About a year ago I found myself standing in a theater with five other photographers. We were all there for the same purpose: to shoot a dress rehearsal of one of the country’s leading modern dance companies. Some were there for different publications, while others were company photographers who could probably document the pieces simply by listening to the music and hitting the shutter on the appropriate count.
The standard sizing up process began during the equipment unloading, the period before a dress rehearsal where zippers open and each photographer looks around to inspect lens size and quality. I, being new to the field in comparison to the others, hooked a single camera around my neck and stood there feeling as vulnerable as if I had instead undone my pants zipper in the middle of a crowded theater. Out came the multiple cameras with zoom lenses capable of capturing seams on costumes. On they went to tripods and monopods rooted into the theater’s floor amidst the folded auditorium chairs.
After a few moments rocking back and forth and stretching out my arms and fingers, I meandered over to another photographer and struck up a conversation. His tripod was almost as tall as he was, but despite the impressive (and expensive) equipment, his ego was nowhere to be found, so I began to ask questions about his career and the specifics of his different camera bodies.
Shortly into our conversation we both admitted our preference for shooting from backstage compared to being in the audience. I mean, we’re all going to get the same thing from out here, he said. The words bounced around my head and I began to ponder their truth as the lights went down to signal the beginning of the workday.
Up the aisle. Down the aisle. Up the aisle. Down the aisle. Over the following two hours I bounded through that performance as though I was an understudy reviewing the piece in the audience. I got up close to the stage and chose to showcase minor details instead of focusing on the larger picture. Meanwhile the other photographers stood still.
That was the first time I’d worked as one of many people hired to shoot a performance, and it was on that day I realized how much my approach to photography is more like a ghost performer than someone who grew up standing behind a camera. As I’ve accrued more and more employment in the field, my techniques have expanded, but my feeling about the idea that “we all get the same thing” if we shoot from the audience has not. I approach each performance as something to actively engage in and I took that photographer’s words as a challenge to find my own style even if I was assigned to do exactly the same thing as everyone else.Since that day, I’ve entered into many discussions—some with employers and others with peers—and insisted that more can be said with a tighter shot than with a full stage shot that captures a performance exactly as the audience sees it.
I liken this tighter style to the idea of writing from the inside out. To zoom in and capture emotion on a face, tension in a hand, and the interaction of lighting on the bodies of subjects is to find the small character traits a writer creates in order to make a story something more than broad strokes of generic characterization.
When a body explodes into the edges of the frame—to the point where limbs are at times chopped off by the framing—it stops being a static capture of a performance; the energy in the shot, which the live performance has now transformed into, can be more energetically akin to what an audience feels in the theater by employing techniques that aren’t about capturing the proscenium. But I’ve been told this style is not always useful for publicity materials, despite my belief that a more engaging (not just “beautiful”) photograph will result in a greater curiosity about the work portrayed. To me, the wide shot feels more like a book jacket than lush sentences. But there is, unquestionably, a place for such images.
All of this is not to say I feel like I’m doing something revolutionary by deciding to frame a tighter shot. I’m hardly the first to do so. However, I find it to be much more possible to make a unique image—one that captures the energy of the performance as I see it—when I focus on what the camera allows me to see more completely than my naked eye does.
In many ways that photographer’s words ignited me to never become complacent and to always search out the details of what I see before me. Since then I’ve stood in the audience with many fellow photographers, curious as to whether we’ll all get the same shots. One way I can ensure I won’t? Just a few sprints up and down the aisle. Don’t want to rely too heavily on that zoom lens to do all the work for me. I want to be part of the action, and, in turn, make viewers of my photos feel the heat of the stage lights.