Heard the one about Every Designer, who goes into the archives of Any Theatre and can't find a single photograph that documents a favorite production? Even the few photographers who are sensitive to design are hired to take actor-centered publicity photos, which may get the costumes, but little else of the show's design. "I don't get it," says David Gallo. "They have a photo call with all the rigmarole, and some very talented photographers come in and do what they're asked to do--get down in front and take a head shot of a star."
So what do designers do? Some take the camera into their own hands. Others let the moment slip. Their responses are philosophical as well as practical, rooted in attitudes toward the past and the present and in feelings about an ephemeral art.
Ming Cho Lee doesn't shoot his sets or request photographs. Pat Collins tosses her light plots after a short time. "All theatre exists in the event and then it's gone," ScottZielinski reflects. He saves light plots, which he'll need if he teaches someday, and theatre plans, useful when he returns to a building. But the record he keeps lives mainly in his memory. "I know what my shows were and how I feel about them," he says.
In contrast, Neil Patel often photographs his work, precisely because the art he creates doesn't survive closing night. "Videos aren't the same, and models can get destroyed," he notes. When a theatre recently did a retrospective of his work "it was nice to have good quality slides."
Designers just starting out agree that documenting work is a pragmatic must. Zielinski did when he was a student at Yale Drama, and for a year thereafter. Today, he has less time and less incentive. "A photo portfolio never really shows what the lighting looks like," he explains, but adds that it served as "a concrete reference point, a way to get into a conversation" with a director considering him.
Patel notes that when designers switch from stage to screen or travel to Europe, a portfolio can benefit even the most seasoned pro. On the other hand, many directors know that "a photo can be faked to make any show look good." He keeps a record only for himself now, selecting those design moments that interest him and shooting them from different angles and different parts of the house. He uses a "very manual 35mm" and pushes the exposure two or three stops, which gives his work a grain he likes. When a top-tier photographer does the show--the names T. Charles Erickson and Joan Marcus recur throughout these interviews--Patel sometimes simply duplicates slides.
Derek McLane uses tungsten film because he's found regular daylight film turns everything orange and needs to be color-corrected in a lab. "I disable the automatic feature on a Nikon and bracket like crazy," he says. He selects cues from the existing plot, perhaps an atmospheric shot used during a transition between scenes that isn't light enough to play in. McLane, who sometimes pays others to photograph his scenic design, finds a tripod essential--the trick is to frame a shot and know exactly where to take it from; otherwise, cropping becomes necessary.
When is as crucial a consideration as how and poor timing can be fatal to a photographic moment. Some theatres do take long shots--but take them long before the show is ready. Gallo recalls the time publicists wanted photos before building began on an Agatha Christie play. "They took the cast into somebody's Victorian living room and pulled furniture from stock," says the horrified designer. Then there was the first photo of his work to appear in The New York Times--an unpainted plywood set shot too early and not too well.
Christine Jones tries to take pictures the day after audiences begin to come; although actors aren't in costume, she can usually get some scene shots during a preview-week rehearsal. Sometimes, however, a critical piece of scenery is back in the shop.
Patel shoots during a dress rehearsal or tech run, even if everything isn't onstage. "Setups with tired actors are stiff," he says. McLane takes photos during the first few techs, and usually without actors on his sets. "Actor light wipes out everything else," he explains. "They are lit so brightly." Gallo wants actors and he wants them in costume, lit the way the scene will look.
Technician Steve Waxler, chair of design and production at the University of Cincinnati, encourages students and faculty to take photographs throughout the entire process. Scenic designers start by photographing their models and end using digital cameras so they can store final photographs in their computers. Although professional photographers shoot dress rehearsals at the school, Waxler says faculty and students often get a "more useful and exciting...series of shots that explain the process and show the results."
When is the perfect time to shoot? "There isn't one," says Gallo, who opts to take his at the dress rehearsal before the photo call--usually the one that the photographer attends without equipment, the set is relatively complete, and the actors are in costume. "If you wait for the so-called photo call, you'll get wonderful pictures of the photographer's head and tech tables and monitors," he says. "If you wait until after that, it will be too late," since designers can't shoot once the audiences come, and costumes usually aren't worn for brush-up rehearsals.
T. Charles Erickson, who photographs productions around the country, is among the few who understands both the art of photography and the art of theatre. The New Haven, CT-based sure shot gives talks to third-year design students at New York University, something he's glad to do because too often he finds himself "reduced to giving five-minute seminars at a dress rehearsal, to a designer who says, 'I've got this camera. How do I use it?'"
When he is faced with that question, his answer depends on who's asking. Since theatres often photograph at least the main players, costume designers find it relatively easy to locate some of their work in photo archives. When they do take their own shots, Erickson says they can sometimes get away without a tripod, because they will more often have a point of focus in bright light. But unless they're allowed to move during a dress rehearsal and get close in, they'll have to invest in expensive long lenses. "The cheap zoom that came with the camera is almost useless to them," he warns.
"Depth of field is not as important for a costume designer as getting an unshaking picture in good light," he adds, advocating a fast lens, f2 or f2.8. Lenses that are slower than f2.8 (i.e., higher numbers) are very difficult for costume designers to use in theatre lighting situations.
If a set designer takes a picture at half a second or one second, there's bound to be some blurring, so a slower lens might be useful. A shooting aperture of f4.5 or f4.6 will insure sharpness throughout. "No designer is set up to be less satisfied with a photograph than a lighting designer," says Erickson. "Film is a dumb medium. It needs a lot of information and it needs that information in a form it can understand. Most theatrical lighting is too sophisticated for film to understand, so it needs to be tutored, to have its hand held."
The trick, Erickson explains, is to adapt stage lighting so that it reads on film the same way your eye perceives it onstage." Often, he works with lighting designers who build cues that are different from those in the show and will have all the design information in them. "Once you've lit actors, the lighting as cued rarely gives you a picture that satisfyingly shows you the center and edges of the stage....light ratios are what's important. What's the brightest area and the darkest area you want to see?" he asks, then makes sure the darkest areas don't become too dark.
Erickson says it's difficult for any designer to figure out lighting exposure without a spot meter; built-in camera meters tend to get it wrong. After shooting hundreds of shows, he says his first concern is getting the exposure right. A stage can be lit by 200 instruments--movement of a few feet or even a few inches will make a big difference. Those designers who must catch a shot when they can might do best with Fuji 800 film. Color negative film gives more latitude. "It's more forgiving than flat film," says Erickson. Color won't be as perfect as it is with slide film, but a negative gives you more detailed information.
Although it may be possible for camera-sophisticated designers to go it alone, those who can find a photographer who is sensitive to their needs will be ahead of the game. Gallo recalls the time Don Holder readjusted lighting for him, creating new cues that looked to the camera the way the lights looked to the audience--then Erickson shot the scenes for him. More often, the photographer says, "I just snap away and do what I can do."