Photographer Zoe Litaker says that people kept asking her the same question at the recent launch of her photobook at the NC Dance Festival: “That’s in Durham?”

The response is understandable. The forty-three images in Durham Dances, which is available on Etsy in formats ranging from a $20 magazine to a $60 hardcover, range from Cristal Chinchayan’s Brazilian samba in a bamboo forest to Nicki Miller’s jagged gravity-defying jeté against equally kinetic downtown graffiti. Practitioners in ballet, hip-hop, Indian, belly, fire, modern, and tap dance interact with locales both familiar and obscure.

“Dance in Durham is a lot wider and more diverse than many people think it is,” Litaker says. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011, the Durham native sojourned with professional photographers in New York before she started photographing dancers in Seattle. Before returning to the area when her husband began graduate school at Duke in 2014, she worried if there would be any dance to shoot. Soon, she learned there was, and became one of the prime documentarians of Durham’s rich independent dance community.

INDY: What are you trying to achieve in your photography?

ZOE LITAKER: What’s really interesting to me about catching those moments, besides the challenge and excitement of working with great dancers, is creating something so permanent out of something so ephemeral. That’s kind of the crux of the matter; dance is such an illusory performative experience that catching it can’t do it justice.

But I feel that photography is a time machine. The ability to share a moment, a pause. It’s really an interesting conundrum: how you capture and convey that sense of movement and the exclusivity of the moment to people who aren’t there.

It’s a delicious tension: Dance photography involves capturing movement, but the moment you’ve captured it, it’s not movement anymore. It’s become something else.

That’s part of what drew me to it: the impossible challenge of capturing dance in a still image. In an art class with elin o’Hara slavick, one of the most interesting readings said that the photographer never sees what we’re photographing. I don’t even see that moment in time because the shutter is closed. I have to look back. I’m also in the dark until afterward.

How do you do what you do with these dancers?

It’s a real collaboration between me and the dancer. I love working on location; since it’s more spontaneous than controlled performance and studio settings, it can have more authenticity. We look at the space, the dancer’s shape reacts to the space as well, and we decide how we can mimic this and what we want to do.

But really, it’s letting the dancer do what they want with the space and not micromanaging. They know how their bodies work much better than me. I can request things, but I let them be themselves in the space. I think that allows me to capture something more true. Dancers tell me it makes me easier to work with than others.

What I respect most about dancers is that they’re brave and bold enough to use their bodies to tell their stories in front of a live audience. What’s braver than sharing work with your whole body?

What’s next?

I’ve been thinking of doing Durham Dances II because there are so many more dancers here; I feel I’ve just scratched the surface. And the North Carolina Dance Festival has suggested North Carolina Dances. I’m at a place where I’m like, “What the hell, let’s see how far we can run with it.”

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