Fuel for the imagination in Jack Mitchell’s photos

There’s a photo somewhere of a circle of little ballerinas hovering over a magazine, its pages opened to a photo of a dancer in action.

Renee Chatelain is in this photo that may have been taken by her mother. Or a friend’s mom.

She doesn’t provide the details or who, when or where, because that really doesn’t matter. The magazine photo was the most important thing at the time. It was taken by Jack Mitchell, and even this group of little dancers knew his name.

And they hoped that maybe, just maybe, this photographer of dancers would one day photograph them.

This was before YouTube made every dancer performance available on the Internet, long before photos could be snapped with a phone.

“All we had were Jack Mitchell’s photographs,” Chatelain says. “We’d sit there and memorize every part of those pictures. And when I danced, I wanted the flow of my costume to be the same as that in the photograph.”

  • Chatelain grew up to become a professional dancer. She’s now director of the Manship Theatre, whose gallery is featuring the work of her favorite photographer in the exhibit, “The Jack Mitchell Collection.”

The Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts is hosting this traveling exhibit, which runs through June 30 in Baton Rouge.

Chatelain learned of the exhibit through her friend, Tony Walsh.

“He’s a director,” Chatelain says. “Tony knew Jack Mitchell, and he put this show together and currated it.”

Mitchell was the photographer for the American Ballet Theater for a decade and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for more than three decades.

  • Those were the photos Chatalain and her childhood friends emulated. Mitchell fueled their imaginations. He still does today.

“This is a photo of a young Paul Taylor dancing with Martha Graham, when she was still dancing,” Chatelain says, pointing to a photo near the beginning of the exhibit.

She’ll point out another later in the show, this one capturing Mikhail Barishnykov later in his career rehearsing Paul Taylor’s ballet, “Aureole.” One legend pays tribute to another.

The last photo shows Taylor later in his own career.

“The exhibit comes full circle,” Chatelain says.

And in between are other personalities he captured during a career that spanned more than 50 years. His most notable is a portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Ono sits in a director’s chair, while Lennon stands beside her, his arm draped on the back of the chair. Mitchell took the photo in his home studio a month before Lennon was murdered in December 1980. People magazine used the photos for the cover of its John Lennon Memorial edition.

Other portraits include actors Robin Williams, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Natalie Wood and Meryl Streep, playwright Tennessee Williams, film director Alfred Hitchcock and author Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

But the portrait of actor Al Pacino outshines them all. His wide smile is about to break into a laugh, projecting pure joy.

“When you look at Al Pacino, you think of his serious movie roles,” Chatelain says. “Some of them are sinister. You don’t think of him like this, and here he is with this big, happy smile. Jack Mitchell had a way of capturing people in a different way.”

Mitchell died in November at 85. He created 168 cover photographs for Dance Magazine.

  • EVENTS: The Gallery at the Manship Theatre has scheduled several special events coinciding with “The Jack Mitchell Collection:” At 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. June 5, “The Stories Behind the Photographs” by curator Tony Walsh of the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts at St. Johns River State College. There will be a slide show and lecture in the Manship Theatre, followed by a personalized tour of the exhibit in the gallery at 2 p.m. The 6:30 p.m. lecture will be followed by a live performance created by choreographer Mina Estrada in the gallery. This new piece is inspired my Jack Mitchell’s work. Each program is free for Manship Theatre members and $5 for nonmembers. Estrada’s dance will be performed again on June 12 in the gallery.