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Our Favorite Arts Photos of 2021

These are the pictures that defined an unpredictable year across the worlds of art, music, dance and performance.

By Laura O’Neill, Jolie Ruben and Jessie Wender

A crush of vaccinated fans pumping their wristbanded hands in the air as rock music returned to Madison Square Garden after 460 days. A masked standing ovation as “Hadestown” became one of the first musicals back on Broadway. A sweaty, pulsing Brooklyn party — social, not distanced.

It was a year of reopenings, with an almost palpable darkness-to-light feeling in its giddier moments, many of which were captured by photographers for The New York Times.

There were revelatory portraits: a regal André De Shields taking a break from “King Lear”; the pioneering conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady getting her first retrospective at age 86; the provocative artist and performer Martine Gutierrez on the streets of New York City; Daniel Craig just as his license to kill was expiring.

There were ambitious statements: Asian and Asian American photographers explored what love looks like in a time of hate. And there were some images that simply mesmerized or delighted: a horseback ride in California, steam clouding Lower Manhattan, a snail named Velveeta surrounded by miniature groceries.

Now — as 2021 ends dimly, with our photographers once more adjusting their apertures to the circumstances — let’s look back at some of the powerful images from a year to remember. MICHAEL COOPER

I was looking for moments that showed the everyday dance of life, in and out of the theater.

— Sabrina Santiago on photographing New York City Ballet dancers’ preparations for returning to the stage

I wanted to illustrate the ways in which life, though often obscured by the manufactured landscape, always surfaces, adapting and moving forward.

— George Etheredge on photographing Lower Manhattan

A red sports car with the vanity plate “FASTER” roared up. My assistant and I exchanged a look and laughed. It couldn’t possibly be the subject of our shoot. A lanky man in a T-shirt and jeans with two pens in the pocket exited the car. “You’re the photographer,” he said. “You’re Stephen King,” I replied.

— Philip Montgomery on meeting Stephen King

Her physiology began a metamorphosis; her body began to elongate and stretch; bones seemed to bend as her eyes went wide. Her posture lurched forward as she conjured a series of screams and howls. It was both fantastic and confounding that the vessel that I met with only minutes before could be the home for such dread.

— Erik Tanner on witnessing Shamia Diaz’s transformation into character

What is freedom? Will we continue to prioritize celebrity over neighbor or are we capable of bridging this gap?

— Chloe Pang on photographing supporters of Britney Spears outside a courthouse in Los Angeles

Since there is no way to train a snail, at least that we know of, we have to be willing to let them move at their own speed. We sometimes try to entice a snail with cucumber juice or sweet potato, but so often it comes down to a snail’s own curiosity and what they naturally gravitate toward.

— Aleia Murawski on working with gastropods

I loved talking to Annie about photography, motherhood and the creative process. I almost forgot I was there to make a photograph.

— Gillian Laub on photographing Annie Leibovitz

She was fine art on a gallery wall. I remember taking a few test shots then showing her before photographing on film — her response: “Ohhhh, I look GOOOOD!”

— Lelanie Foster on photographing Lorraine O’Grady

I had shot this portrait of Daniel Craig in February of 2020, right before the pandemic started. He was a dream, incredibly present and charming, and became even more endearing when we got to talking about our kids, who are the same age. The article finally came out this past September, and it was only then did I really register that I had photographed JamesBond.

— Devin Oktar Yalkin on photographing Daniel Craig

Sandra set the music to “rap” and then they both jumped around the studio laughing and giggling. I said, “Close your eyes, don’t move, put your heads together — don’t laugh,” and this was the outcome.

— Charlie Gates on photographing Amanda Peet and Sandra Oh

He was generous with his time so we spent a couple of hours wandering along a cliff edge, occasionally stopping to take photos. I liked the idea of creating something dynamic in the pictures so asked him, fairly simply, if he would fall over.

— Robbie Lawrence on photographing Benedict Cumberbatch on a blustery day along the English coast

The dancers and I co-created these images to bring visual medicine and spaces of healing to areas named after presidents who counted on our extermination.

— Tomás Karmelo Amaya on photographing Indigenous Enterprise

Six hours of Wagner? I was intrigued. As a photographer, it afforded me the breathing room to slow down and explore how such a long production affected many facets behind the scenes.

— Todd Heisler on documenting the Met Opera’s staging of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”

You haven’t experienced real sound if you don’t feel like your eyes are going to pop out of your sockets.

— Josefina Santos on capturing New York City’s notorious music machines

He led the group as he would a band, giving gentle direction from the front, trusting others would follow suit in their own time.

— Cole Wilson on photographing David Byrne

I was preparing our next setup when all of a sudden he grinned and asked if I’d like to photograph him jumping on his trampoline. He immediately ran to it, and my assistant and I had to grab our gear and rush over. There was so much joy and freedom in his movements; he was flying.

— Maggie Shannon on photographing Zack Snyder

Ilana was on the precipice of several big things in her life, and I wanted to visualize that transformation.

— Justin J Wee on photographing Ilana Glazer

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