If you have ever leafed through The New York Times or looked up at the Broadway marquees that animate Times Square, chances are that you have seen the evocative work of three leading Broadway photographers: Joan Marcus, Carol Rosegg and Matthew Murphy.
Transitioning from film to the digital era, the business of photography has been modernized from the days of the legendary Tony Award-winning dance and theatre photographer Martha Swope, who reigned over the field from the 1950s to the mid-1990s when she retired. Despite today’s reality where everyone with an iPhone is a photographer in their own right, the pool of professional theatre photographers has remained small.
Marcus, Rosegg and Murphy step out from behind the lens to share their most memorable shoots and provide insight as to how the profession has changed over the decades.
Rosegg landed her big break as Swope’s assistant at a time when she was both “incredibly lucky and very unemployed.” She continues, “I had done college photography, and I thought being a photographer meant being a journalistic photographer—chasing fires and things like that—being an arts photographer (which I knew I was not) or being a fashion photographer, which frankly didn’t interest me. During college, I took pictures of the summer stock I worked at, but I didn’t realize that you could actually be a theatre photographer. I heard from a press agent that Martha Swope needed someone to assist her. To be honest, I didn’t know who she was nor did I know this field existed. The press agent told me to pick up The New York Times, and I would find out who she was.”
View Rosegg’s favorite shots below.
Up until the late 1980s, theatre photographers typically shot a show in “set-ups,” allowing them the freedom to position the performers and manipulate lighting in a controlled environment, like a studio or rehearsal room. These days, capturing a live performance is the most common practice. Marcus describes this type of shooting as being “really quirky because you have no control.”
She elaborates, “Early on when you didn’t have digital and you had to shoot with film, it was harder than it looked. It was really kind of tricky. You had to print the pictures and deal with bad lighting; it required certain skills that a lot of people didn’t have. You’d be shooting, shooting, shooting, then you think, ‘God, that’s more than 36 pictures!’ And then you realize the film didn’t catch or you didn’t even have film in your camera. Or you’re shooting, shooting, shooting, and the lighting changes or there’s different qualities of light. It’s kind of complicated, so the pool became very small. People would try to do it, and then they thought, ‘I don’t want to do this!’ If you look at the history of production photographers there really aren’t that many. There was Martha and Carol.”
View Marcus’ favorite shots below.
While they prepare for live shoots as much as they can by sitting in on dress rehearsals and reading the script beforehand, there is still an element of surprise and chance that makes for an energizing experience. Rosegg admits, “Sometimes it’s more fun to not know what to expect than to know.”
The preference to shoot at live performances over set-ups is partly a result of union rules and regulations that aim to protect the number of hours in a workweek for the actors, but when there is a major cast change in lead roles or other special circumstances, producers will opt for a set-up.
This was the case when Murphy shot Heather Headley after she replaced Jennifer Hudson in The Color Purple. He reminisces, “I found them to be some of the most nuanced, head-to-toe actors that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Doing a photo call is a true art form for a performer, and when the role is as emotional as Celie or Shug, it’s asking a lot of someone to be able to drop into any given moment repeatedly without the build up of the entire show to get them there. Once I explained what we were going for in the shot, I would watch them each take a breath and then make the most beautiful physical choices that immediately showed me that they were in character. Heather would do the smallest changes with her hands, ankles and shoulders as we were shooting and could immediately change the energy of the room. Cynthia can tell you an entire lifetime of a character with her eyes. They both understand the difference between performing for a full theatre and shaping an emotion for camera.”
View Murphy’s favorite shots below.
Does Marcus foresee a future of more Broadway photographers? “The pool is definitely increasing,” she says, “and work that you used to get on smaller shows with smaller budgets is now done by the costume designer or a friend. But on the higher end [with] Broadway, I think while you’re going to see more photographers, there just isn’t enough work. It can only maintain a few people.”
Murphy adds that this business is not for the faint of heart; he advises young photographers who are just starting out to “wait for the moment. When you’re photographing live performances, it’s tempting to shoot as many images as possible,” he says, “but sometimes by shooting constantly you miss the one true ‘moment.’ Wait for it, and be ready when it’s there. That is a piece of advice I constantly have to remind myself of, as a photographer and as a person.”