Elizabeth Oltman

Shapers of the
Modern Theatre

Fall 2011


Theatre Photography: Ethics and Practices

“Theatre is always a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind.” – Peter Brook

 The ephemeral nature is simultaneously one of the most exhilarating and frustrating aspects of the theatre; each encounter is a fresh and unique exchange, yet you can never completely recreate the magic once the moment has passed.  Theatre photographers attempt to capture as much of this magic as the frame will allow, yet little is understood about the nuances of the medium which make it fundamental to the industry. A result of this neglect is the production of images which depict the theatre but do not necessarily hold true to the integrity of  live production.

In the earliest, and arguably the most famous work in dramatic theory, Aristotle regards spectacle as the most inferior of the six elements of the theatre. One reason for this may very well be the limitations on visual records at the time. “Perhaps the relative ease of recording plays in words enhanced their verbal aspect; the ease with which we may now record the visual and the live very likely reinforces our interest in these aspects of theatre.” (Schmitt, 380). Yet with great strides in technology, we may record the theatre more completely through photographic means.

“Many important historical productions can never be studied analytically, either because there is no photographic record, or because the photographs that do exist appear to be posed and are therefore not valid indications of what the performance or acting style was like.” – Ronald Argelander

For hundreds of years, the theatre has served as a source of inspiration for artists the world over. Scenes from hundreds of dramatic works litter museums in oils, acrylics, charcoal, and the like. Oftentimes, these scenes had to be modeled for – an event that may likely span hours or even days – so it is highly implausible that the subsequent paintings reflect an actual performance of the piece with any sort of accuracy. Yes, actors may additionally serve as models and costumes may once again find their light, but the magic of live theatre which exists in the moment becomes lost in the vision and subjective paintbrush of the artist.

When photography came to prominence as an artistic medium in the early 19th century, the artist was better able to objectively document, as opposed to subjectively interpreting the scene before him: one could not so easily transform the faults and flaws of the subject through omission or a sweep of the brush. With the discovery of the photographic process, the methods of depicting a subject became considerably smoother: a subject need only pose for several minutes at a time instead of hours.  Because of this limitation, as with paintings before, it was imperative that the photographic model employ deliberate poses which could last the duration of the exposure while conveying the composition envisioned by the photographer. This concept of posing for the camera has persisted through the years with candid photography only finding a place in the medium with rapid improvements in technology.

“Photography has widely been used in theatre as a tool that serves two major functions: first, to promote the production and familiarize the potential audience with the actors; second, to record or document what “actually happens” during the performance.” – So-Rim Lee

Within the theatre, photography has many uses. From the beginning of the casting process, the actor enters an audition with a prepared monologue, resume and photographed headshots.  “In theatre, the most common type of portraits are headshots; these images are essentially both archival and promotional, since their primary purpose is to “sell” the actors to theatre companies” (Lee, Reading Photography). From the aspect of the designers, photographs are a springboard for the elements they employ for the show. For set and costume designers alike, photographs serve as historical and source reference points for styles and era as well as documents of previous interpretations of the production. Neutral photographs of the actors also serve the designer costuming a production when determining what to pull or construct for each character. Another form of photography found in the theatre is that of candid images which capture rehearsals and backstage exchanges which serve as mementos to the cast and crew (Schmitt, 376). Finally, and most commonly regarded, are the performance photographs. These are images shot during a performance of the production, most commonly during one of the final dress rehearsals. The images produced are distributed as “gags and advance publicity shots for use in the local press; character study close-ups of the cast  for lobby displays and advertising posters around town, and stage pictures of scenes from the play for framing or filing as records” (Miller, 8). In recent years, the commemorative publications of large-scale productions have come to prominence. These bound publications usually contain scans of script pages, the costumers’ original illustrations, and aspects of the show which are considered significant – and page after page of photographs of the production. Coming full circle, the production photography is distributed to the respective designers for use in their portfolios and may be discovered by subsequent productions as source materials in their creative process.

 “In the age of celebrity, a gradual collusion has allowed our focus to narrow
on the stars – or starring roles” – Andrew Haydon

While we may be in the “age of celebrity,” this type of fascination is hardly exclusive to the contemporary times – it is only more grotesquely accessible. Notwithstanding, catering to this mentality in the context of the theatre, and subsequently production photography, undermines the visions of playwright, director, designer, and actor alike. Andrew Haydon was correct in his assertion that in the many images published of Thea Sharrock’s production of The Misanthrope in London’s West End: “not a single photograph will be published that doesn’t include Keira Knightley.” Indeed, an image search for the specific production of The Misanthrope returns image after image of the celebrity; each image on the results pages, peppered with theatrical publicity shots, is dominated by Miss Knightley – from paparazzi-style photographs, magazine and editorial, to a startling number of images from her previous movies. As for exclusively analyzing the production photographs, Haydon appears to be correct that each of the production publicity photographs include Knightley as the focus. While this was very likely a strategic move by the production to increase interest in the project – “after all, celebrity actors – perhaps much more than the words or name values of playwrights – are often the most important reason why people decide to go see plays” – these photographs do little to indicate the nature of the production as a whole (Lee, Reading Photography). With the exception of one ensemble photograph, of which Kinghtley sits just left of center, all other images are of the starlet alone or alongside Damien Lewis. To look at these photographs with no previous knowledge of Moliere’s comedy of manners, one might assume they were the cast in its entirety. There is a distinct difference between intentional omissions in stage photography in order to entice the audience without revealing the climax and shooting only those images intended to sell magazines. “As glossily produced and carefully composed as they can be, such pictures betray an agenda which is slowly strangling theatre coverage – and threatening theatre itself.” (Haydon)

In addition to the cult of celebrity overwhelming the theatre, Haydon’s essay “The sorry state of stage photography” addresses the composition of theatre photography as equally detrimental to the theatre: close-ups and headshots, not as neutral audition materials but as sole images from performance.

“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… but what does it really tell you of what the production looks like?”

Haydon issues a call for theatre photography to depict a more honest vision of performance as a whole; a sentiment directly echoed in the contents of this paper. The most direct way to accomplish this is through the lens of documenting the theatre.


“Any photograph taken during a performance is a visual documentation of that performance, but not all performance photography can be considered
.” – Ronald Argelander

            Before continuing much farther, a distinction must be made between styles and trends of theatre photography. As previously stated, there is the celebrity-focused trend in stage photography as well as that of production close-ups and headshots, both of which neglect to capture any overarching sense or scale of the production as a whole, instead focusing on character studies on set. “Photographers who shoot only close-ups and medium views are not photo-documenters. Details have no meaning without context” (Argelander, 56). Akin to these styles of theatrical photography, and oftentimes used in tandem, is the photo-call session. “The photo session is also the most convenient from the standpoint of the photographer.” (54) In these sessions, a photographer, oftentimes unfamiliar with the production, gathers the actors on set and in costume. In some cases, the actors run abbreviated climactic or significant scenes while the photographer tweaks blocking and poses. In other cases, actors who never appear on stage together in the course of the show are arranged and photographed side by side in a very intentional tableau. Photographs produced in this way are misleading, yet they persist out of convenience to the photographer’s schedule.

Recognizing the commercial motives behind these choices, they may be accepted for such purposes, but there is a means of photographing the theatre which is more responsive to the vision and intentions of the production as a whole: photo-documentation. “Photo-documentation is not “creative” theatrical photography. It is a visual record of a live performance.” (51) A distinction between the photo call which captures an abbreviated walk-through of the show and the documentation approach to an actual performance, usually a dress rehearsal, is that the moment is usually frozen and posed during the former while the latter allows for the photographer to capture those ephemeral moments that only occur when the actors fully embody the characters and lines they speak. Additionally, the composition of these photographs will likely convey more of the staging of the performance – from set pieces to additional members of the ensemble – an aspect regarded by many as fundamental to honest theatre photography. This is sentiment shared by Haydon, as illustrated by his analysis of Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Kafka’s The Trial: “There’s not a headshot in sight. Instead, we have sweeping panoramic views of the set and its characters, use of clever angles and a sense of what the audience were looking at.”

“Documentation… involves capturing as much of the total visual experience
of an actual performance as possible and getting it from the
point of view of the audience
.” – Ronald Argelander

It is nearly impossible – or at the very least, highly impractical – to attempt to photograph the theatre with complete neutrality. “No stage photography can be absolutely candid, primarily because no photographer is able to take candid photographs of any part of production without agreeing to the intellectual property rights” (Lee, Stage Photography). An attempt at this might require stationary cameras at key points in the house and set in such a way that the shutter captures every moment of action, effectively creating a silent film – documentary-esque. This is not the motive of theatre photography by documentation. The skilled and engaged photographer will certainly impart some of their aesthetic vision upon the image, but in a way that must not undermine the motives of the production as a whole. The photographer is responsible for producing those images which are aesthetically composed while depicting the stage with integrity.

As with all media, there are structural limitations implicit on photography. Recognizing the gaps in the medium will allow for greater explorations in what theatrical photography can accomplish. Anne Bogart, speaking in terms of completeness in theatrical presentation, insists that the practitioner include only what is necessary to the production, lest the audience have nothing to anchor their imagination. The same is also true for photography. Indeed, the natural frame of a photograph has the ability to include or withhold information that may further engage the viewing audience. The photo documents but cannot document all.

In order to address the issues raised regarding the honest reflection of a production, the theatre photographer must become an addition to the creative team of a show. With time and exposure, the photographer, as with any technician in the theatre, would develop an investment in the show which supersedes the otherwise overwhelming desire to impart one’s vision on the scene for film. This dedication to the company produces photography that is true to the nature of the production in a way that press photographers, or photographers less familiar with the piece, cannot. If the theatre photographer can provide images displaying the truth of a production – those moments of honesty when the actor communes with her craft – this would eliminate the need for press photographers to impart motives which may conflict with the theatre.

How, then, does a photographer experience enough of the production to become an invested member of the crew? Through regular – though not necessarily constant – attendance at rehearsals, backstage interactions, meals and conversations, all the while noting key images, experiences, and truths within the performance. Through this familiarity, the photographer will share similar investment in the production, preserving the creative decisions made by designers, directors, and actors through the images they shoot of the performance. They will not see a need to compose and re-block a scene in order to produce their satisfactory image of the show. To satiate the needs to impart their personal aesthetics – as the photographers are wont to do – the solution can be found in studio character studies.

“Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.” – Susan Sontag

Away from the floorboards, the set, technical cues and blocking, the photographer’s studio offers a neutral space for character study. This is the green space where the photographer directly collaborates with the actors; the photographer is not now the director, nor is he the passive documenter. An important aspect to note is that the studio work should in no way undermine the rehearsal process of the director; the photographer must be familiar enough with the process and intent of the director’s vision, composing shots but not imparting undue insights into characters and motives. This is the job of the formal directing team. Stripping away the other elements of theatrical spectacle, the actors may perform and explore upon a neutral stage somewhere between a line-through and formal rehearsal. While performance photography is the ideal space to capture images for designers’ portfolios, the neutral stage of the studio concentrates focus within the actors. Photographer Max Waldman masterfully executes this method in recording productions, not as explicit documentations of the staged performance, but through interpreting and conveying the experience he had as photographer in relation to the piece. “Waldman’s photograph, then, is a record of an interaction, not of the play itself. We are not given a facsimile of the production but the sense of what it felt like for one person to be there” (Schmitt, 382). There is a certain intimacy that is translated in those images; a different form of truth within the production which cannot be explored in formal performance photography by the limitations of the nature of the theatre and the location of the audience.

There is a distinct difference between a theatre photographer and a member of the crew asked to take pictures during down time, even if they do produce passable images for publicity or memento: it is a matter of quality and consistency over time. Additionally, any crew member who is not the designated production photographer has more imperative objectives within the production and cannot dedicate the time or vision to produce images without sacrificing equal time and vision within their role in the production. The most common excuse for a production to let publicity or documentary photography fall to another crew member is that of budgetary constraints. There is never enough funding in the arts, no matter the media, but the theatre photographer is neglected because many administrators in the theatre do not see their significance. Employment of a theatre photographer is about more than monetary gain and publicity; when executed correctly within a production, it becomes a collaboration which benefits all involved.

“The photographs actually create a different reality where, just by looking at them,
the outsiders cannot distinguish between pose and candid,
façade and fact, staged and unstaged
.” – So-Rim Lee.

            Within the theatre, photography serves many uses, the most significant of which captures the essence of a performance, the magic of the theatre. While there are various means and methods to capturing the images of the theatre for publicity, promotion, and memento, the two crafts remain separate entities. Treated as a symbiotic relationship, the photographer as member of the creative theatrical team has a responsibility to produce those photographs which more accurately represent those moments of discovery and heartbreak and should be given the opportunity to do so fully.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s