Theatre and Photography - some philosophical questions

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by amy_simpson, Oct 8, 2003.

  1. I am a PhD student studying Soviet theatre through the medium of the
    remaining photographs of productions. Consequently (partly for
    research and partly as an amateur photographer myself) I'd like to
    post a sort of philosophical question - what do photographers who
    have taken shots of theatre productions believe their role is
    (creative or documentary), and what sort of problems do you
    encounter? If any knows of any published information on these sort of
    questions, or the links between theatre and photography, I'd love to
    know about them too (journals, books, etc.)

    Thank you so much!
  2. Tough my opinion, the first step is in identifying the use of the photo. Is it strictly for archival purposes or intended for a news release, scrapbook, etc? In any case, I feel the photographer should take some artistic liberties while keeping the set, lights, etc documented. I tend to use varying angles to spice up the scene. Check out some of the pictures in my portfolio (I'll try to add some more tonight). Granted, they likely aren't at your level of theatre or photography...they were taken in high school documenting a high school production. Good Question!
  3. I am from India.I have been photographing dance and theatre for almost a decade.You can view my work in the dance folder at
    Basically to me photographing theater or dance is about freezing some of the most beautiful moments for ever. i feel I am also taking part in a creative process.and that process also becomes documentation.
    I get excited by the continous interplay of light and form.
    i generally shoot on a 400ASA film, handheld.
  4. This might be relevant: there is currently (until 8th November) an exhibition of the work of John Haynes at the National Theatre in London, titled "Images Of Beckett". Haynes photographed all of Samuel Beckett's productions since 1973, and produced the iconic photo of Beckett along the way.

    There's an associated book:

    I'm not sure how much this work gets into the (interesting)
    questions you're seeking answer to, but the long-term nature of the
    arrangement between Haynes and Beckett might provide inspiration.
  5. I myself did it when I worked for school magazines as a pupil and am used to the work of our local theaters professional, which I offsetprinted quite often. Let's say it depends on. If you shot nearly the complete stage, it is documentary, if you zoom in it starts being creative. The top of creativity is reached when you become allowed to ask the actors to do a part of a scene again with yourself kneeling on the stage, using a wide angle for example, and maybe you start matching the stage lighting to your photographic needs.
  6. My participation so far has been mostly journalistic. As a former journalist that's the role I felt most comfortable in.

    The theatre I've photographed during the past couple of seasons didn't really need another photographer - they already had someone doing publicity stills and someone else who was usually working from a more creative or interpretive point of view. I happened to come along at a time when that person was out of the country so I had an opportunity to work in a similar vein without interfering.

    In some cases I simply documented the actual performances, either using a digital camera or muffled film camera from the tech booth area to minimize my presence; and in one case videotaping the event when the usual videographer was unavailable.

    Most of the time, tho', my preference was for photographing the rehearsal and preparation process, showing the actors and crew at work behind the scenes.

    There were two specific problems I encountered, only one of which I managed to solve:

    1. Light. Even at this outdoor theatre light was often inadequate for exposing film normally and I didn't want to (or often couldn't) use flash. So I was forced to explore push processing techniques to make the best of a compromised situation. After several tries I came up with some combinations of materials and techniques that worked very well (b&w).

    2. The "fifth-wheel" syndrome. After the second photographer returned to the U.S. and took over as primary publicity still photographer I was essentially redundant.

    While I was working mostly for my own creative purposes and not to compete with anyone else, that didn't make my position any more tenable. The purpose of theatre is to create a live show for a larger audience, not to entertain the artistic whims of a single photographer. As unobtrusive as I might try to be there was usually some awareness of my presence that was potentially detrimental to the creative process of the actors, directors and others.

    I don't wish to draw obvious and erroneous comparisons between theatre and wildlife photography but certain parallels are unavoidable. At a certain point I seemed to be more participant than observer and that wasn't my intent. After two seasons I withdrew from photographing this theatre.
  7. When I did theatre photography (in the 'seventies) it was purely illustrative. The company wanted images to promote their production and I did my best to supply them. I also did some theatre photography as part of my press work. Again, it was illustrative to support a review or news story. The two spheres often overlapped, small companies without the money to hire a photographer were often glad to buy a few prints from a press shoot to use front of house and I sometimes sold my newspaper and magazine contacts shots I'd done for a company or the company sent them out with press releases.

    So from my point of view, there's nothing artistic about it. Other people's mileage may well vary, of course.
  8. I have been a theatrical photographer for almost 40 years and can offer some

    There are a number of different reasons for photographing theatre. The
    approach that supports publicity will be very different from that of documenting
    a production. There is also room for creativity on the part of a photographer,
    however those images should stand on their own, not represent the creative
    work of the production team.

    When documenting a production I believe it is critical to support the
    designers. That limits creativity to finding the best way to duplicate the efforts
    of the lighting, set & costume designers since they are working in a live, three
    dimensional universe and you are limited to 2 dimensions as well as a much
    compressed dynamic range.

    Some examples of my work is available at
  9. > what do photographers believe their role is (creative or documentary)

    The photographer in the theatre is mainly for documentary purposes - that's what the theatre needs the photographer for. But when the photographer really enjoys his work and feels creative, then he can think about more personal pictures, photos which are valuable in themselves, which can reflect the photographer's ideas.

    > and what sort of problems do you encounter?

    Problems are mainly technical, not philosophical :). Shooting large musicals you have to be very quick, meter faultlessly, change films/cards quickly, not overlook any important gesture, watch for perfectly synchronic movements of the dancers etc.
    In arranged scenes in small plays you have to be creative in choosing the key scenes for photos, arrange actors and props so that composition is great, watch for shadows and highlights etc.
    See my pictures at Thatre photography is my main job. I love it!
  10. Jon - The link doesn't work.
  11. He just had an extra space in there the correct link is
  12. Alright let me try that again, lol. Here:

    Alright that will work now. Sorry about the last post.
  13. Also, a part of the work done by the photograph is very useful for the actors...They can see what they looks..And an actor on stage is another human than the people performing. It s a way to offer to them....a seat in the audiance..looking at them self.
  14. LEX

    "As unobtrusive as I might try to be there was usually some awareness of my presence that was potentially detrimental to the creative process of the actors, directors and others."

    Good actors always stick to a character line, -the presence of audience, photographer or whatever will hence by no means disturb them in any way. However, actors who build their characters by jumping from thought to thought in their own head will surely have problems and might easily be disturbed (NOT good acting but often the way it is taught and practised!!).
  15. I've been photographing theatre for about 10 years. There are a wide variety of reasons to photograph a production, ranging from purely artistic visuals to more mundane documentation of set and prop mechanics. The visual artist has the greatest challenge, since the environment is usually poorly lit (from a photographer's perspective) and the subjects that are most interesting are continuously moving. This can make for some wonderfully dramatic photos, at the expense of many missed opportunities. (And lots of blurred frames.) Most often though, the photographs are simply a documentary record of the production for promotional (advertising) use, for the various directors, or for cast portfolios. Every once in a while the set designer or the lighting designer will want photos of specific scenes to show cast interaction with their set design, or some particularly beautiful lighting display. The most frustrating difficulty of shooting theatre was brought up earlier, being invisible to the cast of performers or other people in the room. By far the best performances are given by a cast when a large audience is present, but the presence of an audience is a tremendous restriction on the photographer. Your freedom of movement becomes so restricted that the photos can become two dimensional, and you're virtually never located where you'd prefer to be for any given scene. This is why so many theatre photos look the way they do. To directly answer your question, I'd have to say that the largest fraction of photos taken of theatre are documentary. I'd also hazard a guess that a very large percentage of the creative photos you find are simply serendipity, a documentary photographer happened to see and catch a moment of perfection while trying to be invisible. Once in a while you get lucky. Good luck with your studies...
  16. Something I forgot to mention... Jon Vermilye made an excellent point earlier regarding creative photography and theatrical subjects. Photos that are creative in nature will be of little use to the directors of a performance, creative photos are done to satisfy the photographer and the show is incidental. Documenting the director's creative vision is what's really happening in most cases. Anything original that comes from shooting a performance might not even be recognized by people involved in the show as related to that performance. --- John Berting
  17. I've been photographing youth theatre for several years, and the shots serve several purposes:
    • accompanying press releases to newspapers in advance of the show to build audience
    • serving as keepsakes for young performers and their parents
    • supporting the applications of student actors and singers seeking entry to further study in the arts
    • providing feedback and a portfolio of their work for directors and lighting and set designers
    • building cast morale and unity through prints posted in the rehearsal space in advance of and during the run
    • adding a visual record of past productions to the society's web site (archive is under construction).
      (A side note to John B.: looks like we spent our summer photographing the same show!).
  18. Brent R --- Yes, the same show this summer... Although from the looks of it, I like your production lighting design better than the one I shot. I've thrown in a random "My Favorite Year" shot to make things a little less uniform. I have to agree with all of the uses that your photos have seen. Mine have been used for all of the same purposes. Very rewarding and fun to do. I hope you're having as much fun doing this as I am. Best regards. --- John Berting
  19. I wonder how many of you get the chance to work with photocalls for your
    images. I have worked with & without them, and find I can provide far better
    representations of the production when shooting with the control a photocall
  20. Jon ---
    Re: Photocalls... I've found these to be few and far between. The last one of these I did was the idea of the producer, and very much against the director's wishes. Of course the director was supposed to arrange everything... It was poorly scheduled, rushed, did not have knowledgable lighting staff present, and degenerated into a glorified cast photo session. I can see how these are a great opportunity for promotional photos if handled properly. It doesn't happen often enough in the groups that I'm involved with to produce anything substantial.
    --- John Berting
  21. Creatively documentary.
  22. Photography and Film are similar in many ways. Two are the way that creative art and documentary art are defined (or should be).

    When the actors are acting & creating the scene under a directors guidance, they are being the creative ones. If you happen to be photographing that action, then you are being documentary.

    Wneh you start to interact with the actors, and playing with the lights to modify items to fit your photos, that is creative art.

    I suppose it would probally be best to point out that I concider any photo that was staged to be creative art, and any art that was "spur" to be documentary art. I personaly believe that the better pictures and works are found in the portfolios of documentary artists. The staged & set photos loose some of the "capturitive nature" that photography should embrace.
  23. I've always considered it to be strictly documentary. With pre-production publicity shots you have a little bit of artistic licence. But with theatre the "artistic" portion is already taken care of by the actors, director, costume designer and most importantly (god bless em) the lighting designer.

    I usually do a shoot close to the end of a play's run. They'll have a photo call after one night's show and we'll spend an hour or two shooting whatever scenes are needed. This is a double edged sword. You have the actors in full costume on a fully dressed set, but you also have the production lighting. Working with the lighting is always a trial, and no you can't have the lighting changed for your benefit. Well, you could if you're a hack, but it completely destroys the whole point of having a lighting designer.

    It's a very rigid environment though, with little room (outside of lens and film choice) for "artistic" creativity, so I'd call it documentary. "Artistic documentary" as someone said earlier.
  24. Hi Amy,

    Just caught this thread on the new forum so realise I'm a bit late.

    Now I believe (I've only really done stage work no theatre but the
    principle I feel is the same so I hope you don't dismiss my
    thoughts) that the photographer can be doing a bit of both. If you
    were to change the question to wedding photography you could
    argue that the photographer, a good one anyway, is recording a
    performance creatively. Whilst anybody can take pics at a
    wedding there is a huge differance between the pics taken by
    different people at the same event. I'm thinking of reportage style
    non manipulative or directional type wedding photography where
    the photographer is not taking control but is reacting to the

    If you don't disagree with these thoughts it's not too much of a
    leap to see the theatre photographer as creatively (not just
    competently) pictureing and recording the performances of
    artists. Whilst he is not a part of the performance in its self he
    can exersise creativity in his photographic documentation of that

    Take care all, Scott.
  25. When I was a yearbook staff photographer at Ohio State, I did a lot of theatre and dance photography. I always shot dress rehersals, which of course were visually identical to the final show. Only once was I informed that I was a disturbance, to a very young actor in MacBeth. I used a 90mm Summicron and Tri-X on a Leicaflex, so the sound was minimal.
  26. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    The photos above confirm that shooting theatre is usually a documentary experience rather than a creative experience. It doesn't always have to be that way - for example, in this photo, the photographer has gone beyond the simple act of documenting to impart some of the feeling the play was expecte to create.
    When I have been asked to shoot theatre, I have taken the approach of shooting almost everything but the stage. An example can be seen in this presentation.
    There are alternative approaches like these, but I think that they usually require the ability to work backstage or on stage during dress rehearsals. Many photographers have photographed "theatre people" as a way of showing something about theatre itself.
  27. The photos above confirm that shooting theatre is usually a documentary experience rather than a creative experience. It doesn't always have to be that way
    Just look at Josef Koudelka's excellent, expressionistic theatre work for that.
  28. I'm a professional theatre photographer and find that
    those involved with the production undervalue the contribution of
    the photographer..When the production if finished and gone
    how would you know it took place..the photographs have the
    power to keep the images created by the cast and director in the
    audience's head and if the photographer has not captured that
    then they've failed and the piece is gone and lost..did anyone
    see the wonderful Medea by Theatre Babel, can you convey the
    power of it without images.I only hope that my images will
    endure and keep it alive

    Check out my web site to see some
    of the images that I've taken of theatre during the last few years

    I like the story of General potemkin(a wee soviet
    reference)..whoosh you blink and he's is theatre unless
    you snap it well...
  29. I second the recommendation for "Images of Beckett" - book is an exploration of the process of rehearsal and performance, Beckett's personal direction style, but also a true collaboration between photographer and theatre production's actors, director, lighting designer, etc.
    Lighting is key, capturing the design at the right moment; production documentation is one mode of photography for theatre, press shots (more focused on actors than set, not taken from proscenium necessarily) are another. I've always loved Martha Swope's dance photos.
  30. Brilliant work, Douglas McBride. You have captured definitive moments in those productions.

    Most people, including many directors and actors, have no idea how challenging theatrical photography can be.

    As well as overcoming the technical difficulties--slow shutter speeds and minimal DOF because of low light, garish colour casts from the gels, difficulty in moving to the best camera angles, even in rehearsals, etc.--a theatrical photographer had to sense when a scene is building and anticipate the moments of revealing emotion and significant action. You are meeting these challenges very well.

    I agree with you, too, that well-shot theatrical images keep the performance alive long after the set is struck. IMO, still photogaphy does this much better than video, because stills capture the key moments, and can be viewed without finding the tape, firing up the VCR, and spending significant time waiting navigating to the scenes you want to see.
  31. I've re read the original question and we are going away from it a bit..the second bit is however about problems so.. There seems to be two camps, one for amatuer and one for professional..from my point of view its a shame that not all good productions are covered by folks with a better technical skill..then the pictures do just become a record of takes a focused eye (sorry for the pun) to get good images..that is usually a professional whose clear about his/her intent in taking images that go beyond just a record My main problem here in Scotland is there's no money in theatre which means that I have to do other commercial work but would love to just do theatre, I see some great theatre but rubbish at front of house..Photographers cant always be of the same standard but why is it that some body'd pal taking pictures is acceptable to folks who should know better, being creative souls Thats my favourite rant..My pal has a camera he can take the pictures...Bah... If your listening Brent thanks for your comment..shame your in Canada..lovely place..

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