How We Looked at the Arts This Year: Our Favorite Photographs

How We Looked at the Arts This Year: Our Favorite Photographs

We want art to transport us, to take us beyond ourselves and the stubborn gravity of our lives. That’s one lesson from the selection of exceptional arts photography below, all commissioned or published by our photo editors this year. Memorable subjects like the actor Mark Hamill, the acrobat Elena Gatilova and the professional wrestler Jinder Mahal used their particular gifts to open portals to other worlds, resurrecting Luke Skywalker, making poetry out of aerial performance or conquering the WWE in the process.

But that’s not all. The best artists can stir up deep feelings and remind us what it means to be human. And so it was with Nicole Kidman. Photographed for The Times with a mischievous smile, she played a wife and mother pushed to her limit in “Big Little Lies.” And Kumail Nanjiani, whose breakthrough performance in “The Big Sick” made theatergoers laugh and cry and return their mothers’ phone calls. Our photographers framed his pouty mug against a radiant wall of bougainvillea.

What else? In these times, fresh perspectives are in demand — new eyes with which to see and get to know the world. The visual artists JR and Sheena Rose got the memo. JR, photographed next to the Mexican border, erected a sculpture there of a child peering over a metal barrier into the United States; Ms. Rose, who donned a shimmering, prismatic veil in her portrait, made art that reframed her native Barbados as more than a torrid tourist’s escape.

In another photo in this collection, of Bruce Springsteen behind the wheel of a vintage car, the viewer is deposited into the back seat, with the Boss glancing over his shoulder and staring directly into the camera lens. His expression is relaxed, conspiratorial, like that of a getaway driver before a heist or simply a veteran musician firing up the creative engine once more. That, of course, is another thing that art can do: give us the fuel we need to move forward.

CreditBrinson+Banks for The New York Times

“We have a habit of sticking people in flower bushes because Los Angeles is full of them. Kumail Nanjiani kindly obliged and made the bougainvillea part of his ensemble.”

— The photographer Kendrick Brinson

CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

“Look amongst yourselves. You’ll see people from all different races, with all different color faces. And that in itself is the power of music.”

— The Jamaican reggae musician Chronixx, left, performing in Brooklyn in July

CreditRyan Pfluger for The New York Times

“I never expect to be the one that everybody understands or likes.”

Angelina Jolie

CreditJohn Francis Peters for The New York Times

“I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Tecate, Mexico, but when I finally saw JR’s piece along the border, it was quite magical. We decided to hike a small hill for the shot, and I was able to make a few frames while he was walking in the landscape that he transformed into the surreal.”

— The photographer John Francis Peters

CreditElizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

Moses Sumney’s debut album, “Aromanticism,” examined the ways we idealize couples in love.

CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

“The stage floor is covered in dirt. As the masses of sweating, heavily breathing dancers — usually, but not always, separated by gender — punch themselves in the gut and kick up dust, the audience experience is like being close to a stampede. It’s live, visceral theater.”

— From our dance critic Brian Seibert’s review of “The Rite of Spring,” performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

“I wanted people to feel like they saw a Harlem that they can’t see.”

Kahlil Joseph, on his film “Fly Paper,” which had its debut at the New Museum in the fall

CreditNathan Bajar for The New York Times

“A lot of people think I’m crazy. I guess I kind of am. But I also know what’s best for me, and that’s more important than fame and money.”

Shamir, on why his latest album, “Revelations,” was a dramatic departure from his signature sound

CreditAndrew White for The New York Times

A classic car became a classical music instrument when the composer Ryoji Ikeda’s “A (for 100 Cars)” had its premiere in Los Angeles in October.

CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

“I was involved in a strange Red Cross drive … run by naughty nurses. I’m not sure it was entirely hygienic; a lot of fake blood ended up smeared on their hands and uniforms.”

— Our theater critic Jesse Green, on “Seeing You,” an interactive performance piece set in Hoboken, N.J., during World War II

CreditJessica Lehrman for The New York Times

Brooklyn Skate Club is the most magical, loving, fun, inspiring community of people. I’m so happy I got the opportunity to learn their stories and try to learn some of their moves on wheels — but so far I still haven’t gotten the whole going-forward-without-crashing move.”

— The photographer Jessica Lehrman

CreditGraham Walzer for The New York Times

“When Jean-Claude Van Damme rolled into his massive living room on his hoverboard, holding his Chihuahua, I knew it was going to be a good shoot. He was the one who suggested undressing and getting in the sauna. But when I asked him if he would do a kick for the camera, he said, ‘Oh, no, not the kick. The readers must pay to see that.’ ”

— The photographer Graham Walzer

CreditBryan Derballa for The New York Times

“I’ve worked with enough celebrities that I don’t get very star-struck. But Bruce Springsteen is something else altogether. As a huge fan, I was very aware of the significance of being in a cool old car with him. His early records reference cars a lot. Internally I was jumping up and down and grinning from ear to ear. But being a consummate professional, I was focused on the shot.”

— The photographer Bryan Derballa

CreditSarah Blesener for The New York Times

The photographer Sarah Blesener got a rare look behind a curtain call on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera while following the dancer Christine Shevchenko.

CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

“This was the second time I watched Ben Platt come offstage, and both times it was obvious he had given everything of himself in his performance, and there wasn’t much left on the table emotionally. I remember asking him to let everything go and imagine he was all alone, and we took photos as he sat in that chair for probably less than a minute.”

— Damon Winter, who photographed the star of the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen”

CreditPhoto illustration by Stephanie Gonot for The New York Times

The costumes for “The Handmaid’s Tale” are practically characters in themselves. So, fittingly, the show’s costume designer, Ane Crabtree, helped the photographer Stephanie Gonot style a shoot for a feature on the Hulu streaming series.

CreditNathan Bajar for The New York Times

“It was really naïve for me to think that it was a good idea to commission a 25-minute ballet.”

— The dancer Isabella Boylston, on the work she asked Gemma Bond to create for the Ballet Sun Valley festival, which had its debut in August

CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

“Shooting the Yayoi Kusama ‘Festival of Life’ exhibition actually turned out to be quite difficult, because of all the visitors hiding behind their smartphones. After a few minutes I managed to luck out, and this young girl wearing a perfect Kusama wig peaked through with more enthusiasm than anyone in the whole gallery — it was almost too good to be true.”

— The photographer Vincent Tullo

CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

“Looking at the past is like lolling in a rocking chair. It is so relaxing, and you can rock back and forth on the porch, and never go forward. It is not for me.”

— Martha Graham, whose works, including a shorter version of “Clytemnestra,” featuring PeiJu Chien-Pott, above, were performed in February by the dance company she founded in 1926

CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

For the opening of Building 6 at Mass MoCA this year, the “air-and-space magician” James Turrell created nine light-centered environments, which our art critic Roberta Smith described as “an elliptical mandala of colored light.”

CreditIke Edeani for The New York Times

“It’s a very beautiful portrayal of a life. The story is an African-American man who came from very humble beginnings, and who climbed to the top of the fashion world. And spent 48 years in the chiffon trenches.”

André Leon Talley, on Kate Novack’s documentary about him, “The Gospel According to André”

CreditM. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

“I hadn’t paid attention to wrestling since I was a kid, so I was flying blind going into the shoot. However, that allowed me to see it from a detached perspective. It was fascinating watching people so absorbed in something I knew nothing about. It was like being in the presence of celebrity, but not knowing it, somehow being immune to it.”

— The photographer M. Scott Brauer, who shot the WWE star Jinder Mahal

CreditValerie Chiang for The New York Times

“The day before our shoot, Carla Körbes and Janie Taylor, two former New York City Ballet dancers, performed a duet on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Tex. We shot this photo outside my hotel in the desert on the outskirts of town, where they did part of their dance routine for me.”

— The photographer Valerie Chiang

CreditSasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

“This was a dream assignment. As a Russian kid, ‘Swan Lake’ was ingrained into my DNA fairly early, although I didn’t truly appreciate it until later in life. This vantage point above the stage is one I had noticed when I first swooned over dance photographs, so it was really moving to find myself watching from what felt like a secret spot.”

— The photographer Sasha Arutyunova, who shadowed the dancer Claire Kretzschmar

CreditRyan Pfluger for The New York Times

The photographer Ryan Pfluger asked Nicole Kidman to take off her shoes for this shoot because she was so much taller than him — but it turned out she was actually wearing flats.

CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

“Circus 1903,” according to our theater critic Alexis Soloski, “asked audience members to daydream themselves back to the golden age of the circus.” Above, the former rhythmic gymnast Elena Gatilova enhanced that fantasy.

CreditPhilip Montgomery for The New York Times

“I photographed Alan Gilbert as his leadership of the New York Philharmonic was coming to a self-imposed end after eight tumultuous years. I wanted to create an image that not only offered readers a view of Mr. Gilbert in his natural environment, but one that could also convey the uncertainty of his legacy at the Philharmonic.”

— The photographer Philip Montgomery

CreditSasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

“Because this cathedral is human-made. It’s not just the scale of how big it is, but it’s more like people actually made this, and how did they do it? That is a history, and there is me again — this is me going not to the Japanese river, but to a totally different river, like the Amazon or something. I’m really an outsider.”

Eiko Otake, an artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan in early 2017

CreditJody Rogac for The New York Times

“Every day when I think I know something, the universe shows me that I need to learn another lesson.”

Katy Perry

CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times

“I was thinking those two were interesting because they were so dressed up to look like a singer who died before they were born. It said a lot to me about the strength of her fan community and her legacy over all.”

— Emily Berl, who photographed the fourth annual Selena Fan Gathering in Los Angeles

CreditBryan Derballa for The New York Times

“As soon as Jimmy Fallon climbed up onto the marquee, passersby spotted him and stopped cold. There were at least a hundred people gathered below, shouting his name. But it was up to me to direct him and hold his attention. Now I know why directors use megaphones.”

— The photographer Bryan Derballa

CreditRyan Pfluger for The New York Times

Sam Smith wanted to make a splash, so the photographer Ryan Pfluger had him jump in the pool.

CreditChad Batka for The New York Times

Chad Batka photographed Lil Peep in April, capturing this frame during the last song of the set, a cover of Blink-182’s “Dammit.” The rapper died in November, at age 21.

CreditTure Lillegraven for The New York Times

Our photo editor had a difficult time choosing among pictures of Mark Hamill and his dog.

CreditJulieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Dianne Wiest made the best of a bad situation in Theater for a New Audience’s production of “Happy Days,” by Samuel Beckett.

CreditJack McKain for The New York Times

“I realized there are some crazy violin players in Sudan and that most of their traditional music has strings in it. I was like, ‘Was this preordained?’ That actually got me more confident in playing the violin and doing my type of style, because I just saw a totally different, un-Western way of doing it.”

— The musician Sudan Archives, who released her self-titled debut EP in July

CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

“When it comes to a classic piece of repertoire, beauty counts — and that’s what the audience wants.”

— Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, where “Tosca” opens on Dec. 31

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