Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Moving Target:

A proposal to improve practice in performance photography

During my studies at Norwich University College of Art, I investigated the collaboration or rather the lack of it between professional performers and photographers. I formed a hypothesis that enabling education to develop the art and practice of performance photography would be a worthwhile endeavour.

In my experience, the collaboration between editorial photographers or photojournalists and their subjects of performers is often wasteful of time and money; it is often at conflicting purposes and frequently fails to make the most of its creative opportunities.

As a remedy, I formally propose (see appendix) that workshops and residencies to enable photographers and performers to collaborate should be established. My belief is that there would be benefits for Britain’s cultural exports if a centre of excellence in performance photography was established in the UK.

Every correspondent I contacted agreed that action was needed because performance images they saw or use are mostly of average quality. Few could point to someone that stands out in the field of performance photography although most could name a photographer they admired.

Defining performance photography

Photographers and performers have a long history of collaboration and much of it beyond performances for the camera. Since the beginning of photography, stills have publicised performers’ work, made (or destroyed) their reputations, defined their practice and genres, made distinct their qualities and recorded them for posterity.

Roland Barthes says in Camera Lucida that photography evades classification and Patrice Pavis and others say a typology that defines every kind of performance or spectacle is elusive. For my purpose, I define performance photography (to differentiate it from cinematography) as lens-based media intended to fix experience of a performance and/or performer into other spaces than those the live performance holds. Photography is remote viewing in time (before and after) and distance from the performance event. The intent of the photographer and context of the image affects the semiotic meaning to the viewer. Performance photography can include portraits of the performer or even paparazzi photos as their intrinsic value is that the subject is a performer. For brevity, I use the term photography with respect to both performance photography and otherwise.

This photography is one creative practice interpreting another creative practice. Like literary criticism, it can see what we may not see at first. It also fixes forever - albeit with limitations and distortions - something of the nature of the performance and the performer. The crucial constant of this specialist photography is the performer and this calls for a negotiation and collaboration between the subject and photographer. Just how essential is that collaboration between both artists is what I want to explore.

Decline in collaboration

Alongside numerous articles citing economic decline in the practice of photojournalism there have been many complaints in the media and arts industries that in the last two decades or so, the working relationship between editorial photographers and performers has declined to indifference and even to animosity.  It may be that such complaints are mere nostalgia after a localised shift in priorities but the evidence offered by many informed experts is persuasive and merits further investigation.  Of the many issues worth the attention of arts management between performers and photographers, I can only address a few for illustration.

Artistic collaboration in performance photography has sometimes been encouraged by those who provide the sponsorship – be it state or private – of the artistic endeavor. A notable example is theatre photography in Czechoslovakia celebrated every year in a theatre festival but in contrast, I have not yet discovered if this has happened significantly in the United Kingdom in the recent past.

Each successive wave of advances in media technology has created new forms of performance practice and many advances first met with suspicion are now hailed as breakthroughs. Rotogravure, radio, sound recording and silent films then sound films and television, all brought about changes in performance practice of every genre – and led to new ones. This continues with the Internet and whatever else is around the corner. Although offering creative and commercial stimulus to respond to and exploit these innovations, the rapid development of new media technology raises my concern that arts management practice is not keeping pace.

Particular cultures in the spectrum of performance have variations in photographic practice adapted to each of them. Dance photography is not just the same as rock photography. Each genre reports unique problems which a photographer, manager and performer will encounter eventually and need to develop strategies for. All my correspondents have said that no training for these scenarios had occurred in their professional education.

There are currently no formal opportunities in BA and MA education of photographers in the UK to practise performance photography. If there were, I think my ambition would be 99% attained. I would then encourage arts managers to engage in that process as this issue is not as much about training photographers but building collaboration and understanding between the parties now divided by the lens. The arts needs performance-savvy photographers and photography-savvy performers and managers.

Without formal structure to introduce them, such as music college or drama school, emerging performers encounter the performance photographer late in their professional development. Often, the first instance a photographer is allowed to photograph performers is on a professional assignment where failure on his or her part has ramifications. There is no creative safety for the performance photographer except working with similarly emergent performers to trade their time for portfolio images. Without support, that depends on the photographer’s contacts and initiative.

Every renowned performance photographer I interviewed or biography I read acknowledged that the greatest influence on their fortune was the person who could grant the access required to photograph performers. Most of the time this happened outside the formal process of submitting a portfolio to commissioners or winning competitions, but there was some element of a personal relationship that tipped the balance and got them their breaks. Photographers, unlike writers or painters, cannot work alone in a garret. A truism for many walks of life is that you must not only have talent and skill but friends - or the ability to win friends rapidly. This reinforces my conviction that beneficial outcomes will arise from bringing photographers and performers together on residencies to develop potential relationships.

To enable photographers to experiment safely in developing skills that will ultimately serve the performer and producer, it seems necessary to provide training starting with basic health and safety at actual performance venues. You can shoot a still-life in a studio, a bedroom or in a college classroom but performance photography can only be taught in a proper theatre or large studio. Except in a few well-equipped colleges, photographers will have to go into venues for their training and this might also be an opportunity to venues.

I found only one example of a college, Columbia College, Chicago USA, that combined its theatre, dance and photography courses to offer a module on performance photography. Divaldo, the theatre festival in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, runs workshops on theatre photography during the week of performances and acclaimed photojournalist Beat Presser has taught courses in Bangkok on documenting Asian theatre. I have found some potential for funding to run short courses in the UK via various schemes to develop business, performance and media skills and ‘Third Stream’ initiatives.

Many factors discourage emerging practitioners from developing performance photography as a career specialisation. Clients that can give someone a break do not tend to be those with budgets to spend on taking risks and competition drives fees downwards. There are the ‘soft factors’ for instance, competitors with independent incomes or relationships with performers that insulate them from requiring performance photography to provide their living. They can literally afford to take creative risks virtually unpaid.

Reclaiming status

Recognition as an artist solely in performance images is rare outside of the performing arts. Performers and producers identify able photographers and show preference to those they trust, along with their favourite conductors, directors or teachers, just as in any labour market. Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller and Andrew Lloyd-Webber all insisted the late Ivan Kyncl photographed their productions. West End theatre producer and photographic agency owner Biddy Hayward and Broadway publicist Adrian Bryan-Brown say they must concern themselves with knowing the best practitioners (one of them is his wife Joan Marcus). No photographer recently seems to have made a reputation solely in theatre, opera or classical work. American theatre professor Natalie Crohn Schmitt says of photographers’ credit and creative acknowledgment, “instance of the neglect of the theatre photographer is not isolated”.

A director of a leading music school and several musicians reported that to their knowledge, engagement with photography and the media in general is not formally a part of advanced musical training for a professional career. Members of the Thorne Trio told the Working Musician Symposium at the Royal College of Music in 2005 that an essential part of the transfer from study into a professional career was: “a good photo, a good website and good marketing all the time”.

In dance and theatre, such training focuses on performing for the lens and not as part of one’s basic professional practice such as keeping an appointment diary or finding an agent. All the arts managers I asked thought that arts managers in any genre need a high degree of visual literacy. Photographers, managers and performers all reported that developing a brief for a photographer was a skill in which few arts managers and performers felt satisfactorily able as a client. But most wanted these skills to maximise the value of their time and money. I heard numerous anecdotes of wasteful misunderstandings.

Efforts to address collaboration between performer and photographer face a challenge of relevance to each particular field.  However, there are ‘core’ values and common ground. Photography should never interfere with the performer or the audience. Respondents and sources all stated that one key skill of a photographer is the ability to work unobtrusively. The attributes that a publicist said they are looking for are found in fewer than half the photographers who send in portfolios when pitching to them for work. They are not always technical or creative expectations. Great store is put upon reliable response to phone calls. Business practice is recognised as a deficiency in creative teaching but debate rages on about its priority.

Although venues will have preferred vendors, the employment of ‘house’ photographers in venues has gone the way of the arc-lamp trimmer. What has gone with them is the accumulated specialist knowledge and practice and the rapport built from familiarity with the performers and management and the works performed. When images are needed, local freelancers are often thought not sufficiently skilled or trusted enough to be left alone to work unsupervised nor do production staff feel, given client expectations, adequately skilled to do the job themselves.

Actor and director Debora Williams recalled to me a notable house photographer at Harrogate Rep who took “extraordinary good action photos of all the shows during the rehearsals so we never had to endure the gut-wrenching misery of ‘mock-ups’. He was so theatre-savvy we never knew he was there.”  It is a saddening thought that nobody at Harrogate Theatre today can recall who this photographer was and although they have a large archive of photos, they have not kept a log of their details. House photographers are still employed in venues in mainland Europe and so there is an opportunity to compare the economic value of their practice to that of the UK.

Constraints on practice

There are numerous technical challenges in performance photography that determine practice. The noise of the shutter is a factor that influences how a photographer can document theatre and classical music (the volume usually being sufficiently overwhelming in popular music).  The cost of blimps for stills cameras can exceed £1,000 each. Jobbing photojournalists will not invest in one for occasional performance work (although they are considered a basic requirement to satisfy any film stills commissions). This also limits how and what musical genres and live performances are documented by producers, as the rental cost of the blimp is a substantial extra and has to be arranged for.

For theatre and opera photo-calls, photographers employed by the news media are usually invited to shoot the dress rehearsal, which is done without blimps. Then the numbers of photographers present and the time and technical constraints generally limit the creativity of the results. The best that can be hoped for is sharp well-lit images of a few key scenes.

Each theatre is different and the rake of the seats and height of the stage enforce limitations on photocalls and rehearsal coverage. It would be helpful if performers understood these factors in the same way that photographers should know when to stay out of an actor’s sight-line. So far, the only way to learn this is by experience.

The photographers hired by the production to do the lobby and programme publicity may have more freedom to work creatively, although not much more. Theatre director Terry Hands wrote in The Guardian in his obituary of the Royal Shakespeare Company photographer Ivan Kyncl:

“It is difficult to be a theatre photographer in Britain. Conditions are poor – often only a single dress rehearsal with costumes, lighting even actors still uncertain – and the final prints are usually selected not by the photographer but by the marketing department.
Theatre practitioners want excitement, movement, the "feel" of a show; newspapers all too often want high definition and both ears. And commerce usually wins, so we are left with talented performers, on both sides of the camera, being represented by static photographs that could be of any play at almost any place or time.”

Good image = good press

Dance, theatre and opera images are popular in the arts pages of newspapers and magazines especially when stars or lavish costumes and sets provide visual interest. Publicists carefully examine each event under their remit for such potential. This determines what photographs are commissioned and where they are sent, or if an open photo-call is arranged. Aesthetica magazine acknowledged that good and interesting photos will help get press coverage. Editor Cherie Federico said:  “If they can supply me with good images, I’ll run the story. I will invest the time for a journalist to write the piece.”

If performers can develop and understand these visual presentation skills and their value for themselves, it will help them get attention, improve practice and enable creative risk. To have a grasp of the semiotics of the theatre poster has some relevance to a performer’s practice.

Classical musicians feel they have to walk a fine line between conforming to traditional expectations and being interesting. The all female classical quartet Bond gained notoriety by blatantly exploiting their natural assets while the experience of the Badke Quartet was that their considerable investment in photographs by the well-established photographer Tas Kyprianou brought them unexpected coverage.  Cellist Jonathan Byers said:

“We’ve found that if we’ve been playing in a festival, more often than not that they’ll stick one of our nicer pictures to put on the front of the brochure. I don’t know if it has helped having a blonde girl in our quartet, but we haven’t ended up just having our picture with our name and where we’re playing but they’ve used it for more than that. That increases our profile.”

A successful client can greatly increase a photographer’s profile too. This is well documented in the story of photographer Anton Corbijn and U2 which began when each were hardly known. The photographer discovered their music and the band discovered the photographer and a very close and fruitful relationship grew up, with Corbijn becoming their de facto art director. It would be nice to think that opportunities to explore such relationships between emerging photographers and performers won’t have to rely entirely on luck for the respective parties to meet each other.

Classical music photography needs some fresh ideas and practice as it appears creatively stagnant. It can be hampered by formalities in performance. Unlike pop music, theatre or opera, the performers rarely move from fixed positions. Many respondents thought that images of orchestras and soloists performing, even in the specialist press, fail to capture any of the excitement of hearing a full orchestra playing or highlight the personality of the player. Jazz has a great tradition of doing this so it is certainly possible. A winner of the Federal German Photography prize, an image of Michel Petrucciani by Matthias Creutziger, shows him walking to his piano. If you know something of the story of the performer (who died of a bone disease) as a fan might, it tells you volumes about his approach to music.

The challenges of conveying the values of performance in images are always difficult regardless of the genre. Dance and popular music may offer many visual possibilities, which makes it a popular subject for amateurs, but it is just as possible to take very dull dance photos as any other.

The arts council publication  Marketing and touring. A practical guide to marketing an event on tour edited by Heather Maitland puts this quite unequivocally in its chapter on copy and images:

One of the company marketer’s most important tasks is to choose an image that tells the viewer why they should come and see the show. Research into how audiences use print indicates that they will reject or shortlist an event by looking at the images. When they read venue season brochures, audiences tend to filter out the shows they don’t want to see by flicking through the pages fairly fast to identify the events that ‘look interesting’. They then go back and read about those in more detail. All the events that don’t look interesting in this first scan through are rejected. This makes the initial image that the company sends the venue of crucial importance as most tickets for most shows are sold as a result of the venue season brochure.

New music or dance works have often not been created by the time the deadlines for season brochures approach. New plays have not gone into rehearsal so the creative team have often only a general idea of what the ‘flavour’ of the finished production will be. This means that companies producing this kind of work are often reluctant to commit themselves to an effective image at this stage.

Solving this problem involves commissioning a photographic image or illustration to represent the show but this takes skilful diplomacy on the part of the company marketer. They need to use their interviewing skills to extract a useful description from the creative team. They then need to work with a graphic designer to translate this into ideas for images that will tell audiences what the show is about, what it will be like and how they will feel when they watch it. Then they need good negotiating skills to get at least one of those ideas approved. Putting the director, choreographer or conductor in a rehearsal room with some performers and a photographer and then leaving them to it will rarely produce effective images. 

People skills

The relationship of the subject to the image commissioner greatly influences the photographer’s outcomes. One point of constant conflict is permission of various kinds. Publicists expressed frustration that every brief to the photographer they think can do the job has to be renegotiated with the performers to be photographed. The reasons for this are complex but I suspect they stem from distrust or concerns for control, “what’s it for, what are they going to do?” are those most often voiced. It is difficult to trust someone you have never met to do something you cannot control once the picture is taken.

Citing a one-day festival in 2008, one publicist had to clear just one photographer with twenty different acts. This causes them not to only weigh up photographers’ creative skills but also their diplomatic skills in situations where such issues could be subject to constant renegotiation. Such uncertainty is restrictive and it is a constant source of frustration that many performers don’t quite understand the alignment of the aims of the photographer and their commissioner with the subjects'.

Photographer and publicist respondents I interviewed also they felt that performers often don’t regard photography with the same respect they give to fellow performers, perhaps because they feel that most performers are highly trained with years of practice whereas “anyone can pick up a camera”. This perception can alter when the performer sees results better than expected or finds working with the photographer a pleasant and fruitful experience, possibly after awful ones. Therefore, again, opportunity for performers to develop social and working relationships with photographers must be encouraged.

All my respondents considered a key skill for the photographer was the ability to engage the subject in these and other difficult situations. A mixture of personal charm and authority was helpful. There cannot be one ideal personality blueprint for a performance photographer but what can help is the opportunity for the photographer during their training to develop strategies for the situations that will be encountered and for the performer to experience different photographic situations in a safe environment. Rock photographer Ross Halpin says on his blog “my job isn't easy. Getting the subject matter to co-operate is ninety percent of the task. The other ten percent is taking the picture”.

There is generally a correlation between the quality of collaboration and the permission given to take photos. It sounds obvious and common sense but many respondents said it is often lost on performers that collaboration with the photographer regardless of who pays them, benefits the performer and is essential for the photographer. Besides the legal aspects of permission, there are philosophical questions on the influence of permission (or tolerance) as a context in documentary photography and its effect on study and use, such as in anthropology.

Rights protection

Many of these transactions are controlled by regulation such as copyright legislation or there are industry bodies representing their interests on the photographer and publisher axis.  Dance UK offers an information sheet on hiring a photographer and the British Theatre Guide has a fact sheet on commissioning actor headshots. Both take trouble to dispel myths about copyright, indicating that misunderstanding on this issue is commonplace, something with which I concur.

Performers often commission photographs which they themselves supply via press agents to publishers. It frequently happens that when a publisher seeks a round-up of current images of a performer or performance it will have the same images supplied by the photographer/stock library, the producer/publicists and the performer/publicists with varying cost or conditions. This indicates to me that performers often lose control of their images and don’t understand the ramifications of this.

Theatre and dance photographers frequently lose revenue because of loose copyright controls in those genres. It is quite common, however, in pop music for the images of a performer (that they paid for) to be a lucrative income stream. These models could apply to other genres opening up markets and revenue. After a performance in February 2008 by Danza Contemporana de Cuba, promoter Dance East was offering a limited edition of photographs by Roger Hardy to raise money for the Jerwood Dancehouse.

While dance takes a leaf from pop music, pop music is gearing up to expand this niche market. Faced with falling revenue from recordings, Sony Music, owners of the Columbia Records archive, has formed Icon Collectables to offer gallery prints of archive publicity photos taken by its staff photographers priced from £150 to £900 each. Other labels have followed suit. Some are doubtlessly regretting that in the 1980’s many archives were disposed of to recoup the land value of their vaults.

As today, it was a desire for media exposure that originally motivated the engagement between performer and photographer. In the 19th century, as it became affordable, performers realised the power photography had to create the kind of celebrity which the 18th century actress Sarah Siddons had conferred on her only by the oil paintings of Joshua Reynolds [1723-1792]. Theatre photography was an established specialty by 1915 when Anna Pavlova posed for the New York Metropolitan Opera House’s photographer Herman Mishkin [1871-1948]. She knew that newspaper interest in her would be enhanced by his reputation as a portraitist and this would help widely promote her second American tour. She was likely not the first to exploit the leverage that we still see used today by Miley Cyrus posing  for Annie Leibowitz in Vanity Fair although who exactly gains what is difficult to understand. Incidentally, Mishkin was renowned for his tact at a time when opera stars had difficulty adjusting their hyperbolic gestures to the aesthetics of modern photography.

Sometimes performers and photographers collude rather than collaborate. Performances are an ‘act’ and as such, complete verisimilitude in recording them can be counter productive. Performance photography is expected to support the artifice created on stage. Anna Pavlova doctored Mishkin’s photographs with a pencil to make her feet smaller knowing it would not show up in the crude half-tone newspaper reproduction and today, digital manipulation to suit the subject’s vanity is unremarkable. There are complex transactions bound by unspoken rules which understanding of is an advantage and only learned, at present, by engagement.

A common cause of friction though is that photography demands time. Performers have busy schedules and there is never enough time for rehearsals. If a photo shoot take time away from an activity, its value has to be equivalent to that activity. A directed photography session demands the full attention of the sitter whereas a print reporter conducting an interview can do so whilst the performer is travelling on a tour bus or by phone or, more ideally, being given an excellent lunch. Photographers seem to be granted ever decreasing time for access on the stage or in the studio. Ross Halfin spares no ire for particular publicists who ask him to hurry up during a session, “(it) does not mean you will do a good job. A real PR will make sure you get the time you need and knows why you are doing it and wants it to be good for the artist. It is so small-minded and churlish. (They) should go and work as ambassadors for an African despot.”

This time constraint is apparent with orchestras or large ensembles such as choirs.  I looked hard for publicity images of choirs that were exceptions from stock clich├ęs. If a large orchestra has to be corralled for a photo shoot, this could amount to several thousand pounds in wages that have to be weighed against the results of the orchestra’s publicity photos, which many consider are fighting a lost cause.

Arts managers cited particular difficulties with the size of orchestras limiting photographic opportunities. For some orchestras “a sort of dead routine develops, ho hum, another shot for the season brochure”. Another factor hindering some orchestras or ensembles is the number of overlapping freelancers they employ. Identifying their members creates some sensitivity.

Several publicists recounted to me experiences of arranging successful and not so successful shoots for orchestras over the years. Limited opportunity and finances require very careful planning for the outcomes the shoots could achieve, as one set of photos would have to serve many print and media uses. Some photographers they employed would be ambitious creatively and achieve one or two outstanding images but fail to provide everything needed for a brochure and publicity. Another photographer’s results were – highly subjectively - less striking but provided a wider range of useful images and showed a more pragmatic approach to creativity.

A photojournalist soon learns the first rule of any assignment is to come home with something. The advice I was given frequently as a photojournalist was “you shoot for safety and when you have one in the bag, then you go get creative”. Opportunities for experimentation in realising images of large ensembles are few and far between for both photographers and the managers of orchestras.

Rock bottom

Like many other prominent pop or rock groups, The Rolling Stones enforce restrictions on press photography at their concerts to protect lucrative merchandising revenues. After onerous contracts are signed, attendant press photographers are limited to shooting by the notorious ‘three songs, no flash’ rule which has become standard for reasons no one seems to remember. Given that bands are not making so much money out of recordings any more, attention to merchandising rights is even more crucial, but these are not protected by limiting the time a photographer can document a performance.

Iggy Pop has a technical rider written by his touring manager that does not ban photography but warns professional media covering his concerts not do anything to interfere with the performer or the audience. “As soon as you push a camera into the face of an artiste, you completely change the nature of their performance” and “Iggy adores breaking cameras”.

A worrying trend is that performers who have come after the Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop have decided to emulate them. Emerging bands seem to imagine they can control their image the same way superstars do. A photographer opined recently:

“Sometimes it's not a case of clear understanding, it's just a case of bare- faced cheek.  Unsigned bands come off stage and get paid their £300 for the gig.  Next thing I know they are coming over to me and nigh on demanding that I hand over my images for their MySpace pages.”

Writing in M magazine (the organ of the Performing Rights Society) recently, Mark Paytrees argues that “music has lost the ability to picture itself in action”. It is telling for him that in some recent exhibitions billed as the iconic images of popular music, all the images were taken 20 years ago. Paytrees adds:

“hampered by restricted access, harassed by security guards and handcuffed by contracts from artists and magazines, photographers feel robbed of their own work”.

Given the wide agreement I found for my proposal and the evidence offered of unsatisfactory relations and evidence that the fundamental basis of every performer/photographer interaction is personal rapport, my hypothesis that collaboration is crucial and yet unsatisfactory still stands.

Another good reason to seek a photography practice applicable to all genres and cultures of performance practice is that good and bad practice in one genre often migrates over to another. Performers move between genres as much as photographers do. An opportunity for performers to understand the process of the photographer and vice-versa will develop creative respect and trust and instigate creative partnerships. Vera John-Steiner’s findings in her work on creative collaboration that trust is the basis of success should be heeded.

A fortunate finding was a strong possibility that such photography residencies could be integrated with a programme of musical training. A proposal was developed along with this research and it follows as the appendix. This project might begin with a conference to examine performance photography in greater depth and form a framework for its development and delivery.  Many questions remain to be asked and answered before, as one photography lecturer wishes for, “photographers and performers transcend the demands of publicists and media”.

I consider now that the photographers’ problems in working with performers and vice-versa are small and discrete and no one stakeholder is desperately crying out for a remedy but, as a whole, the restrictions on efficiency and the contribution to higher costs are considerable. More understanding of respective purpose and process between photographers and performers would prevent waste and increase productivity. A need for visual literacy seems required in every field of arts management. As Allisa Quart has put it, whilst photojournalism declines, visual literacy is ever more important; “It seems that everyone now takes photos and saves them and distributes them, and that all these rivulets supply a great sea of images for editors to use”.

During the research, I had the notion that a manual or textbook on best practice for performers and photographers would be welcome in the marketplace as interest in the topic was broader than I expected. A symposium could establish a blueprint for such guidelines. There are a good number of practitioners with specialist knowledge willing to teach the skills of performance photography in creative safety.

There appears to be a need too for standard industry-wide protocols that allows wider use and income from stock sales that is not as restrictive as the present contracts offered by performers’ managements. In the absence of any other agreement, there should be a schedule of prices and contract terms to fall back on. With many other issues affecting photographers and artists – such as ‘orphan works’ legislation and EU harmonisation - the need for such standards grows.

To continue with the status quo would not gravely endanger anyone’s practice. Some photographers will overcome the initial discouragements to make a career in this specialism, just as some musicians eventually overcame every barrier to Carnegie Hall. But, while we have established the usefulness of the professional development of musicians over leaving their post-education careers entirely to chance, we have not applied these both practical and moral imperatives to the one form of visual arts that is integral to the performer’s working life.

If one believes talent will come out and in happy chances that the next Annie Leibowitz will meet Jan Wenner before she gives up and goes into real estate, then we might as well close down the art colleges and music schools now.  But if you believe, as I do, that opportunity should be constructed, introductions arranged and commissions granted, not just for the art but for the largesse of encouragement, then we must multiply creative chance by the square power of opportunities.

Nat Bocking


June 3rd 2008

A proposal for Performance Photography residencies

An effort should be made within schools, companies and performance venues to provide opportunities for emerging photographers to collaborate with performers to develop the art and skills of documenting the performing arts and to improve arts practice overall.

Musicians require visual literacy

Driven by the rapid growth in the consumption of visual media enabled by new technology, there is growing awareness that visual literacy is an inescapable requirement of professional practice in music and the performing arts and in arts management.

The Arts consumes vast quantities of images (as photographs and time-based media) of its works, artists and activities for the purposes of documentation, communication and revenue. The realisation of images for publicity, to document the process of creativity and for marketing recorded works is the purpose of performance photography and it is practically inescapable in the practice of being a professional musician.

The arts needs photographers who understand performers

Interaction between photographers and performers is necessary but research indicates that a dearth of understanding causes imposition more than collaboration and the creative outcomes are more determined by chance rather than by design. The performing arts and the media need practitioners who are knowledgeable of their collaborators’ practice and yet this specialist knowledge is mostly acquired slowly by happenstance.

There wastage and missed opportunities - both creative and financial - for the photographers, sponsors and performers will continue and likely increase while there is:

1. widespread ignorance of the performance photographer’s practice.

2. a shortage of opportunity for photographers to acquire the specialised knowledge (which fall outside of most photography courses) required in the arts.

3. very limited (if practically zero) opportunity for creative development in the visual aspects of their practice for performers and arts administrators.

Several performance venues, music colleges and photography courses in the UK are ideally located and suitably resourced and should be induced to collaborate to offer an opportunity for the creative development of performance photography which, after considerable research, I am confident does not exist anywhere else in the world.

Many direct benefits

What such a sponsor organisation could gain would be to come to know a growing cohort of practitioners of verified qualities who could also benefit from the association with their sponsors.

Alongside fulfilling its own needs for visual material, the residencies have the potential to further enhance the sponsor’s standing with the dissemination of the visual works. The self-seeding fruits of success could carry the sponsor’s ‘brand’ to all corners of the world for a very long time to come.

Developing audiences and revenues

This idea would find ready acceptance by many other vested interests. Performers and venues throughout the world call upon the services of UK based performance photographers. The United Kingdom’s exchequer depends on cultural exports that need the very best in visual marketing materials and the investment in them is very considerable. Books and other media depicting the performing arts are gateways to appreciation and can develop audiences as well as being works of art in their own right. The commercial value of the UK’s photographic industry is substantial and future growth looks positive if the sector’s known skills shortages can be overcome.

Key features

* Places to be offered practitioners identified or recommended by college courses or other practitioners.

* After thorough briefing, the enabling of lightly supervised ‘access all areas’.

* Provision of IT resources for the management, display, publication and archiving of images created in the residencies.

* Workshops for photographers on performance-related technique with eminent practitioners. Also offered to performers as part of their professional development and facilities for one-to-one creative explorations between photographers and performers.

* The provision of creative briefs and practical assignments to document the work of the sponsoring organisation and any performances with realistic opportunities for subsequent commissions and publication.

* All images created on residencies would be embargoed for publication until approved by the subjects and sponsor (just as it would with any audio recordings of musicians in rehearsal).

* Suitable images created in these residences could be licensed for publishing and gallery sales with profit participation for the residency programme, subjects and authors to establish long-term royalty revenues.

Challenging but possible

To succeed, the proposed residencies will have to be designed around a myriad of potential conflicts and practical considerations but none seem insurmountable. I urge the very active consideration of this proposal, as I found considerable interest from photographers, musicians and learning institutions to participate.

1 comment:

  1. A recent Lady Gaga copyright grab: