a side note, this session took place before I had my blog really rocking... so I guess this is a #laterblog if such a thing exists!)

Gorgeous best friends, a soccer player and a ballerina on the infamous yellow wall in Denver!

Gorgeous best friends, a soccer player and a ballerina on the infamous yellow wall in Denver!

Everyone asks about these gorgeous girls ("are they sisters?" most frequently) so here's the story: Ryan (the soccer player) and Julianna (the ballerina) are cousins who happen to be best friends... and they live in different states. So when they get the chance to be together, it’s cause to celebrate their sisterhood!

I got a call to do this shoot literally the day before we pulled it together, after Ryan's amazing mom woke in the middle of the night thinking how great it would be to do a joint photo session before Juli had to fly back home. The combination of their clear familial relationship (hello long legs and awesome flowing hair on each of them!) and their very different talents made for such a striking set of photographic compositions!

This unique urban session, which took place downtown near the Denver Center for Performing Arts, was one of the most fun sessions imaginable! Lots of laughter, lots of playing, a few outfit changes, and photos which hopefully convey the joy and love of this unique friendship.

After the session, the girls went to a concert at the Pepsi Center, where they were stopped by someone who asked if they were the girls from the photo shoot in the streets of Denver that day!

We made them famous for the day... that's fun!

Sessions are booking already for this year's senior pictures in Denver (Class of 2017) ... so drop me a line now if you're interested in a complimentary consultation or would like to book your photo session!