A Raw Riff On the “Sorry State” of Stage Photography

Andrew Haydon has penned a piece for the Guardian’s theater blog lamenting the sorry state of theater photography. It is a personal view, of course, and all must be allowed to have theirs. But the essay can also be easily dismissed.

Haydon begins with a question and an observation:

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…when could you last tell what a theatre production actually looked like from its photograph alone?

Stage photography of the sort that accompanies reviews or blogs is usually sourced in two ways: either directly from the theatre or taken by a selection of press photographers invited to shoot the show. Both are common, the former increasingly so. However, it isn’t really the provenance of the photographs that concerns me about a production’s imagery, it’s what they show – or rather, don’t show.

CockWhat he means by what photographs “don’t show” is his belief that images of productions are responsible for conveying what a play is about. He cites this image (at left), shot by Tristram Kenton, of Katherine Parkinson and Ben Whishaw in a play Mike Bartlett’s Cock, currently at the Royal Court.

Now, I admit that I have cropped Kenton’s photo in order to make it square (the specs for the Clyde Fitch Report happen to work more advantageously through square images). But if you take a look at the photo as it was published in the Guardian for Michael Billington’s review of Cock, you can still see you haven’t missed too much — a fuller sense of the clashing blue patterns of the actors’ shirts, perhaps, not much more. No, Kenton’s photo doesn’t tell the viewer what Cock is about.

But let me ask Haydon a question: Does the title Cock tell you what Cock is about?

Cock IIIndeed, Haydon is calling into question the semiotics of the theatergoing experience; he uses the word near the end of his piece and rightly so. The problem is it’s a terribly random kind of condemnation: he could as easily assail the lack of a note from the dramaturg, the playwright or the director in the program, or lamented the appearance of such notes. He asks us to look, for the sake of comparison, at a production photo from a version of Kafka’s The Trial (at left), and it is indeed a highly dramatic image — “vertigo-inducing” he pronounces it, as it must be when one sees it as an audience member. (For the CFR, this image required minor cropping.) But if you don’t know The Trial, does the photo tell you what The Trial is about?

Another problem is the semiotics of headlines: Haydon, or perhaps a copyeditor, titles the post The Sorry State of Theatre Photography, which is a crushing assessment. It’s also a curious assessment when there is also copy like this:

…there’s nothing wrong with these photos per se. Objectively speaking, they can make good photographs, as one might expect from professionals. They are sometimes even quite exceptional: sharp, well-composed and with beautifully saturated colour that does much credit to the work of the lighting designer.

As I see it, the question is whether theater photography does have a fundamental responsibility to communicate the meaning of a play to the audience. I’m not entirely sure. Cabinet photography, which became a huge phenomenon in the late 19th century, allowed audience members to own a keepsake image of their favorite actor or actress — a way to advertise them, too. But a cabinet photograph of, say, Edwin Booth can only tell you so much about his prowess as a great Shakespearean actor. Indeed, it cannot prove to you that he was a great Shakespearean actor at all.

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I haven’t seen the production photos as yet for David Mamet’s new play Race, which is soon to open on Broadway, but most of the campaign I have seen to date involves looking at very tightly cropped headshots of James Spader, Richard Thomas, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington, the actors in the play. In other words, Mamet, who is directing, may not want photography to tell the audience much about the play. As for whether Mamet is shortchanging himself, his play, his actors or his audience — we can debate that. And Haydon’s assumption, one not wholly unreasonable, is that photography has a job to do in the theater like that of any other collaborating artisan. But owing to the very fact that the theater is, in fact, a collaborative art, there may be circumstances feeding into the process of photographing a play that may have nothing to do with the aesthetic possibilities of the photographer or of the form itself. What if the photo shoot is set for the first week, before any rational actor can claim an internal and external mastery of their role? None of this necessarily means that currently theatrical photography is in a “sorry state.” It means choices are being made that, rightly or wrongly, frustrates or disappoints the very dickens out of Haydon.

He does make one observation, however, that is powerful and very much worth further discussion:

….in the age of celebrity, a gradual collusion has allowed our focus to narrow on the stars — or starring roles. A waist-up photograph of a topless Daniel Radcliffe, for instance, told us little about Equus, but showed (almost) everything on which the news agenda was focused. I’m also willing to bet that when Thea Sharrock’s forthcoming production of The Misanthrope opens, not a single photograph will be published that doesn’t include Keira Knightley….

…with the rise of multi-room, site-specific work, it is increasingly impossible to show a whole production from a single photograph. But…would it not be better if photographers worked to convey exciting whole-stage pictures rather than illustrating two hours of drama with a single celebrity headshot?…

In answer to his last question — of course it would be better. It would also be better if the theater, commercial theater at least, weren’t addicted to the presence of stars. But it is — and it always has been. What Haydon should really lament is not the “sorry state” of theater photography but how little the business model of commercial theater has evolved in some ways since the dawn of theatrical photography, more than 100 years ago.

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  • JR

    In this age of photoshop I dont understand why composites arent used more in stage photography. You could easily mesh together 2-3 scenes with different actors to help convey the plot.

  • Rik

    it’s photos of actors who are recreating moments for the back row when the camera is, in fact only 1-4 feet away.

  • Laura

    great post – brings up many valid concerns. i guess my question is a one of time and familiarity. i recently shot a rehearsal of the the paper mill’s “on the town” for an audio slide show. coming in cold, not being familiar with the show or this particular production, it took me a good amount of time to even figure out when and what to shoot in a given scene. granted i’m not a theater photographer by trade, but i’m wondering if the photographer’s lack of familiarity with (or conversely, knowledge of) the show and the performance or such might have something to do with the quality of the photos.

  • Laura

    and in the spirit of full disclosure – here’s my first go at theater photography.

    http://blip.tv/file/2762759/

  • I can’t think of any photographs from productions of plays that have conveyed the meaning of a show. But I have seen plenty of production photographs that I think give the reader or viewer a good idea of what they might see at the production.

    Of course, live theater can change nightly and sometimes the audience might not see what is depicted in a photograph when they see the play, particularly with highly experimental plays.

    But isn’t wanting photographs to convey the meaning of a play like wanting the artwork for a poster to tell the audience what a play is about?