Photographing the arts: whose images are they?

Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries

Beware artists who talk about their art in political or military metaphors.
— Eleanor Catton

Jarod Rawiri in The Prophet, by Hone Kouka, at Downstage Theatre in Wellington, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival 2004.

I've never been entirely happy about referring to what I do as 'a photo shoot'. There's something over-simplistic about it, as if photography is merely a matter of being in the right place, and pointing something (a weapon?) in the right direction, and the results are whatever comes out of the camera when it goes off. So when I saw Eleanor Catton's tweet about military metaphors a little while ago, I understood what she meant right away.

Obviously there's a lot more to photography than just pointing and shooting, but nobody's come up with a better term for it; or at least, not one that has caught on. (Eleanor suggested photographers could 'flatter', 'immortalise' or 'seduce' the subject instead of 'shooting' them, but I haven't started using those - yet!)

I've talked before about how much happens after the shoot (for lack of a better term); but of course, there's what happens after the images are delivered to the client, as well. Who ultimately owns them?

It can be a complex question, but to me the answer comes down to what you're expecting from a photographer.

One argument when I'm photographing performance is that the photographer is just documenting existing designs - the lighting, the set, the costumes have all been created by others. But is the photographer merely a court stenographer, taking unbiased dictation and making a purely factual record of what is before them? Or are they, like the other designers on the show, a creative artist making a contribution to the project? Is the photographer finding visual connections and moments in the work that even the director might not be aware of?

If they were purely a factual documentarian, then the proper course of action would likely be to sit in the best seat in the theatre, using a 50mm lens (a similar field of view to the human eye) with the camera on a tripod, and to trip the shutter at regular intervals making sure to capture every scene, costume and lighting change equally. Wow, how great do those images sound?

In reality, the job of the photographer is to select the point of view of an eventual viewer, either on the page or on a screen, and choose what to direct their attention to. That happens through a multitude of decisions, often made in an instant - and on an instinct - to come up with images that reveal only as much as is needed to evoke a response. In fact, often showing less is better; leaving the rest to a viewer's imagination to fill in gets them involved in the image.

Effectively, the photographer is a graphic designer - working for a two dimensional page, using three dimensional subjects - but without the luxury of being able to start with a blank sheet and build up to the end design, and it all has to happen in an split second. (Sometimes it's a carefully planned split second, of course!)

If the camera, as was originally thought, captures a bit of the soul of the subject, then surely it captures even more of the soul of the person controlling it, making all the creative decisions behind each image, the framing, depth of field, blur or lack of blur, grain or lack of grain, contrast, colour saturation, and so on.

Robbie Magasiva in Where We Once Belonged, directed by Colin McColl, during the New Zealand International Arts Festival 2008.

So when it comes to ownership of the images, my feeling is this: when I work on something, I want to create work I'm proud of. I want every job I do to be career-best, portfolio-worthy images; I want the show to do well, I want to contribute to the history of theatre in this country, and I want to show people I was part of it.

And naturally, in time, I want to be able to show my body of work over my career; but if the ownership of the images is scattered amongst hundreds of companies, some of which no longer exist, then I don't have that option.

So the question is this: why would you want to work with a photographer who doesn't care that much, and who isn't concerned with the long-term future of their own work? If they aren't hoping to create something truly outstanding, that they can be rightly proud of for years to come, then why would you want to work with them in the first place?

It may seem like a good idea to ask for copyright; but when you find someone who's willing to give it up, ask yourself, do they really care about the images they're creating - or, is it just another shoot?

Keep an eye on this page for more updates to my series on photographing the arts, or to catch up on previous instalments - and follow me on Twitter or Facebook to hear about them immediately.