I was back at Darlinghurst Theatre Company recently for their production of Hysteria, by English playwright Terry Johnson. It's a tough one to sum up quickly, but let's just call it a door-slamming French farce starring Freud & Dali, and leave it at that for the moment!
After my last entry into the Photographing The Arts series of essays, about how to create depth in a production image on stage, I was watching myself work and once again analysing the decisions I make on the fly - how I choose my point of view, both in terms of camera position and lens choice; and it reminded me of something I learned early on as a photographer, from a workshop by Freeman Patterson.
The trick to photography is to translate a three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional page, on the fly. And make it compelling...
I've worked with the good folks at Critical Stages a couple of times recently, and I was happy to hear from them again late last year about a new tour of Stones In His Pockets - a marvellous, funny Irish script I'd seen performed some years ago in New Zealand.
We did a studio shoot for the poster & promotional images, and then a couple of months later (due to a last-minute cast change) we did it again; then recently I was out at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta for the dress rehearsal, and something about the way the stage was set up got me thinking while I was editing the images.
"A fox called Scruffilitis."
I knew there'd be something different about this show, from that description alone.
"This is the tale of Jonah, Sophie, and a fox called Scruffilitis. It’s a true story, and it’s a love story. A quirky, dysfunctional, voyeuristic love story, but a love story all the same."
I don't usually take much convincing to photograph theatre, as it's one of my favourite things to work on - but when I started talking to director Luke Rogers from Stories Like These about working on this production, a couple of things caught my interest. The fox, for one - and the stage itself for another...
In a previous post, I talked about photographing a show that is unknown to its audience; my point was that the best publicity images are ones that leave an air of mystery - that pique the viewer's interest, and make them want to know more. But what about a show where the story is well known already - like a panto?
I was working recently with Bonnie Lythgoe Productions on their winter show, Cinderella, at the State Theatre in Sydney - and that's what made me really start looking at this question again.
Because really - the story is a given. So what you want to show in a still image is twofold - what's different about this production, and at the same time, what's familiar about it? How can you show off both the uniqueness of this version, and also capture the feeling of a story that's been told again and again, for over a hundred years?
Images of Cinderella, starring Jaime Hadwen, Tim Maddren, Gina Liano, Jimmy Rees, Kev Orkian, Peter Everett, Craig Bennett, Josh Adamson, and Lara Mulcahy at the State Theatre in Sydney. Directed by Bonnie Lythgoe, with executive producer Christopher Wood. Photos by Robert Catto, taken on Thursday 30 June, 2016.
I was working on a new production of Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River at Griffin Theatre here in Sydney recently, and chatting with the lighting designer before the dress rehearsal, he told me a couple of useful things. Having been there not long ago for The Dapto Chaser, I knew the stage was...let's call it unique. It's a wedge, between two seating blocks - not quite traverse, but certainly not a proscenium, either!
On that show, I'd found myself photographing much of it from the point of the triangle, rather than from the seating blocks; not least because you can see the other seating block in the back of the photos, if you're looking across the stage. But this was a different show, and of course, different designers.
"I've mostly lit the show from either end of the stage," he said, "so you might not want to photograph it from there."
I was working recently with actor Andre de Vanny on a promotional image for a show he's working on, Swansong, which opens tonight at the Old Fitz Theatre here in Sydney - and it got me thinking about something that isn't talked about so much in photography, the use of white balance as a creative tool, to control or alter colour in an image.
Sure, there are a number of settings on pretty much any camera bigger than your phone (and even some apps) that let you choose the 'correct' colour that best matches your situation, from daylight to tungsten or fluorescent balance. But of course, lots of times there are many sources in an image - so how do you know which is the the one true white balance for your image?
Images of Andre de Vanny for Swansong, taken at the Old Fitz Theatre in Potts Point, on Thursday, 29 October 2015.
Once, early in my career, someone gave me wise advice about photographing events: 'remember, there are two sides to every story. There's what's happening on stage, and then there's the audience's reaction to it.'
Naturally, not every event I work on has an audience in attendance - often, I'm at a dress rehearsal, with only the director & crew - but also, most of the time, the audience (deliberately) isn't lit! So the opportunity to make use of this suggestion isn't always there; but once in a while, the chance comes along, and it's great to be able to take it...
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?
When I was studying drama at university, I went for an interview to spend the summer at the Banff Centre For The Arts. I'd been focussing on the technical side of theatre at that point, including a bit of stage management, and thought this might be an interesting way to spend a few months between school terms.
The question was asked: did I read music? And frankly, it had never occurred to me that this might be a useful skill - our university programme was pure theatre, not even musicals, much less opera or dance; so it had never come up, and of course I didn't. So, I didn't go to Banff, and I didn't become a stage manager...
In my previous essay on photographing the arts, I was talking about selecting images from a shoot; now, we're on to the conversion and correction of the files themselves, taking a RAW file and turning it into a beautiful, finished image.
RAW files are the original camera files, which contain far more image data than an in-camera .jpg, so as a result there's a lot you can do in the RAW conversion process - and, there are a lot of choices that need to be made for each image that gets worked on. Sometimes, it's possible to take settings and copy them from one image to the rest, and get consistent results that way - but that's rare in the performing arts, as the light usually changes from scene to scene, or from one part of the stage to another. Having been a lighting designer, I know how hard it is to get an even, smooth spread of light across a stage, if that's what the aim is - but often, it's not!
In all my photographic estimates, I include a short list of what happens after the actual photography takes place - it always surprises me that most people think images are finished the moment they're taken, so I want to outline how much more goes into making something better than just an in-camera .jpg.
Those are fine some of the time, don't get me wrong; but when you're working in the performing arts, most often you're working in low light, at the ragged edge of what cameras are capable of; and the images often need a little help to look their best, after the fact...
As a photographer, my images are important to me; not just when I take them, but for years afterwards, whether it seems that they have any future use or not. I can't count the number of times I've had a call, years after an image was taken, to see if I still have the file anywhere - often because one of the people in it has passed on, but mentioned that this was their favourite photo of themselves at some point.
Or, as has happened, when someone I photographed has won a major award - say, the Man Booker Prize - and suddenly, the world's media needs an image I took. And, of course, sometimes it's just a matter of wanting to find something for historical purposes: that time someone performed here before everyone knew who they were, and so on...
When I was photographing a theatre production recently, I had a quick conversation before the dress rehearsal, which went something like this: "Hi Robert, I'm the designer on this show - could you make sure you take some wide angle shots for my portfolio?"
Now, that's a perfectly normal, common and reasonable request - and one that raises an interesting question in terms of this sort of work: who exactly am I working for, or responsible to, when I photograph a show? And, how can I make them happy?
The work I've been doing recently with Apocalypse Theatre and Pinchgut Opera got me thinking about what I try to achieve in production stills photography; so I thought I'd have a look at a show that epitomises my favourite kind of images from this sort of work - New Theatre of Riga's production, The Sound Of Silence, which I photographed for the New Zealand International Arts Festival in 2010...
If there's one piece of camera gear I spend the most time talking to people about, it would have to be this: my Jacobson Sound Blimp.
When I'm talking to clients about it, it's my 'silencer' - which lets me photograph in near silence during filming, concerts, operas, and theatre performances with an audience. When people do (occasionally) spot me during these kinds of shoots, mostly they imagine it's a giant old film camera, and wonder why I'm not into digital like all the kids are today!