The Playgoer: Sara Krulwich: The Best

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Sara Krulwich: The Best

Blood From a Stone (2010). Photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times.

One of the privileges of being the "paper of record," "arbiter of culture," etc. when it comes to New York theatre is getting the best news photographers on the scene. So I'm thankful for the New York Times' professionalism in this manner whenever they send out Sara Krulwich on assignment to photograph a play.

Yes, so mighty is the Times that they send their own photographers (usually) to cover performances, rather than relying on whatever jpg your press rep flashed on his or phone at dress rehearsal. The reason, of course, is when you're the Times you take no chances about the quality of the "art" on your pages. And you can afford to.

But the true beneficiary of Krulwich's work, I say, is for the theatre lover. Theatre photography is an often overlooked but vital participant in our theatre culture and in theatre history.  Think--just think--of how much our perceptions of our theatrical past are shaped by particular production photos. And now think about how often those photos might have been from "photo calls" or other "posed" publicity shots and, thus, don't represent anything that happened on stage at all?

(For a terrific scholarly--but accessible--essay on this topic see Barbara Hogdon's "Photography, Theater, Mnemonics or, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Still" in the book Theorizing Practice.)

Anyway, back to Sara Krulwich.Whenever I see a photo in the Times like the one above (which accompanied this month's review of the New Group play Blood from a Stone), one where the action of the play just pops out of the page and the actors come to life, I look down at the photo-credit and invariably it's a Krulwich.

At first I assumed she was just another of the city's many pr photographers. But then I couldn't find her photos anywhere else. I'd find the "official" shots from the press kits and, apologies, but they just weren't the same. (Nothing wrong with them, certainly professional, just not works of art unto themselves.)  After I started noticing this correlation between this name Krulwich and those kinds of photos, I started more actively looking for it in the paper--and saving pics, both from off the screen and using the old fashioned scissors. I now have my own private collection, but I hope one day she gets to publish her amazing documentation of the New York Theatre of the early 21st century.

I have no idea how she works to get her unique effects. Whether she does a separate photo call or is actually allowed to shoot during performances (or, if not, in rehearsal?).  But these photos never looked posed.  Even when they're not as obviously eye-catching as the milk-in-the-face shot above (which is just showing off, by her standards) there's always genuine organic motion in them. In other words, pure action photography photojournalism.

Sure enough it turns out her background at the Times originally was as photojournalist--including, not surprisingly, sports!  In a brief personal essay she wrote for the paper's website last year, she tells of how her childhood love for theatre (and need to stay in the city more for her children) motivated her to demand the assignment from the paper. Indeed she practically made up the position!

I began asking the photo editors in the culture department if they had any jobs I might do. They gave me dance and opera assignments, portraits of authors and playwrights, museum installations. After a few months, I was asked to shoot the arts full time as The Times’s first culture photographer. That’s when I started to question the way we relied on handout photos for theater stories and reviews. Many of these pictures had been touched up or set up, or both; practices that weren’t allowed in any news section of the paper. I felt that because the culture sections are news sections, handouts should be discouraged....

I set out to convince press agents and producers to allow me to shoot my own production pictures. And I definitely ran into resistance. Imagine asking someone who has spent millions of dollars on a show to give up control of the images that will run alongside reviews and news articles in The Times.

It took time. Off Broadway producers were a little more agreeable at first. Eventually, when it became clear that I was honestly documenting productions and not trying to embarrass or demean anyone, I was allowed into almost every play in New York, on or off Broadway.
Can you imagine these producers saying no to a seasoned professional New York Times photographer taking your shots--for free!?!  Of course, I guess maybe they're also thinking they don't get the rights to those photos...

But the obstacles she initially encountered reveal a lot about the showbiz pressures of the New York Theatre:
My goal has always been to provide our readers with an accurate representation of the show, which sounds simple enough, but was really quite revolutionary. You see, production photographers have to please everyone. Many actors have the right to approve all pictures. If they don’t like the way they look, they can make the producers use pictures from an older production. Through the miracle of Photoshop, actors can lose pounds. Sparkles can be added to their eyes. In group shots, if one person’s face isn’t quite up to par, it can be replaced with a more flattering version from a different frame. By the time everyone involved signs off, the photo is likely to have little to do with reality and a lot to do with marketing or vanity....
My feeling is: the picture in the paper should look pretty much like the performance you’re seeing and not some idealized version that’s simply meant to entice you to buy a ticket.
So these stunning photos are quite an achievement of art over commerce. And as time passes, Krulwich's artistry will only enhance and merge with that of the plays themselves that she documents--since those lucky enough to have her visit will have their play preserved like no other.

And what's more, it's a necessary service to the present. Sara Krulwich's photos make theatre look exciting. Even cool. We need that today in our major media outlets.

Her Times "Lens" blog essay features a fantastic slideshow.  But here are some of my own favorite Krulwiches from my personal collection that I've collected over the last few years.

Boeing, Boeing (2008). A visual definition of farce.
Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times

Ruined (2009)
Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times
(Of this photo, Krulwich writes: "The production shots only featured the rare happy-go-lucky moments of the play. Any other photos might have frightened away ticket buyers. In contrast, my pictures and those that ran in the paper captured the essential, disturbing focus of the play.")

Two photos better than the plays: Neil LaBute's
Reasons to be Pretty (2008) & In a Dark Dark Place (2007). 

As Krulwich captures, it was the actors' emotional liquidity that gave those productions whatever jolt they had.

photos by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times

 South Pacific (2008). The Cathartic Joy of Musical Theatre.

photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times
Yes, good photography (and good theatre photography) is about more than "action shots" and motion. But to capture the feelings behind those human movements and put you on stage with them...that's great art.

Let Sara Krulwich's work raise the bar for all who visually document performance--amateur or professional.  Posterity is counting on us.


Andrew said...

Fantastic post! I had no idea. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Really nice to highlight the work of an excellent photographer! Just to add a bit: On shows I've worked on, Sara has usually come to a dress rehearsal and watched the whole thing and taken some shots, and then after the rehearsal, she has asked for some specific scenes to be replayed for her to shoot some more -- but without any phony freezing or anything like that. I should say, too, that there have sometimes been one or two other photographers from other publications there. And in the old glory days of the Village Voice, they NEVER used posed press-kit photos for theater reviews and features; they always sent a photographer for original shots. And while on the topic and also singing Krulwich's praises, I'll throw in a shout-out to Dona Ann McAdams who shot all the shows at PS122 (and other performance art venues) in the 90s, also capturing the dynamism and spirit of the shows.

Susan said...

This was a fantastic post. Thank you so much for highlighting the work of someone in the theater community who doesn't get any attention - in fact, I don't think I'd ever noticed before that the Times' photos weren't the usual press packet photos used by everyone else. I'll definitely look out for Krulwich's work now.

Jason Zinoman said...

Wonderful post, much deserved. NY theater is lucky to have her.

Unknown said...

Kudos to Sara for her ideas and actions on capturing
theater in character and action. As a professional
photographer who covers curtain calls and
openings with about 5 to 10 other photographers jockeying
for position, I can appreciate all that Sara does for theater.



Readerdesign said...

It's not easy getting those emotional moments in a darkened theatre without a flash. Now that's talent.

sanfrandan said...

I stumbled upon this excellent post today when I saw Saras amazing photo in the Times of the play Disaster! I began to wonder if she was related to the incredible radio personality Robert KRULWICH, who is married to New York Times reporter TamAR Lewin. (I apologize for the weird capitalization but I am having trouble with dictation software. Thank you Siri.) I also highly recommend this blog post that Sarawrote about her experiences as a pioneering woman sports photographer as a college student at Michigan in the 1960s.