Finding Stillness in Parkour
An interview between Journal Editor Kathryn Luckstone and commercial photographer James Starkman on his exhibit Let Go: Moment in Movement, on view through March 17th in the Furman Gallery of the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center.Firstly, what is Parkour?
Parkour is a way of moving, originally taught in the French army to efficiently get from one place to another without wasting energy. Talking about Parkour now and what it is in New York, I’d say it’s an urban movement. Young people are taking the movements from Parkour, like jumping and vaulting and using it instead as a way to express themselves.
How did you begin photographing them?
I never set out to shoot Parkour. It just so happened that I was discovering Parkour and I went to follow these guys and found what they were doing interesting. I can’t say that my photos represent the movement in general. As I started to follow them, it became apparent how much of the process is mental, not just physical. That’s what got me interested in capturing them in moments that revealed their mental state rather than just the moves.
Can you discuss the selection process for the photos that became the exhibit?
There were definitely some key images I knew expressed what I wanted to convey. Walking into the gallery I had to determine what kind of journey I wanted the viewer to take. I wanted to frame moments of kinetics. I wanted to create an arc about grappling urban obstacles, releasing into flight and some images that reveal how its all done.
I noticed the images not only display the full body of your subject but also include a lot of the environment. Can you talk about your composition choices?
I realized early on that getting tight shots of them became very unrealistic in the final product. It was important to include the landscape for a few reasons: One, because you can see their shadows and how far they are off the ground. With all of the photo software out there, it was important to me to show that they weren’t digitally placed in those positions. Two, I wanted to incorporate my knowledge of shooting angles and the urban landscape, so that they became contrast points to the artists. It also makes you aware that we’re in a landscape that could threaten us at any moment and to see these Parkour artists with their heads inches off the ground and in a state of bliss is their way of overcoming the elements. Allowing the viewer to see the mind space of a person who is risking a lot is something I really tried to capture.
Considering the spontaneity of Parkour, what was your process for capturing the moments that you did?There was no choreographic plan. A lot of times we’d arrive at a location and they would say what they were thinking of doing there. What I tried to do was compose what they wanted to do, in the frame, so I could try to tell a story and highlight different characters. Even though they have done performances, I was not shooting a performance. Some of them, I’d ask to move closer or farther from the camera, like the images on the roof, and other times they came completely serendipitously.
To some, having an art exhibit of an extreme sport as part of a dance film festival seems unlikely. Can you talk about Parkour’s performance qualities?
I think that’s why DFA and others were interested in having this exhibit because it was stretching the envelope of this urban movement turning into an artistic movement. As an artistic movement, it makes its viewers riveted and people can find metaphors and stories in it just as with other dance forms. Nadia Lesy, who is the choreographer of the group, really had that vision. She’s done a few stage shows with them and after seeing her use of their talents, I knew the movements would lend themselves well to a photographic display. There is so much repetitive, aesthetically pleasing and beautiful moments in Parkour that most people don’t notice. In the purest moments you can see that they just let go of the restraints of their environment, which is one of the reasons I called this show Let Go.What happens to the exhibit now?
I have a much larger library; we had to keep it to sixteen pieces for this exhibit so I’m hoping to move it to other galleries. I have had requests for other museums in two cities in Canada and hopefully a few locations in Berlin. I’d like to expand it a bit more as well. I really like the effect it has on people. This one guy came into the gallery and said, “I can only say one thing, this exhibit was life affirming.” That made me feel good. I go back to the images to feel the same way.
James Starkman is a New York based photographer.
For more information on James Starkman’s workNadia Lesy’s short film FROM ROOSEVELT TO BROOKLYN will run at The Big Screen Project. For screening times