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The beauty and the barge workers

In her immaculate tutu, tiara, pearl earrings and dance shoes, the young ballerina poses for the camera on a grimy platform next to the dredging rig. In en pointe step, she balances herself on the tips of her toes, as muck-covered men stand around her, grinning.

Laguna Beach photographer Rob Gage took this picture of starkly contrasting subjects last October in Newport Harbor.

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"What I wanted to express was rough and smooth, hard and soft," Gage said.

The photo is one of three photographs of the ballerina in the company of dredging crew workers, which Gage is showing as part of his photographic exhibit at the 2012 Festival of Arts, now underway in Laguna Beach.

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According to Gage, a veteran advertising photographer, the ballerina in the photo was a real-life ballet dancer, Katie Miltimore of Huntington Beach, whose image he didn't photograph separately then superimpose onto the picture through the magic of Photoshop. Gage acknowledged that he did use Photoshop to touch up elements of the photo and bring out the luminosity of the girl's skin.

And the four guys in the picture? Gage said they weren't actors or models but actual members of a dredging crew working to clear local waters of toxic sediment and other muck. Pictured from right to left as they stand around Miltimore are workers Scott Anderson, Victor Ronquillo, Scott Mcivor and Ruben Ronquillo.

Gage, who has taken ad photos for more than 40 years, spent most of his career on the road, taking commercial pictures for Jaguar cars and Marlboro and Winston cigarettes, among a long list of clients. His advertising travels took him to photo shoots in 70 countries and 40 states, and, over a 25-year stretch, he said, he traveled an average of 250 days per calendar year.

Nowadays, most of his assignments and projects, including for the Irvine Co., keep him closer to home. As a dancer with the Fountain Valley-based Festival Ballet Theater and Southland Ballet Academy, Miltimore was part of a larger photographic project that Gage had been working on. He photographed her and other FBT and SBA ballerinas on the grounds at Pelican Hill, one of the Irvine Co.'s properties, and during ballet performances at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

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Last fall, Gage was working on an unrelated project aboard a yacht in Newport Harbor, when he spotted the dredging barge. He became curious and started asking questions. He called the San Francisco Bay Area-headquartered dredging firm and, three weeks, later met the barges' superintendent.

During that first meeting, he said nothing about the ballerina but asked for — and got — permission to take pictures of the crew workers. As he described it, the photographer didn't want to push his luck and spoil the delicate negotiation. A week later, Gage went back to the superintendent and broached the question of whether he could bring the ballerina along and insert her into his pictures of the workers, to which the supe responded that his crew would probably love that.

But because Gage was aware that the barge workers were all-unionized and that they all clocked out at 3 p.m., apart from bringing in the ballerina he had to come up with an incentive to keep them lingering near the barge.

His bait: sandwiches from Subway, complete with soda and potato chips — all on his own dime.

"So I went to Subway and got the biggest sandwiches they make, along with Coca Cola and chips," Gage said.

Miltimore, now 16 and a soon-to-be senior at Huntington Beach High School, said she managed to keep her tutu and ballet dress that she wore for one of the other three pictures clean. Yet, amid the grime, she couldn't avoid soiling her dance shoes.

"I was kind of nervous at first to be around them [the barge crew members], but they made me feel comfortable," Miltimore said. "It was really fun."

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Twitter: @ImranVittachi

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