This year I have been asked to do a special project with the Alpine Theatre Project. I am doing photos from the shows they produce and I am excited for these because ATP always does great work with costumes and lighting and staging. But the photos I am personally most looking forward to are the behind-the-scenes shots they've commissioned.
At the beginning of the year I got to sit down with Betsi Morrison. She and her husband Luke Walrath are the driving force behind ATP. We have been fans of each others work for a while, but haven't been able to do any large scale collaboration. That is changing this year. Betsi and Luke want to document their productions. I have loved photographing plays basically since I became a photographer. (What's not to love? Beautiful setting, beautiful light, charismatic subject focused on what they are doing, rather than self-consciously worrying about me and my camera.) But they are also looking for something more. They want photos that record the lifestyle of ATP: what it feels like to participate, the relationships between the cast members, the laughter and warmth and hard work and dedication that go into creating a full scale production.
As Betsi described what she had in mind, I immediately started thinking that I wanted these two kinds of photos to work together, but to remain visually distinct from one another. I wanted the rehearsals and recordings and all the nitty-gritty working photos to be black and white. I learned photography with T-Max film. To my mind black and white will always have a documentary feel to it. Like old newspapers and photos from back in the days when film was the only medium and color wasn't even an option. I wanted to save the color shots for the big, beautiful productions. And bless her, Betsi loved the idea.
And so we tried it out with the first show of the year: Pippin.
This is the first note Betsi sent me: First can I just say YOU ARE BRILLIANT!!!!! These are SPECTACULAR!!!! I am so so so excited for the year to come!!! :-D
That pretty well made my day.
I work hard and I always want to do my best and have my best live up to, or better yet surpass expectations. But photography isn't a binary process. It can never be reduced to a simple pass/fail equation because each image will pass or fail with every different person who sees it. The upside to this is you never know what of your work will speak strongly to one particular individual and what will be passed by. The downside is, there is no security, no certainty. Every time I hand over photos to a client I am filled with hope and terror. Will they approve? Will they like what I created? Does this meet their needs? Match their vision? Is it good? Until I hear from them, I am always uncertain, and usually at least a little afraid.
Afraid may not be the best word, it needs clarification. Most of the time my attitude about my photos is "it's not about them." I do what I am called to do (what I am meant to do in the grand scheme of things) and they will either love it or hate it. If they love it great — if not, oh well. My goal was never about their response. But when someone is paying me to take photos...then I have to give more concern to their wishes, their tastes, their reactions. I am not afraid of not being liked. I am afraid of not living up to the challenge presented to me and not earning my paycheck.
There is always a bit of tension when working with another artist. There is a certain amount of "whose vision is it?" that invariably happens. Betsi and Luke have a vision for their shows. They work with their stage production and lighting people to carefully craft that vision and bring it into reality. Then I show up. And I have a vision of my own. I see things in my own way, and my vision is strongly influenced by my career in journalism.
As I have spent no time in the theater world, other than rehearsal photos, I have a lot of unknowns and blind spots to deal with. I get the impression that with traditional production photos the cast will come together for a highly dramatic point in a show and then "freeze" for the photo. This becomes problematic for me because all my training as a journalist rebels against this kind of stop-action posing. I hate posing. I hate frozen photos. I hate manipulating the scenes because in my opinion authenticity gets lost when someone "freezes."
For a newspaper photographer it is not someone's job to stand still at the moment of highest drama and peak action so I can click the shutter release. It's my job to find the most dramatic moment and capture it as it is happening. It's my job to step into the flow and wait and watch and anticipate and capture what speaks most to me. And when I nail it — Ha! Life is awesome. And when I miss it, the responsibility falls on my shoulders. I know this can sound rather arrogant, but this is what makes photography meaningful for me: the challenge, the responsibility, the full weight and pressure of it, and, in the end, the full reward.
This is not my own original idea. It comes from Dan Pink's book Drive about the science behind motivation. What does it take to be happy in one's work? According to Pink the three essentials are: "1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves."
I am happy as a photographer because I get to take my photos my way. I love the time spent seeking new ideas, trying new techniques, constantly striving to learn and grow. And at the end of the day, I get to take pictures that matter to people. I get to record truths and make tangible the fleeting moments. I get to be the witness, get to capture and create a lasting record.
Thankfully I convinced them to not freeze scenes. Bring out the cast. Set up the lights. Let them just act and let me record.
And when I turned in the color photos and got this response I was beyond joyful.
Dear Brenda, I'm not rendered speechless very often but these are nothing short of exquisite!!!!! I can't thank you enough!! When can I post them so my NYC friends can see them? The cast is going to flip!!! You are amazing!!!!!! WOW, WOW, WOW!!!!! Bets
The next major production for ATP is coming up in July. And with this first success I am even more excited to see how I can keep working this idea, keep refining it, keep aiming for sharper, clearer focus. The fear is all behind me now. I passed the test. Now the real fun begins...