I began chasing this picture of the Rubenstein Arts Center – kinetic students in the second floor fishbowl space known as the Cube – for the past 14 months, but started thinking about it months before. A beautiful visual representation of learning, teaching and discovery inside Duke’s blossoming arts scene and the crown jewel on Central Campus.
On Oct. 10, 2018, after photographing a Hoof n’ Horn dress rehearsal, I walked out of the Ruby at 10:30pm to see Street Medicine practicing their dance moves inside the large space adjacent to the street. I worked the scene for the next half hour from multiple views, and liked this frame enough to post on our #dukephotoaday, but knew the upper level would be a more dramatic and interesting composition.
I also figured that twilight or “blue hour” – that short window of time just after sunset or before sunrise – would be an ideal time as the sky begins to darken to a rich purply blue, matched in brightness by the glow of incandescent, fluorescent or LED light indoors. This harmonious light lasts only 10-15 min., until the sky becomes a dark inky blue and the indoor light appears washed out in contrast.
So I reached out to the dance program to find out their schedule of classes and began my quest last November.
I brought along a 10 ft. ladder, but even after moving it closer to the high ground near the intersection, the dancers were still too hidden from view.
I then coordinated with the Ruby’s tech. person, John Kolba, who had offered the use of their lift. We set up the lift just inside the front door, but the reflections from the glass and the scarcity of energetic movement led to a lackluster result.
By now, it was the end of Fall 2018 and the photo would have to wait until all the elements were in sync again.
On my commutes home I would cross Anderson Street on Campus Drive, occasionally glimpsing a dance class teasing me in the Cube.
During the summer, my colleague Bill Snead, our digital assets manager, had obtained his remote pilot license and we talked about doing the shoot with a drone during the coming Fall 2019.
The stakes were higher now: my colleague’s time, coordinating the drone rental from the Innovation Co-Lab, and finding the right dance class to photograph.
Additional emails were exchanged. Would a student dance group work? No, because they practice later at night, well past twilight.
The director of the dance program now became involved because they had recently started a Master of Fine Arts in Dance synthesized with a new undergraduate curriculum. It was important to the dance program to photograph a class that best represented thoughtful embodied movement, which investigates the deeper nuances of the mind and body as a whole, and explores multiple genres, multiple methodologies, and inter-cultural styles. We settled on Andrea Woods’ Modern Dance class.
On Nov. 5, 2019, Bill and I began prepping at the Ruby about 4:30pm for blue hour beginning at 5:32pm. We began flying about 5:15pm and decided to make some initial passes as the drone captured video of the class, but due to excessive interference we were unable to continue flying.
Now was the time to ask John Kolba a big favor – can we use their lift outside, which he had previously said he doesn’t like doing for safety reasons (i.e. – uneven ground, wind, etc.).
John agreed and we set the date for the next attempt, Dec. 3 with set up at 4pm.
Shooting from the lift, I would have to be deliberate about the position because once blue hour started at 5:18pm, we wouldn’t have enough time to reset the lift.
I chose a spot near the tree in the outdoor courtyard – I helped John stabilize the lift with plywood boards…too close…we repeated this process three times until I found the spot I liked.
I set my camera on a tripod and waited for peak flurries of dancer activity, all the while hoping for the Duke bus to anchor the composition in the lower right corner. The bus came at 5:27pm but didn’t have its interior lights on as it stopped. A very colorful bus arrived at 5:40pm with interior lights on, but the dancers were static, taking direction. The sky was a bit dark by then but could be brightened in Photoshop.
I kept shooting until I was happy with the dancers’ movements at 5:54pm.
Bill, a Photoshop master, then worked up the base shot of the dancers and grabbed the right hand portion of the earlier frame with the sky, bus and street, and finessed the straight lines from the building.
The final image was all I had hoped and imagined on those rides home with students dancing in the Cube in my mind.