For a projection designer, the search for new images is never-ending. One of the great joys of projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy's job is haunting old bookshops looking for things that may be useful for future projects, or just things that appeal to her. Although she is a regular at Strand Book Store in lower Manhattan she says Powell's Books in Portland, OR, “is a used bookstore Mecca and I would journey there on my knees if I had to.” One find she acquired there with no particular show in mind was a vintage copy of the children's book, ABC, 123 and subsequently found a use for it in an industrial.
When she is searching with a specific production in mind however, she usually starts off in a library with a good photo collection. Favorites include the picture collection at the Midtown Manhattan Public Library at 41st and Fifth, where, with the application of a little charm, librarians can be persuaded to bring out reference material from the back room. The Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration house extensive image collections including WPA and NAACP photographs. McCarthy used photographs of a lynching for Minstrel Show at Queens Theatre in the Park and Native American images for a touring production of Spirit.
Since it takes six to eight weeks to get requested images from the libraries, McCarthy usually makes copies of the images on color copy machines or notes the photographer and hunts down their work elsewhere. Recently, the designer moved to Connecticut and discovered to her delight that the nearby Westport Public Library Picture Collection is quite large and she can take out as many pictures as she needs. She told her husband, “We definitely moved to the right place!”
McCarthy finds different sources have different degrees of “designer-friendliness.” The Holocaust Memorial Museum, which she used while doing research for the Broadway production of Judgment at Nuremberg, is very accessible. She says, “It grew up with the beginning of digital technology and the Internet and everyone having access,” adding that “they utilize the technology beautifully and their online resources are fantastic.” The Baseball Hall of Fame, on the other hand, “Could use a good clean-up of their archives!”
Because materials are usually culled from such a wide selection of sources, McCarthy has to tie them together so that they work in a cohesive fashion. For an off-Broadway production of Eleanor, even though all the images were in black and white to begin with, the designer scanned them, desaturated, and gray-scaled them so that they had the same tonal range.
Very often shooting her own footage is the only way to get the images she needs. To get images of Paris on a strictly local budget McCarthy thanked heaven for the whims of the rich and used a replica of a French chateau called Oheka Castle, on Long Island's Gold Coast, to shoot video of Alan Alda for a recent production of Limonade Tous Les Jours. The weirdest place McCarthy ended up was during work on the opera Dead Man Walking, when the designer took pictures on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
As each show is, in McCarthy's words, “its own Rubik's Cube” the important thing when doing research is to cast a wide net and then, like a detective, follow a trail of images. While looking for water images for the Broadway show Wicked, an assistant asked her to be more specific and she replied, “No! Bring me everything, and we'll start from there!”
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