Variations on a Theme


During a recent weekend getaway to Toronto, we saw the traveling Cirque du Soleil show “Totem“. This was our sixth Cirque show  –  we are ardent fans of the magical, breathtaking theatre that is the Cirque du Soleil experience.

My favorite act was the fixed trapeze duo. A young man and woman intertwined their bodies in a lighhearted vertical dance of fresh, unusual movements and lifts. I was mesmerized by the infinite variety of their movements; their astounding grace and strength and athleticism. The playful yet sensual interaction between them as they twisted and twined, defying gravity.

It is amazing to me how many variations they were able to create from the same three elements – a boy, a girl,  a trapeze. It was seemingly endless, the beauty of their form and movement. High above the crowd, costumes glittering and sparkling within the spotlight’s circle,  I was in awe of the exceptional creativity of their dance on high.

Of course, my words will not do their act justice – Cirque is a sensory experience that exceeds my meager writing talents. But what I wanted to impart is the lesson that I took away from the experience.

That there are endless ways to capture our vision. An infinite number of options. That we need to continue looking, seeing deeper. Not to stop after one or two shots.

So many times, I forget this: to seek all the variations on the theme. To look further than the obvious. To engage with my subject on the deepest level and discover the full variety of ways that I can capture it.

Unlike many digital photographers who take hundreds of shots, I am frequently guilty of not taking enough. It is one thing to shoot with intention – it is another to merely skim the surface, to avoid digging deeper.

After all, what if the Cirque duo had stopped after creating a single new lift? If they hadn’t been willing to explore the boundaries of movement and interaction? If they had been satisfied with a single innovation instead of pushing the envelope of motion?

Another Toronto highlight was our visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frank Gehry, who Vanity Fair labeled “the most important architect of our age”, transformed the AGO. One of the iconic elements of his redesign is the spiraling sculptural staircase that soars upwards from the second floor.

I wanted to capture the thrilling, undulating beauty of Gehry’s design. And yet, I merely scratched the surface. Three photos that made the cut.

And while I could argue quality versus quantity, I know in my heart that I failed. I stopped too soon.

And so, from now on, my challenge to myself is to be a Cirque performer. To push my limits. To take a step beyond. To seek all variations on the theme, each time I pick up my camera.



Posted on September 30, 2011, in Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. We’ve had the privilege of attending just one Cirque du Soleil performance and, as you say, it was an amazing, almost overwhelming, experience.

    Thanks for the lesson you share here in this post. I don’t even scratch the surface of fully exploring a subject, so this was a good reminder.

    • Wanda,
      Yes, a Cirque show is rather a privelege, isn’t it? How the performers and artists share their astounding feats and creativity with the rest of us? When we took the family to see “Mystere” in Vegas, my son (not known for his love of anything “artsy”) commented after the show – “that was the greatest thing I have every seen!” This from a teenager, no less, who are virtually unimpressable.

      I just hope that I can take this lesson to heart and not fall back to my “skimming” ways.

  2. I’ve always wanted to see the Cirque du Soleil but haven’t had the opportunity yet. What an amazing show it must be. Those images are stunning, I think quality is definitley your forte, I tend to be someone to has to take what seems like hundreds of shots to get a few good ones. Hopefully I’ll improve on that over time.

    • Kathryn,
      When I am in the midst of shooting, I have the internal impression that I have taken SO many shots of a particular subject – only to find during review that in reality I only took a couple. There is a definite disconnect between thought and action here. And I could just kick myself for the shots that I didn’t take while visiting the wonderful city of Toronto. Part of it is that I am not a very good “tourist” photographer. When I am shooting, I need to be alone and in “seeing” mode. I don’t feel comfortable making my husband wait (even though he is completely supportive and patient). Ah, well – guess we will just have to go back!

      And you must see a Cirque show.

  3. I can’t see how that top photo in particular could possibly be part of anything classified a failure. It is mesmerizing, looking like it is emerging and receding at the same time, almost Escher-esque. Awesome.

    • Corinna,
      You are right – the photos that I did capture I am very proud of – what I regret are the photos not taken. When presented with an opportunity to photograph a Gehry-designed spiral staircase, one should take full advantage of the opportunity. And I do recognize the tendency in myself to stop too soon with my explorations. There were many more perspectives that I missed of this glorious staircase – we won’t even talk about the rest of the building.

  4. What fantastic abstracts!! Love how you’ve seen and captured Gehry’s creation..and transformed it into your own.

    • Marcie,
      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! There was so much more that I could have done with this architectural wonder and I wish that I had explored it further – I don’t like having regrets about the shots not taken. Next time.

  5. Oh, what gorgeous images! I am a sucker for spirals, so the first one gets an A + in my book. How wonderful to get such a creative jolt from the Cirque show! (It’s been on my bucket list for a few years, so I am very jealous!) Thank you for sharing your lesson learned: we all need to stretch ourselves and try new things, so we can grow as artists.

    • Gina,
      I am a sucker for spirals as well – that was one of the amazing things about this staircase – you could really experience it’s “spiralness” from so many perspectives. And you must keep Cirque on your bucket list – it is definitely something that everyone should experience at least once, just for the sheer creativity of it.

  6. I LOVE that first photo. It looks like the inside of a seashell…one of my favorite subjects. 🙂 Of course, you know yourself best, what’s in your heart and mind. But from my perspective, it seems like you’re being a bit too hard on yourself. I do understand the frustration of reviewing images and thinking, “Oh, I wish I had tried….” or “I should have….” There will always be other angles, different light, deeper explorations. You capture things I don’t even see! Your images make me want to look deeper, too.

    • Lee,
      ME…be hard on myself? Oh, that NEVER happens 🙂 But I think you have expressed what I was feeling – that there were so many other shots, so many other perspectives that I regret not taking. It would be different if this was something in my hometown that I could revisit at will and continue my explorations. But I have recognized a tendency in myself to take a couple of shots and move on. But experience has shown me that there is always more to see and I want to remind myself to keep looking deeper.

  7. These photos are stunning! And you’ve shared such great insights into the creative process.
    It’s not always possible to just keep on taking photos- especially when not alone- sometimes it’s just good to be in the moment and share it with who you’re with rather that always trying to capture it.
    I think you’ve done an amazing job with the photos that you have taken.

    • Leanne,
      I have learned that, for me, photography is a solo endeavor – being a tourist, spending time with my husband, is just not conducive to taking great photos. And you are right – I also don’t want to forgo those enjoyments in order to “get the shot”. But at the same time, I do need to fight against my very strong tendency to stop too soon in my image-making, to be in too much of a hurry to move on to the next thing.

      And one can pretty much be guaranteed of a good shot when presented with a Gehry-designed spiral staircase as the subject – I give him the majority of the credit for the success of these photos.

  8. I love that first photo so much, as other readers have also mentioned. So lovely!
    What you say here about going deeper and playing with the variations applies to writing so well. I will keep it in mind as I work my way through more revisions.

    • Lisa,
      I am always so gratified to learn that my words provide a small lesson for your creative writing life. Wishing you successful revisions.

  9. I love how your image worked so beautifully with the description of the Cirque show and trapeze artists. But it was the image that stopped me in my tracks, as I was at the AGO this summer, and also photographed this staircase. I only had a minute because I was with other people, so couldn’t do it justice, but I agree that the possibilities are infinite.

    I also wanted you to know that I have directed the participants in my online class to your Flickr set on shadows, as we were spending the week noticing light.

    • Kim,
      Oh, so you know first hand what an incredible building it is! Stunning, yes? While I am happy with the photos that I did take, I regret those that I did not. Definitely someplace that I want to return to in the future.

      And I am simply floored that you are using my shadow studies as a class example. I am honored – thanks for letting me know.

  10. You know how when you read something and it vibrates all the way through you? Well, your “variations on a theme” has done that to me. I had to pop over here and read it again. I’ve only been to one Cirque performance so far but I remember being overwhelmed with what the human body is capable of. Your analogy is so strong. Thank you for linking back to this post and for your passion.

I greatly appreciate your comments!

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