The Art of Theatre Photography

Present Laugher by Manuel Harlan - Uncle Vanya by Johan Persson - Betrayal by Marc Brenner

Theatre photography is one of the most important ways to promote a new production and simultaneously one of the elements audiences – and probably most creatives – actively think least about. While the contributions of actors, directors, designers and more recently the technical crew to creating and embodying the visual concept of a show are increasingly understood and recognised within the industry, the role of the photographer is vastly underestimated. Search for ‘theatre photography’ and the results focus entirely on technical learning and tips but far less on the crucial role of the photographer in capturing the essence of a production. Yet, to the outside world, their images are the entry point into a show, brokering that relationship with potential audiences.

Production and rehearsal room photos are far more than window dressing and along with posters that increasingly use digital photography rather than graphics, they signal to potential theatregoers what this production has to say. They demonstrate how revivals have distinguished their approach from earlier productions and help new shows to compete in a crowded marketplace, where numerous alternatives vye for your attention and your money. A set of well chosen photographs can do far more than the critics and sometimes even the synopsis to entice an audience into the theatre – as a promotional tool, they are invaluable.The very best production shots can distil the work of the wider cast and crew into a series of storytelling images, bringing the show’s aesthetic as well as its tone, style and psychological approach meaningfully into view.

Yet, only a few photographers are able to truly capture the essence of a production, to encapsulate its quality and depth in a single shot and three photographers have dominated the professionalisation and art of stage imagery for some time – Johan Persson, Marc Brenner and Manuel Harlan. Their pictures make the transition into independent objects of art, acting only partly as a visual record of performance and instead largely exist as beautiful images in their own right. These photographers are particularly adept at recording that one defining image, the analysis of which reveals all you need to know about that particular show.

Johan Persson

Persson’s sought after work recently includes Ian Rickson’s productions of Rosmersholm in 2019 and Uncle Vanya (pictured above) at the beginning of 2020, both of which had a painterly set designed by Rae Smith. Persson’s ability to capture the particularly shades of those spaces, the combination of light and shadow in the visuals was particularly striking as forgotten corners of lived-in rooms were briefly illuminated by rays of sunlight from the natural world intruding into a once silent household. He is a photographer that often finds contradiction in an image as the emotional and the physical contend.

One of Persson’s finest images – an arguably one of the truly great theatre pictures – has re-emerged during lockdown thanks to the proliferation of online theatre performances. This image of Tom Hiddleston in the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus was printed on the back of tickets before the venue went paperless last year and was framed on their staircase. Memorable even six years on, this is electrifying photography, full of drama and evoking a particular moment within the show where the bloodied hero, victoriously returned from battle, enjoys a moment alone. Crucially as a single representation of this production it captures everything Director Josie Rourke wanted to say across its 2.5 hour running time.

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

We see the intensity of this second and its fervent masculinity as the figure plastered in the blood of other men enjoys a moment of post-victory elation. But he is rendered human by the contrasting notes of vulnerability in the image, the painful wince caused by water on freshly drawn wounds, the physical cost of societal expectations of manly behaviour playing out across his body as he privately grapples with the mental and material cost of war, a cost he must tend to in this very private scene that sits between the lines of Shakepeare’s play. Watched through, Hiddleston’s characterisation visits every aspect of this character’s public and private face which is so forcibly and stunningly captured here in this single Persson image.

Contrast that with this photograph from the musical Follies, first staged at the National Theatre in 2017 when Persson took this show-defining photograph, one that eschews the big stars to reflect an obsession with the nostalgic and ethereal that were so bewitching in Dominic Cooke’s landmark interpretation. There is a dreamlike quality to the visuals created by Vicki Mortimer on stage that is rendered entirely in this single image, and while Coriolanus is about two realities – the military and the personal – colliding, Follies is entirely focused on unreality, on fantasy, the impressionability of memory and the despair of lives never lived.

Follies by Johan Persson (National Theatre)

Persson’s image has the same photographic quality as his shot  from Coriolanus but the ghostly image of historic chorus girls backlit against the crumbling facade of the music hall’s brickwork and the illuminated Weismann’s Follies sign, itself in disrepair, pinpoints the emotional confusion of Sally, Buddy, Ben and Phyllis as they travel back in time. The lingering regret of Follies, the glamour of youth and the memory of so much possibility lost is at the heart of Sondheim’s musical. Avoiding sentimentality, Persson’s single shot entirely sums-up a production in which these shadow-selves haunted and comforted the women they became, the Follies itself a now crumbling edifice to something now permanently adrift, a time, a life and a dream about to be crushed forever.

Marc Brenner

Brenner’s work has been just as emotive, a favourite at the Almeida, his photographs have captured moments of great intimacy and flair on stage where external political, socio-economic and military structures buffet the characters as forcibly as their inner lives. Brenner has developed a particularly fruitful relationship with Jamie Lloyd, recording all of his productions from the seedy excesses of 2016’s Faustus to the visual simplicity of the remarkable Pinter at the Pinter season, the emotional cavern of Betrayal (pictured above) and, most recently, the brooding linguistic energy of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Last summer, Brenner took this image at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre during Lloyd’s superb revival of Evita whose transfer to the Barbican this summer has been sadly postponed. Brenner’s long experience of Lloyd’s work instantly reveals all you need to know about this production. Gone are the elaborate 1980s costumes, the coiffured hairdos and elaborate sets and in their place is Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour’s fresh and unencumbered vision told in the Argentinian colours of white and blue, using the original purity of the lyrics and the music to tell the story of Eva Peron while bringing a new visual language to the experience of musical theatre.

Evita by Marc Brenner (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

In his blog, Brenner writes about the challenge of staging the images of this production, working with the parallel shapes created by Gilmour’s steps and responding to the changes to sunset times that daily affected lighting design across the entire run. As art, this image incorporates that technical knowledge, snapping the moment the light falls on the central female figure, framing her against the even rake of the staging and the almost symmetrically-posed dancers. But the depth in Brenner’s photograph encapsulates and reflects the layers of meaning in the story. Here is the simply dressed but nonetheless charismatic Eva Peron who uses her humble origins to climb the ladder of fame, building relationship with the working classes to sustain her position. The smoke effects speak to the frequency of protest and violence in the musical, as well as the almost goddess-like status that Evita achieved which bookends the show.

Evita’s relationship to Colonel Peron may be a political powerplay, but one of Brenner’s most beautiful creations is this image for Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida (where it was also printed on the back of tickets) which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre. The performance reawakened interest in lesser-performed Tennessee Williams plays and became a captivating example of two people just missing one another. Famed for its rare stripped back approach, using musical tones to set the emotional beat and pace of the story, Brenner’s gorgeous picture, like Persson’s shot from Coriolanus, is one of the great examples of theatre photography as art in its own right, expressing the hopeless romanticism of the relationship between John and Alma through this one image.

Summer and Smoke by Marc Brenner (Almeida Theatre)

The soft pink/orange glow of the lighting sets a mood for this picture evoking the warm evening heat of the South that is so essential to tone and atmosphere in Williams’s most lyrical work. This highly romanticised scene as depicted by Brenner is a momentary fantasy between them but one tinged with regretful longing. John’s (Matthew Needham) direct gaze reflects his open personality while Alma’s (Patsy Ferran) slighty bowed head and closed eyes speak volumes about her process of internalisation in which this moment of physical intimacy warms and scares her – both hope for so much in this second but already understand it cannot end happily. It is an eloquent and dramatically layered shot, instantly transporting the viewer back to one of the most arresting productions of recent years.

Manuel Harlan

Understanding the same degrees of light and shade in an image, Manuel Harlan’s work, favoured by The Old Vic and the RSC, is incredibly evocative, often recording key moments of change or the thematic subtext of a play that helps the audience to understand the genesis of the production. This image from David Leveaux’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was not used in press releases or reviews, and was perhaps considered too oblique as a marketing tool showing neither of the production’s leads, Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. Yet, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric summary of a play that recasts two originally shadowy figures from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives them their comic due. What happens in this photography is particularly fascinating, recording in one sense the purposeful artificiality of Anna Fleischel’s staging choices – the roll of marbled paper that covers ceiling, walls and floor, the errant stepladder and the strategically positioned lighting – to create a studio feel, while at the same time offering a hint of these two characters overwhelmed by the vast emptiness of the world they inhabit and, the small part they play in Shakespeare’s construction of it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Manuel Harlan (Old Vic)

As a piece of art, the illumination of the two protagonists captured in silhouette behind a gauzy curtain speaks to the notions of concealment and spying that are vital to both plays as well as their tangential role in the events at Elsinore. At the same time the hints of colour, a dash of orange on the rear wall and at the top of the curtain add a liveliness to what would almost be a solely black and white depiction of this world. It is a striking piece of photography, one that implies a purgatorial state in which Stoppard and Shakespeare have trapped their characters, not quite real but not entirely fictionalised either.

All too real was the dynamic verve of The Bridge’s immersive production of Julius Caesar staged in 2018 at the still relatively young playhouse by Nicholas Hytner, allowing members of the audience to act as the whipped-up mob crucial to the action in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. The immediacy of the production is reflected in this turning-point moment, photographed by Harlan, immediately following the death of Caesar in which the Conspirators begin to recognise the unforeseen dangers they have unleashed

Julius Caesar by Manuel Harlan (Bridge Theatre)

Harlan, like Persson with his shot of Coriolanus and Brenner in his image from Evita, has entirely caught a defining political and human moment in this picture which implicitly reveals the rest of the play. The artistic framing and use of perspective in this shot are vital, the Conspirators are foregrounded with their hands bathed in blood and purpose achieved, while the ruined corps of Caesar is raised above them, his gaping wounds soon to be referenced in Mark Antony’s famous speech both centralised and slightly out of focus. Yet, the confusion of Brutus, Cassius et al foretells the misdirection to come as they fail to sell their deed to the onlooking crowd, a fatal flaw in their plot which will cost them their lives. Harlan has entirely caught the energy of this room and the exact moment at which the game changes.

Selling prints may not be something theatres want to consider – although in the newly straightened times created by months of enforced lockdown it may generate some much needed revenue – but theatre photography is far more than a series of marketing images. The very best exponents of this art form, Persson, Brenner and Harlan, are able to locate and develop a shot that summarises the narrative and thematic substance of a show, incorporating the director, designer and actors’ vision. But they also move to a realm beyond the physical representation of theatre, these extraordinary images are objects of art, testament to the skill of photographers able to read, interpret and capture these defining moments.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 600 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: