Photography and Live Performance: Introduction

By McAuley, Gay | About Performance, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Photography and Live Performance: Introduction


McAuley, Gay, About Performance


The relationship between photography and theatre dates back to the earliest days of the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century when actors went to photographers' studios and posed in costume and in character and began to discover the potential of these studio portraits for publicity and promotional purposes (Buszek 1999). Photographers seem to have been equally fascinated by actors, whose expressive faces and bodies, and ability to hold a pose, made them ideal subjects for the camera at that stage of its development. It was not, however, until the early years of the twentieth century that camera technology advanced sufficiently for photographers to leave their studios and go into the theatre to take photographs of actors on stage, and it was not until the 1950s that further developments, notably the flash, made it possible for photographs to be taken during die course of a performance. Many of the early theatre photographs, posed and static diough they are, have become a staple part of theatre history, reproduced in numerous books and shown as slides to generations of students in theatre courses, a crucial part of the shift from dramatic literature to performance practice as the central focus of the discipline. The article by Amy Simpson published here revolves around two such photographs and is an excellent example of the way contemporary scholarship continues to draw sustenance from this visual material.

Early photography has thus made a significant contribution to theatre history and theatre scholarship, but it has been in the second half of the twentieth century that photography has really come into its own, both for what it has to offer theatre and performance practitioners and for its importance to the ongoing scholarly enterprise. In this period, photography has been increasingly institutionalised in relation to theatre practice: the press photo call was introduced, companies began to commission professional photographers to photograph each production and some now even employ an in-house photographer. Where body artand performance art are concerned, the relationship is even closer as the photographs are in many cases integral to the performance practice, an enduring trace of the unique event and sometimes even its raison d'être. Philip Ausländer, discussing performances "that were staged solely to be photographed or filmed and had no meaningful prior existence as autonomous events presented to audiences" (Ausländer 2006,2), suggests that in such cases the crucial relationship is not between performance and document, but between the document and its audience and, thus, that its "authority is phenomenological rather than ontological" (9). Anne Marsh's reflections on the work of Jill Orr, published here, take the argument a stage further in relation to the life of the document which, as an artefact in the world, is itself subject to the vicissitudes of time and technological change and these can, as she shows, rebound in surprising ways onto the originating work.

Now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, critics are beginning to talk about the 'post-photography era' as a result of the fatal blow digital technology has dealt to the photograph's putative (but in fact always problematical) status as truth bearing document. Digital technology means it is no longer the case that, as Roland Barthes put it, "the referent adheres" (Barthes [1980] 1993, 6), because there may not even be a referent, and the moment or event purportedly shown in a photograph may never have occurred, may be entirely constructed by the photographer.

Theatre and performance practitioners over the last half century have found multiple uses for photography in relation to their practice, and will doubtless continue to do so regardless of the doubts that digital manipulation may have introduced concerning the truth value of the photograph in relation to the performance moment it depicts. Photographs are used for posters and marketing campaigns, to sell a subscription season, to illustrate the programme (sometimes production shots in a glossy publication marketed as a souvenir of a prestigious production, sometimes simply head shots to illustrate the potted biographies of the artists involved), front-of-house shots (in the 1950s displayed in glass cases outside the theatre, serving much the same function as the 'parade' in French fairground theatres a century before, now more often used to decorate the theatre foyer, providing spectators with a foretaste of what they are to see or subtly shaping their memory of what they have seen), actors' portraits used as part of the casting process, rehearsal shots as pioneered by Bertolt Brecht to document and analyse work in progress and, finally, production shots preserved as archive. …

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