Academic journal article About Performance

Craving the Whole Essence: The Photograph as Document, Artwork and Framework in the Theatre of vs. E. Meyerhold

Academic journal article About Performance

Craving the Whole Essence: The Photograph as Document, Artwork and Framework in the Theatre of vs. E. Meyerhold

Article excerpt

Shooting theatre is usually a documentary experience rather than a creative experience. It doesn't always have to be that way.

JeffSpirer, photographed1

Photographs of the theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold highlight a key dichotomy in the photodocumentation of theatrical practice. These images are frequently the first point of contact with Meyerhold's work for non-Russian speakers, and provide a vital insight into the director's visual aesthetic. The photographs are also, however, art pieces in themselves, comprising unusual angles and explicit framing decisions. They are not images made by chance, but the work of a highly selective, and often anonymous, photographic artist. Placed in their cultural context, they reflect the rise of photography as an artistic, rather than purely documentary, process. They are testament to photography's emergence as a creative strategy amongst the early twentieth century avant-garde. Aside from their historical value as documentation ofa theatre lost to Stalinism, these images have an independent aesthetic value.

As a researcher focusing on Meyerhold's construction of the mise en scène, I have found it necessary to interrogate the photograph's dual status as document and artwork. To this end, I began questioning practising theatre photographers. Their responses, alongside photographs of Meyerhold's theatre and questions of photographic philosophy, become the starting point for an exploration of these tensions in practice, the ultimate aim of which is to subvert the accepted hierarchical relationship between theatre and its photodocumentation.

There is an implication that photography exists to serve theatre, that its role is one of documentation, rather than creative expression. In fact, the photograph is a network of dualities and realities, both present and absent, then and now, truth and fiction. Rather than impeding the value of performance photodocumentation, the dualities of the photographic image echo and enhance the dualities of theatre. The discussions surrounding photography as a medium, often seen as reasons for regarding photographic evidence as suspicious or deceptive, are re-cast as the frameworks for analysing Meyerhold's theatrical aesthetic, shedding significant light on the director's construction of temporality in performance.

The Photograph as Document

Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer (Sontag 1979,185)

Photographs of theatre are the meeting point for two distinct art forms. Theatre is rooted in a temporal continuum; photography abstracts discrete moments from this continuum, using mechanical technology to capture an instant. Both are defined by their relationship with temporality, but photography is a medium which is, in theory, entirely released from the constraints of temporal linearity in its construction or reception. If it is this same linearity that defines the theatrical experience, photographic images of theatre become the site of technological, methodological, and philosophical tensions. Cartier-Bresson encapsulates the theatre photographer's challenge, that is, to capture in one moment the sum of the many moments which create an experience.

Through photography, the performance experience is given permanence. Ephemerality may define the theatrical, but it is the theatre historian's curse. The photograph appears to be a direct link to the theatre of past. Since the creation of the camera, photographs have been used as proof; in Susan Sontag's words, they are an "inventory" (Sontag 1979, 22). The photograph has a semblance of objectivity through its mechanical recording of the moment, seeming superior to the artist's impression or the eye-witness report. Drawing again on Sontag, "Photographs seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literary narratives" (Sontag 1979, 74). …

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