Header Image: Grace Curry © Morna Freitas Photography
Miguel Morna Freitas, a native of Madeira Island, Portugal, is a Chicago-based photographer with a close relationship to ballet. As the father of a professional dancer, Morna Freitas understands the importance of excellent photos - not only for auditions, but also as an expression of beauty and passion.
In partnership with Sara Bibik, former founding dancer at River North Dance Chicago and program director at DanceWorks Chicago, Morna Freitas co-founded an initiative to create fine art dance photos featuring dancers of color. Skin Tones: Classical Ballet Positions | A Fine Art Portrait Guide was created to combat the outdated, traditional European ideals commonly reflected in dance posters and portraits found on the walls of many dance studios across America.
We asked Miguel to share with us a bit about his background and about his photography process both inside and outside of the studio, as well provide some insight into what goes into taking the perfect headshot! (Including his secret to capturing the attention of potential company and school directors at auditions - without them even realizing why!)
Hi Miguel! Thanks for joining us today. Can you start by sharing a bit about your background in and around the dance world?
I have been a dance parent for over 20 years. All my three kids danced since a very young age, and my oldest daughter, Clara, is now a professional dancer. I understand how much work dancers put in every day to pursue their passion, stay healthy, or patiently recover from injury to come back stronger. It is the commitment, talent and joy I see in dancers that I always strive to bring to each of my sessions. I also understand firsthand the financial, time, and emotional commitments that every dance parent makes in support of their dancers' happiness and well-being.
How exactly did you get into photography in the first place?
I was born and raised in Madeira Island, Portugal, and came to Chicago at 17 to study at Loyola University where I graduated with a degree in computer science and math. I also took a number of photography courses and always carried a camera with me wherever I traveled.
With 20+ years of a successful corporate career, in the fall of 2010, I decided to fully pursue my passion in photography. Loving the outdoors, I started by going on many sunrise and sunset walks - mostly at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and focusing on nature photography. I then started capturing dance poses and action shots while incorporating them with nature. I also started partnering up with The Academy of Dance Arts in the western suburbs of Chicago (where my kids danced) and captured their recital performances. One thing led to another and I started renting their state-of-the-art dance studios for my own photo sessions, which I still do today across a number of dance studios.
A milestone in my photography pursuits was a dance photography workshop I attended at Lois Greenfield’s studio in New York City in the spring of 2016. We had a small group of photographers from across the U.S. and Europe and got to work with an amazing set of professional dancers. Lois is a phenomenal artist and teacher with a distinguished 40+ year photographic career. She has been the inspiration for and the foundation of the approach I use in my dance photography work. I have also completed Master Classes in Portraiture Photography with two of today’s foremost American photographers based in Chicago: Sandro Miller and Paul Elledge.
I believe in continuing education and a professional community. Thus, I’m a member and Certified Professional Photographer (CPP) with the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) association.
We know that you’re the dad of a wonderful dancer. How does being the father of a dancer and knowing the in’s and out’s of the industry influence your photography and sessions?
I call Clara “MY favorite dancer, model, assistant”. She has been an inspiration and a wonderful dancer photo assistant for many of my sessions over the years. Being a dance parent but not a dancer, I always strive to hire and work with a photo assistant for my sessions who is also an advanced or professional dancer. This is especially valuable when working with younger, aspiring dancers, many of them doing their first professional photo shoot or getting ready for their first set of auditions. It truly is a collaboration between the dancer, myself and my assistant.
In my studio sessions, I shoot wirelessly to a large tablet which also provides the opportunity for immediate feedback and corrections, if needed. This way, the dancer knows that leaving the photoshoot, we have captured a number of images they love and are not left wondering afterwards, “If we only could have or should have tried this one more thing...”
I quickly learned from Clara that I may have the best lighting or timing for capturing an image, but we only have a true photo when the dancer loves everything about the image. I can easily tell by their reaction to the last image that just landed on the tablet. Practice makes perfect, and sometimes we do have to work hard and take a few photos before we get the image we all love.
Practice makes perfect, and sometimes we do have to work hard and take a few photos before we get the image we all love.
It gives me goosebumps every time we collaborate to achieve a certain position or action shot, and I see the dancer’s smile or hear their joyous reaction as they take in the photo displayed on the tablet and fully realize what we just created together. Clara’s experience with auditions and teaching also provides valuable insight - especially during audition photoshoots.
In addition to dance, what other things do you like to photograph?
My work has now evolved, and my specialties are fine art portraits (in dance and the performing arts), as well as senior and family portraiture. I work both outdoors, as I love incorporating my landscape photography skills with the talent being photographed, as well as in-studio where I have complete control over my creative lighting approach. I also do a lot of headshots and life-style portraiture, not only for auditions, but also for corporate, social media, and personal branding.
What kind of photographs are you most passionate about?
My passion is capturing movement and working with talent. I achieve this by the use of lighting (in the studio, a short flash duration is what freezes the movement) and anticipating the right moment to click my shutter release cable.
Capturing and freezing the movements of gymnasts, dancers, and figure skaters along with incorporating fine art lighting (including color gels, flowy costumes, and fabrics) are all aspects I truly enjoy in my work. I think of my style as clean, classic and, above all, created in camera. I’m not a fan of Photoshop as it comes to final composites. You will never see unicorns in my images.
I also love creating fine art prints. As a portrait artist, especially in today’s digital world driven by social media, there is nothing more rewarding than holding a fine art mounted print or looking through a printed album of one’s session photos. Many of my clients also order their photos as keepsake wall art, either as individual prints or collections, to celebrate their dancer or decorate their home with family portraits.
You mentioned earlier that you were born in Portugal! Do you think your international perspective influences your photography style or eye, and if so, how?
Very much, I think. Born and raised in a beautiful Portuguese sub-tropical island, I have always been attracted to color, water, and nature. I enjoy looking for the best light in every location and, of course, I also do a lot of scouting so I know where the light and best locations are at different times of the year.
Portuguese folkloric dance is known for its beautiful costumes filled with color and, many times, gorgeous jewelry. I’m also a big fan of Spanish flamenco dancers and their costumes, as well as Brazilian samba dancers and music. I have not had the opportunity to work with such dancers while living in the U.S., but that is, certainly, an area that, time permitting, I would like to explore. There are several local dance companies with whom I would like to connect. After all, my tagline is, “Photography with an accent”.
What advice can you give dancers to help them #FeelGoodDanceBetter during a photoshoot?
We spend a bit of time planning the session ahead of time. Both from a perspective of what shots are needed, as well as ideas dancers may have or things they would like to try, based on what they most like about my work and style.
As a team, we review outfit options and changes. Obviously, flowy costumes and loose hair augmented by fabrics and lighting all lend themselves to creating beautiful dance images. I ask them to arrive early to have time to get situated, as well as stretch and warm up as needed so we can maximize the photo shoot time together. It's no different from what they already do before a class or performance, as it helps them get focused and prevent injuries during more strenuous posing or action shots. This is another reason I rent and shoot in state-of-the-art dance studios with professional flooring and plenty of space.
I then give them an overview of the session starting with headshots and the different backdrops and fabrics I have available, so I can start understanding what they are most excited about trying first. We don’t have unlimited time, so prioritizing some looks and action shots is important so we can still have plenty of time for creativity but not lose sight of the main goals for the session.
I always tell the dancer that if we are trying something they are not as passionate about as I am, to just let me know, and we can then move on to other ideas. For longer sessions, bringing water and a light snack is always encouraged, as we take a few short breaks during outfit and/or lighting/backdrop changes.
What are your top tips for taking a good headshot for auditions, professional bios, etc.?
I always encourage simple, light makeup - not stage makeup. I ask them to arrive with their preferred hairstyle for the headshot, whether it is with the hair down or up in a bun. We work on expression, posing, and especially the eyes. It is a cliche but the eyes are the window of the soul. Thus, capturing a joyful or focused look is essential.
It is a cliche but the eyes are the window of the soul. Thus, capturing a joyful or focused look is essential.
We work with lighting, including reflectors, to enhance the eyes with catchlights that lead the viewer at an audition to subconsciously be engaged with the dancers eyes/expression.
A professional headshot can certainly help you stand out and create a good first impression. I have had dancers share with me that they received compliments when checking in at an audition based on the headshot print they were presenting.
That's an amazing testament to your work! Do you have any other guidance for dancers taking audition photos?
I ask the dancers to be sure they understand the individual requirements that each audition may have in regards to the look, dancewear, or specific poses. Do they state the color of the background or have a list of required poses?
Audition photos can be a little stressful because we are looking for proper technique and good lines. As we work together, including with my dancer assistant, to create good audition shots, I remind them to not forget to also relax and show joy in what they are doing.
In dance photography, you shoot from a low angle. That is sometimes a new approach for the dancer, as they need to understand that their movement or pose may need to be adjusted in order to look good from the camera position and in a two-dimensional image.
What is something you always tell dancers when they come into the studio for a photoshoot with you?
Especially when working with a dancer for the first time, I make them feel at ease and tell them that our time together is all about them. We are there to collaborate, enjoy the process, and make them feel special and excited. That doesn’t mean it will always be easy, and many of them find out that creating stunning dance images takes work and sometimes a few tries. Modeling is hard work but always fun in my sessions.
We usually start with headshots as a good way to warm up and become familiar with my directing and approach. I remind them that I’m always fully vested in working hard for them, not only in creating beautiful images, but also in making the experience a supportive and encouraging one with many joyful and rewarding moments ahead.
What is the biggest challenge of doing an outdoor shoot? Do you have any advice for dancers interested in taking photos outside?
Well, being in Chicago and living in the Midwest, the biggest challenge is certainly the weather with rain, thunderstorms, and wind often in the forecast! I half-jokingly say that there are only ten perfect days a year in Chicago, and I better be shooting outdoors during those! Obviously, one thing I love the most is that we do get four seasons, which offers a variety of different shooting opportunities and ideas.
Outdoor shoots are a lot of fun but do require planning. From bringing an old, comfortable pair of shoes to move between locations, to a jacket so you don’t get too cold, to plenty of mosquito repellent depending on the season. Most of my sessions include outfit changes, so I bring along a pop up tent in order for dancers to quickly change in privacy.
Another suggestion for different looks is using layers and/or favorite personal props such as hats, scarves, etc.
Another suggestion for different looks is using layers and/or favorite personal props such as hats, scarves, etc. A lot of my work is about capturing movement, so in my longer, creative sessions I also bring my large fabrics, which always make for some challenging captures outdoors - depending on how strong the wind is.
It sounds like there are a lot of factors and uncontrollable elements to consider! Do you have any funny stories that have happened during an outdoor shoot?
Oh, there are plenty of funny stories... a couple come to mind. Clara and I were shooting one late afternoon in my native home, Madeira Island, with these beautiful cliffs and the ocean in the background. Suddenly, I see a man approaching her and asking if his wife could take a photo of him with the stunning dancer. As I looked away from the viewfinder, there was his wife standing right next to me saying, “Peter always does that everywhere he goes." Turns out they were visiting from Liverpool, U.K., and Peter even tried to strike a dance pose with Clara’s guidance.
Another was during a photoshoot in downtown Wheaton (a Western Chicago Suburb) where the dancer was wearing this beautiful, long yellow gown. We were in a small ground level parking lot, behind some of the businesses, using this colorful loading dock door as a frame for the photo composition. Suddenly, I started hearing a group of people behind me shouting, “are you a Disney Princess? Are you Belle?” Unbeknownst to us, it was Beer Fest weekend, and there was a group of couples cutting through the parking lot as they visited different locations around downtown. The dancer, a true performer, kept her utmost cool and pose and simply smiled, as it was all done in good fun.
Can you tell us more about your recent project, Skin Tones: Classical Ballet Positions | A Fine Art Portrait Guide? (Of which PointePeople is a proud sponsor!)
Yes, this is a project that I am extremely proud and excited to be a part of. The mission of the Skin Tones Ballet project is to broaden the look of classical ballet and recognize all hues of humanity. Through my daughter, Clara, I met Sara Bibik, a former founding dancer at River North Dance Chicago and program director at DanceWorks Chicago. Over the years, and as a ballet teacher working across Chicagoland, Sara saw the lack of role models for children of color within the walls of her studios. All of the images reflected the European white aesthetic that has served for so many years as the standard in classical ballet.
For years, Sara had been sitting on the idea of a project she wanted to do, and I had the skills to help her do it. The confluence of meeting me, the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement inspired Sara to propose that together, she and I produce Skin Tones, a fine art portrait guide. I loved the idea from the start; thus, Sara and I co-founded Skin Tones: Classical Ballet Positions | A Fine Art Portrait Guide.
We started working on the project last summer with weekly Zoom meetings, as we first reached out to a number of potential sponsors. As an existing partner and photographer of the product images on PointePeople's website, I immediately thought of Paige and Kunal, PointePeople's co-founders, who have been leaders in this effort by already providing matching skin tone paint for dancer's shoes for the past few years! Sara and I have been so inspired by all the sponsors' enthusiasm and generosity in support of our project.
After a dancer/model call in December and Zoom callbacks in early January, we were able to host a two-day photoshoot at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts black box theater (another one of our generous sponsors) with ten professional dancers - six women and four men - who reflect a range of skin tones in Chicago. We thought it was imperative to pay our dancers, as the effects of the pandemic on working artists were imminent. Our sponsors augmented that commitment by providing dancewear (Ballet Rosa), ballet shoes (Allegro Dance Boutique), performance costumes (OCDivas Designs) and, of course, skin tone matching Pointe Paint from PointePeople. Also, we could not have come this far without our ongoing fundraising efforts and the many donors who so kindly have contributed to our project.
Now that the photos are taken, we are thrilled with the results and the feedback we have received from each dancer on what it means to be part of the project and the overall, collaborative photoshoot experience. We are working diligently on selecting and finalizing the images so that we can move into final production. We plan to offer fine art print collections as well as posters, which will all be made for sale to dance studios and aficionados of the art of ballet. This will allow us to reach our goal of providing and inspiring ballet lovers and teachers with educational fine art prints featuring dancers of all skin tones performing classical ballet positions.
I invite you to visit our website at skintonesballet.com to learn more about the project, as well as meet our ten wonderful dancers. Please consider contributing by making a donation and sharing the project with your family and friends to help us bring it to fruition by summer 2021.
How can dancers book a session with you?
It is best to reach me by phone or email, but I also have a Contact form on the website. Social media direct messaging also works.
Header Image: Grace Curry © Morna Freitas Photography