My strange days with Merce Cunningham
by Judith Gefter
I was the official photographer for an art publication in Jacksonville, FL called Vue. The publisher, a man by the name of John Caliste, once worked for Carnegie Hall and got to know Merce Cunningham. He wanted to feature Merce’s company in a future issue of Vue. I had been photographing a great many ballet companies.
I knew that Merce Cunningham controlled almost every photograph done of his company.
John contacted Merce and was given permission for a few photographs to appear in his publication. I was to receive specific instructions directly from the master. I was told however that I had to have a silent camera shutter. In 1985, the only way to have a silent camera and still take the pictures was to dampen the sounds with insulating material wrapped around the instrument.
My quietest camera was a Leica rangefinder. This was not a camera I would choose to photograph the great dancers. I had only a 135 mm lens, hardly long enough for the work I wanted to do. I expected this assignment to become a nightmare.
I did have nightmares, as a matter-of-fact. During a sleepless night, a thought came to me. I would ask John and the magazine’s Art Director to accompany me.
The day came. John introduced me to the great man. The theatre was empty. The stage was prepared for rehearsal. In a perfunctory and offhand way, distracted, he issued commands.
“If I hear the shutter one time, you're out”.
My Leica was swathed in insulating materials. My finger, at the ready, sought the shutter button. We sat half way back in the peopleless hall, fearing the sound of a pin dropping. Merce began the first rehearsal without music.
He planted himself before the company. The warming up began. Wonderful picture possibilities presented themselves.
Petrified, seated between John and the AD, I kicked them both, gently. This became the signal for them to cough. The rehearsal photographs taught us that this device could work. So, I managed five rolls of usable film.