March 4, 2014 at 11:25 AM ET
When New York City-based photographer Dane Shitagi first started taking pictures of ballerinas 14 years ago, the backdrop was quite a bit different than the one he uses today.
"I first photographed a ballerina in a waterfall in Hawaii back in 1994," Shitagi told TODAY.com, of the original inspiration for what would become "The Ballerina Project."
When he moved to the city a few years later, he brought the spirit of his project to his new, grittier surroundings.
"I came up with the idea of creating a project based upon the same principles: a beautiful ballerina in harmony with her environment," he says. "In Hawaii it was a waterfall, and in New York City it has been in this concrete jungle."
Shitagi has now amassed a huge collection of beautiful ballerina photographs, and at an average of 40 photo shoots per year, his venture is massive.
"If you are passionate about something it is never really work," he says. "A lot of effort is put into the shoots, but with experience it (is) easier to be more efficient."
He mostly works with professional ballerinas, both retired and currently working, though he also occasionally works with advanced students.
Over the years, these photo shoots have made him a bigger fan of dance, and he's come to have a deeper understanding of his subjects and where he wants to take the project.
"The better I understand the dancer I'm working with, the better evolved the images we create," he says. "After a while, I'll know a particular dancer's strengths and personality. We both understand each other and know how to create together."
Each photograph's location is carefully chosen, and many other factors are also at play. "Obviously the most important element are the ballerinas, but timing is the next vital element," Shitagi said. "When we shoot will affect the lighting and ultimately the mood." Shooting in Manhattan in the morning, for example, offers two bonuses: beautiful light and empty locations.
All of Shitagi's subjects have so far been female dancers, he says, because he believes in specializing in one thing. "I have considered photographing male dancers, but after spinning the idea it would be necessary to create a whole new project for the best fit," he says. "I personally feel it is important to specialize rather than attempting to photograph everything."
The project currently spans five areas — New York, Boston, Toronto, Miami, and Hawaii — and Shitagi plans to continue to expand and add more cities.
"Looking at art online will always pale in comparison to experiencing the work in person," he said. "Purchasing a print is not only the best way to experience our work but is also an important component with keeping the project creating new images and moving forward."