Photography Resources

In our work to prepare our actors to use film cameras in rehearsal and performance, we’ve come across a few fantastic resources.

We’re fortunate to be working with Boston photographer Ryuji Suzuki, whose BEAUPIX Studio in Fort Point specializes in portraiture. Ryuji is serving as a consultant on the play, and will be working one-on-one with our actors.

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We’re also digging the website I Still Shoot Film, a resource-rich clearinghouse for how-tos, technical explanations, and sample photographs. Of particular interest to our needs are:
The Introduction to Medium Format Photography
How Film Cameras Work: The Basic Mechanics
• And the larger-scale resource, The Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography which has great entries on depth of field, darkrooms, shutter speed, aperture, and more.

Examples of the types of cameras we’re using (images from I Still Shoot Film).

 

We’re used to the types of photos 35mm cameras produce, but medium format film looks a little different — we’re working with a camera that produces square 6×6 photographs (actually, not unlike Instagram, which is aiming for that retro feel). Here are some portrait examples we love by photographer Rog Walker, including from his series Black: An Aesthetic Analysis of Tone. For even more of Rog’s work, check out his Flickr feed, and this collection of his photo-stories on HuffPo.

Image by Rog Walker

Photo by Rog Walker

Image by Rog Walker

Photo by Rog Walker

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Photo by Rog Walker

 

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What is Portrait (Part 1)

“I think a portrait is a representation of an individual, usually an individual human being by another individual and it’s a created object that acts as a kind of remembrance of that person.”

“…It’s like being in love you know…”

A Silent Scream

MOTHER is looking at a photograph that CALVIN made. Two tones enters the room, slowly: a bass and a treble. We iris on MOTHER as the tones enter,
The bass grows louder.
And louder.
And fuller.
And louder.
We can feel it in our chests.
The treble also grows louder and fuller: It fills our ears. MOTHER’s mouth opens – slack jawed.
She might be making a noise – an ahhh, and if she is, her noise and the note’s noise are the same.
It’s the sound of screaming silently in one’s own mind. MOTHER is filled with the image, the photograph.

 

The “silent scream” is an indelible moment of the modern theatre. Berliner Ensemble actor Helene Weigel’s seminal interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage has left us with an iconic gesture of loss and pain. It’s a manifestation of Brecht’s concept of gestus — that is, a character’s singular physical expression of social behavior embracing the economic, emotional, familial and rational reality that informs the scene. Moments of gestus often become definitional of a character’s essence as it exists in the social/political context of the play. This was certainly true for Weigel’s Mother Courage. A description of the moment in performance:

silent-scream-1

For reference: below, see the screaming horse from Guernica, which Picasso painted as a response to the Nazi’s barbarous bombing campaign on the Basque town. The horse in particular was said to stand in for the people of Guernica and the suffering they endured.

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

In REALLY, the Mother confronts a moment of existential grief and loss. Her physical response mirrors that of Mother Courage, but also another famous silent scream: Meryl Streep’s in the film Sophie’s Choice , wherein Sophie is forced by a Nazi official to choose which of her two children will be sent to the gas chamber. If she refuses the choice, both children will die. At the last moment, she saves one child, and the camera focuses on her silent scream as she hears the dying screams of her daughter — the daughter’s voice becomes Sophie’s.

sophie

 

In both cases — Mother Courage and Sophie — the silent scream is prompted by the loss of a child. And not just loss, but by the tragic shocking injustice of the circumstance, by desperation, and by each mother’s inability to voice that grief aloud. There is an existential terror embedded in these gestures: a deep, cavernous, consuming, annihilating grief. The philosopher Jacques Lacan called this the “grimace of [a] life that suffers” — a silence, a pain located somewhere beyond the cry.

 

Portrait of a Muse

CALVIN stares at GIRLFRIEND.
GIRLFRIEND feels herself being stared at.
CALVIN stares at GIRLFRIEND like she’s the only girl in the world.
He stares at her with new eyes.
He stares at her and he is inspired.
GIRLFRIEND grows warmer in his gaze.
She no longer sits, she poses, she fills herself.
She is beautiful.
She is a muse.
She warms and fills with CALVIN’s attention.
They are both warm and light and full.
And they are so lovely with each other.

In a previous post, we talked about the Mother’s challenge of posing, consciously, for a portrait under the Girlfriend’s gaze. As a counterpoint, we see the Girlfriend as she is filled with the love of the artist, transforming into a muse. Later, Mother tells of being painted in her youth by a handsome young man whose attentions she won as if in battle.

What might any of this look like from the artist’s point of view? How does the male artist view the muse?

GUSTAV KLIMT
Klimt’s intricate, radiant, gold leaf portraits are loaded with symbolism, and often feature women of exquisite beauty. I’m reminded of his work in particular in relationship to the stage directions regarding the Girlfriend’s transformation (above).

 

PABLO PICASSO
Notorious as a womanizer and renowned as a genius, Picasso was inspired by a series of muses, two of whom are depicted here.

 

MARIANO FORTUNY
Fortuny spent over four decades painting and photographing his wife, Henriette, as he pursued a critically lauded career that spanned textile design, to scenic design and lighting innovations, to high fashion.

 

HENRI MATISSE
Here’s a small selection of works portraying his muse, Lydia Delectorskaya.

 

ALFRED STIEGLITZ
His longtime partner and fellow artist Georgia O’Keefe featured prominently in his oeuvre.

 

MAN RAY
The avant garde Dadaist spent nearly his whole life working side by side with his partner, muse, and fellow artist Lee Miller.

 

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
Another artist pair, Mapplethorpe and singer/poet Patti Smith were both frequent subjects of his photographs.

The Pose

The Mother in this play has arrived, at the invitation of the Girlfriend, to sit for a portrait — to spend some portion of time being seen, recorded, examined. What is the Mother expecting of the resulting photograph? Is she hoping to appear beautiful? Wise? Mysterious? Powerful? Vindicated? We know she studied art history in college, and she comes back over and over to the value of beauty in art. In this way, she seems to be representative of an earlier generation of art connoisseurs deeply connected to classic ideals of taste and propriety — she is at odds, perhaps, with her son’s cohort of artists who draw influence from photographers who explored grittier, messier subject matter. As she says to the Girlfriend:

“You all like things — you like things to be.
Interesting.
Ugly even.”

So who does the Mother envision herself to be, in this portrait? She emphasizes her desire for prettiness (in art) as the portrait session starts. What is this negotiation about?

One way to think about this moment is by considering what the Mother thinks of as classically beautiful or powerful portraiture — what will she be measuring herself against? These ideas might shape the physical score of the Mother as she performs the act of posing, of being seen and recorded.

I’ve been thinking about Edwardian era painted portraits of strong and intriguing women, as well as the way in which contemporary photographers like Annie Leibovitz have innovated portraiture, using unexpected physical gestures or settings to reveal the inner truth of a subject. It feels like the Mother  might admire Leibovitz-ian work, but in her heart wants to be seen through a more idealized, romantic lens. Some examples of each are below.

I’ll also note how prescribed the poses seem — the angle of hips and knees to the shoulders/neck; the direction of the eyes versus the feet; the manufactured line of the body to convey personality, status, emotion. So many portraits recapitulate the same general idea: the subject angled diagonally across the frame. It’s rare to see women — unless they’re of extremely high status — portrayed full front, the gaze directly forward towards the viewer.  How does the Mother play with these conventions, consciously or not, as she explores her own relationship to the camera’s eye?

{Click images to enlarge and view captions.}

How Much of Memory is a Lie?

One of the most interesting recent developments in the study of memory has to do with the revelation that there is no absolute “truth” to our memories. In short: every time we remember something, we essentially re-write that memory with a new version of it. The new version is inflected — sometimes substantially, sometimes subtlely —with who we currently are, our concerns, our anxieties, our biases, and expectations. There is no authentic version of our past experiences stored in some incorruptible neurological hard drive. We are always revising our pasts, whether we mean to or not. I’m particularly flummoxed by the implication that the memories we revisit most — whether because they are cherished moments, or because we’re tormented by unfinished business — are therefore the least reliable in terms of authenticity, and the most changed by the way we repeatedly turn them over and over in our consciousness like a set of cosmic worry beads.

In Jackie Sibblies Drury’s REALLY, the two characters located in the present moment — the Girlfriend and the Mother — get pulled into memories of their relationships with Calvin. Those memory scenes aren’t situated as “flashbacks,” that is, they don’t purport to show a factual replay of something from the past. Instead, they seem to be echo-y, full of ripples from the present.

NPR’s show Radiolab ran a special show on memory and its relationship to truth: “Remembering is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process — it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated, and false ones added.” Listen to it here:
https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/radiolab/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F91569%2F

 

Contextual Universes

When I picture this tight and mysterious play by Jackie Sibblies Drury, I imagine that it exists as a planet, orbiting a lodestar called Memory, pulled and pushed by the gravitational fields of nearby gas giants, with their swirling, ever-shifting surfaces: Susan Sontag’s “On Photography,” Vilém Flusser’s “Philosophy of Photography,” and Roland Barthes slim but emphatic volume “Camera Lucida.”

As we begin tablework with the cast and team, we’ll be mapping their orbital trails throughout the play. Watch this space for more.

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