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Theatrical Photography

performance photographs stage production

Theatrical photography seeks to capture the excitement and drama of the stage. Movies and performance art, as well as the individuality and charisma of the actors and actresses who bring such productions to life, are also featured elements of this type of photography.

Whether theatrical photographs are taken in the theater, the studio, or simply feature several of the key performers, they usually look like frozen moments of the production itself. Sharp and clear, they detail faces, costumes, sets, and situations as they actually might occur on stage or screen. Usually, however, these pictures are taken at a dress rehearsal or a photo call and are displayed in the theater lobby or sent as publicity work to newspapers and magazine editors.

Theatrical photographs destined for publicity, advertisements, and posters often take liberties with the facts of the actual production. Instead of documentation, they seek to convey the type and tone of the production—comedy, tragedy, classical, popular, or avant-garde, for example. They help to catch the eye of the casual observer and to cultivate interest in attending a performance.

Daguerreotypes of Jenny Lind (Mathew Brady, 1850) and Lola Montez (Southworth and Hawes, 1851) as well as albumen prints of Sarah Bernhardt (Nadar, circa 1860) established the importance of theatrical photographs taken of performers by portrait photographers. That tradition was extended by such well-known photographers as Nikolas Muray and Edward Steichen ( Vanity Fair , 1920s), Richard Avedon ( Harper’s Bazaar and others, 1940s through the 1970s), and Annie Liebovitz ( Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair , 1970s to present).

The distribution of glossy prints, which are distributed by every established and would-be performer to agents, news media, and fans, began in the 1850s. From the 1850s through the 1890s, a photographic calling card, the carte-devisite, enjoyed broad popularity. Performers ordered these small prints mounted on cards approximately 2-1/2 × 4 inches for sale in theater lobbies. Photographers often gave free sittings and prints to well-known theatrical personalities in exchange for the right to sell their pictures from the studio.

Around the turn of the century, on-stage pictures began to call attention to specific productions. In the beginning, only operas, classical plays, and productions with major stars were photographed by prestigious photographers. When photographically illustrated programs emerged in the 1920s, however, the need for performance photographs as well as performer portraits grew. During that same decade, photographers began to document the set and lighting effects of major productions—a prelude to today’s full coverage of all aspects of production.

In the motion-picture industry, still photographs not only document every aspect of production so that details can be matched when re-shooting, but they also help generate publicity with apparent, in-production action shots plus formal and informal portraits of the stars. In such disciplines as mime, deaf poetry, magic, circus, and performance art (where scripts either do not exist or do not adequately describe what happens), movie footage or, more recently, videotape captures the entire performance. Such disciplines, especially those with an essentially physical core, can be photographed directly as action happens.

Stage plays and movies, on the other hand, often draw their power from words and emotion. They require the still photographer to find a tableau or pose that sums up a theatrical moment visually. These pictures can then be taken right on the stage or the set with the actual performance lighting and, perhaps, direct or bounced electronic flash.

The photo call has become a tradition among stage actors, who must appear in costume and pose on the set of the production. The highly skilled photographer has only a limited time to take exciting photographs that will publicize the play.

Thebes and the Estate of Amun - NAME AND LOCATION OF THEBES., PRAISE OF THEBES, KARNAK TEMPLE: AMUN’S HOME. [next] [back] The Word

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