Debora Robinson worked for the Los Angeles Times before going freelance and working for clients including the Anaheim Angels, Anaheim Ducks, and South Coast Repertory. At SCR she shot events for many years before moving into production photography when Henry DiRocco retired a few years ago.
SCR production photography leans heavily on a separate photo call with a shot-list to cover the needs of the marketing department as well as designers and sometimes even actor requests. Debora agrees with the consensus that the biggest challenge is the lighting.
"Despite how technologically advanced the new cameras are, they still cannot see what the human eye sees," she says. "It isn't just that it's low light, it's the ratio of light. In a scene where one person may be wearing white and in a pool of bright spotlight, there could be three other other people outside the light pool. They will all be seen by the human eye but not the camera.
"We can bring up lights, but you want to preserve the integrity of the lighting design. Most of the time we can make minor adjustments. After all, the designers may not think about it, but they are relying on our expertise to make sure the photographic record doesn't make it look like the show was poorly lighted. There's a trade off.
"The next challenge, however, is time, and changing the lights for every shot takes time, so it's all about balancing priorities, egos and the realities of photography."
As a veteran of both city desk and sports assignments, Debora is quick to point out that one of the big benefits of shooting theater is the talent of the subjects.
"You ask the actors to do something and they do it! And, they can do it again and again if necessary. It's different than jobs where I'm shooting non-actors or models. Getting the right look or mood out of them can be very difficult. And then, the backgrounds are these beautiful sets, which really make the photograph in most cases."
Among the favorites she picked for her slideshow are two shots from Dominique Serrand's Tartuffe: "Something about it struck me – the grim looking woman, kind of creepy and shadowy, with the shadow on the wall. Then there's also the shadow of the woman's face on his sleeve in the background.
"In the second Tartuffe shot we got a little bounce off the white dress, which gave the face that light. That was sufficient enough to minimize the need for help in Photoshop.
"The shot of Charlie Robinson and Adam Haas Hunter is one of those set-ups where the actors had to instantly give a level of emotion that, during performance, they can build to. In this scene from The Whipping Man they just did it: Adam just broke down. It was amazing. But it did kind of feel like being a voyeur."
Darrett Sanders is an actor, filmmaker, teacher and self-taught photographer. He began shooting theater productions in 2009 and is a member of the Directors Guild of America, with his first feature film, Kill Me Deadly, coming out this Friday, April 1.
"I like to take pictures during a final dress rehearsal so the design elements and staging are nearly finished," he says. "I do not like taking posed moments and only shoot during the final dress run-through so I can move anywhere I want and most importantly capture the energy of the moment. I try not to interfere with the actors, but sometimes to get a good shot I have to get on stage and find the right composition. I am an actor, so I respect the space they are creating.
"The greatest challenge is the sudden shifts in lighting. I shoot manual [focus and exposure] so any shifts in exposure require me to change my settings. I tend to shoot between f2.8 and f5, which keeps the focus very shallow.
"Sometimes I am afraid I am not getting anything good, but then when I get home I load up the images and start finding wonderful moments. I enjoy the rush of capturing it while it is happening. No stopping, no second chances. I had a film camera when I was in college but I rarely used it. I did not really get into photography until digital became the norm so I never had the romance of film to fight against.
"For me, shooting a show is about catching a moment with good composition. In post I can make it pop: elevate it. That is when I get really excited. My favorite photos are the ones that look more like paintings than production stills. A moment where all the elements join in harmony."
For more on Darrett, visit his website at DarrettS.com.
Craig Schwartz was born in the Bronx, where he lived briefly before moving to Southern California, where he has remained ever since. He now lives in Glendale with his wife Kathryn Johnson and their son David.
Craig has worked for Long Beach Civic Light Opera, California Music Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, Andrew Lloyd Weber, La Jolla Playhouse, The Old Globe, Joan Marcus, McCoy/Rigby Entertainment, A Noise Within, all three Center Theatre Group venues, The Shubert, Pantages, Nederlander Organization and Music Center as well as the Canadian Consulate and Film Canada, USC and UCLA.
"I had two photography mentors," he says. "George Gardner introduced me to photography and Jay Thompson taught me the business. Nancy Hereford, my publicity mentor, taught me what publicists need to complete their theater work, as well as what needs to be recorded for all the people involved in putting on a show.
"I’ve learned how to keep my eyes open to what the director intends for the audience to see; what a costumer does and sometimes doesn’t want an audience to view; and how important it is to record the work of set designers, lighting designers, choreographers and fight specialists and be sensitive to the movement and body language of actors."
Craig started taking photos when he was 12 and began working professionally at 17. His camera has opened doors he could never have imagined he would enter.
"It gave me access to events that later played out on the evening news," he says. "I’ve photographed Presidents, heads of states, and the biggest stage, screen and TV artists in the country: My first gig with Jay was photographing Frank Sinatra at the Universal Amphitheatre."
The birth of digital
In the 1980s I worked with David Yost, a neighbor who was a Unix programmer and software designer. He and a partner, Lou Katz, had conceived a way to capture a person’s face without using film. They called the project "FaceSaver," which was designed to let you print out a film-less photo on a sheet of labels. He asked me for photographer’s input and I ended up photographing more than 3,000 people using this new method.
"At one convention where I was shooting these images – using a keyboard – Sony Corp. sent some reps over to our booth and told us of a project they were working on. They said if we could make it to Oakland we could view this new type of camera, one night only. While there, at Lou's house, we used a camera as long as my arm to shoot a cityscape of Oakland off his balcony.
"That camera was a prototype of future digital cameras. Not a true digital because it recorded onto floppies. But it led to products like the pocket-size Sony Mavica.
"I embraced the Internet and digital photography before most people had even heard the terms. In fact, I put the Mark Taper Forum (under Nancy’s direction) onto the Internet with pictures of their then-current shows. To my knowledge, we were the first theater to do so.
"But it isn't technological change that excites me most," he says. "Gordon Davidson taught me that theater can be a mirror of society and a vehicle for social change. I believe that and approach every gig as something historical and one-of-a-kind.
"When the audience lights go down and the stage lights go up, that’s the happiest moments in my life. Me, an actor, some light, a set and my camera equals pure bliss."
Craig can be reached through his website at CraigPhoto.com
In closing, special thanks to these eight photographers for their time and talent. Their dedication and artistry, and those of others like them across the country and around the world, ensures that theatergoers can share their experience after the show is gone. Our memories may fade, but thanks to these professionals the image of those magical moments will not. – Cristofer Gross