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Friday, April 05, 2019

Portrait of the Artist

From the Darkroom Dept.: As I mentioned a few days ago, I found some interview and promo pieces I wrote for Capital Repertory Company’s 2013 season brochure. This one is dear to my heart, because photographer Joe Schuyler was a very good friend and an endless inspiration. I’m delighted to read this again.


Joe Schuyler
“I TEND TO LIKE PLAYS that are a little off-kilter and visually interesting,” says Joe Schuyler, which, if you know his work, is no surprise. And you do know his work. It hangs in the lobby of Capital Rep’s theatre and greets you on the company’s web page. He’s the company’s resident photographer, and has been capturing its signature moments since 1988, seven years its founding. Which gives him a longer association with the theater now than anyone else working there.

“The first play I did was ‘Saint Florence,’ by Elizabeth Diggs,” he says. “I’d already been photographing shows for ESIPA in the ’70s, and Soho Rep and the Lake George Opera. I even did a season at Williamstown, which didn’t pay very well. Of course, unless you’re doing Broadway and Off-Broadway, it’s not a lucrative gig. You have to have some reason other than a monetary one to do it.”

In his case, he confesses, he loves the world of theater because he married an actress. “I started photographing plays in Boston, then New York, now here.” Eileen Schuyler is known to the area audience for her work with a number of companies, including Capital Rep’s recent “33 Variations.” She spent many years working the Empire State Institute for the Performings Arts and its successor, the NY State Theatre Institute. Most recently, she played the title role in “The Old Mezzo” at Pittsfield’s WAM Theatre.

Joe’s entry into photography as a career had a more complicated beginning. “It was in the early ’70s. I had just graduated from college and was teaching high-school English in Boston to students who couldn’t read. So I took a multimedia approach, including video, sound recordings, and photography. And I was about one week ahead of them learning how to use the equipment. I discovered I liked photography because it was comparatively inexpensive and you could be in control of the whole process.”

He stayed at the school long enough to get tenure, “and then I immediately quit. I wanted to study photography and I didn’t want to do it in a school, so I decided to seek out the people I most respected in the field.” Among his mentors were Minor White, who stressed the aesthetics both of the subject and the photographer; photojournalism specialists Mary Ellen Mark and Peter Turnley; Paul Caponigro, whose work is in the collections of the Guggenheim and Whitney, among other museums; and Jay Maisel, who shot Miles Davis for the “Kind of Blue” cover.

Nikos Psacharopoulos and Kate-Burton in 1980
Photo by Joseph Schuyler
“I started taking jobs,” says Joe, “and let the work lead the way. I ended up doing commercial work, which means you do a bit of everything: product photography, architecture, public relations, portraits, events, interiors, catalogues, college brochures, all kinds of things.”

He worked for the Manhattan’s New School for 20 years, shooting classes and putting together brochures. “It wasn’t a big money-maker, but it was a great excuse to go to New York for a few days. Then the school got too budget conscious. This was when I was starting to shoot digital and told them, ‘you’re going to have to start dealing with this.’ I showed them what to do with it and they decided, ‘That’s easy! Students can do this.’ So I talked myself out of a job.”

“When you look at his work,” adds Eileen, “you see that he does photography for publication, not for individuals. Except headshots. They’re different – they’re part of theater.”

Although Eileen and Joe have the ease with each other that comes from many years of marriage, they have contrasting natures. She is organized and energetic; he is charmingly laconic, often seeming distracted until he raises the camera at his side and captures whatever it was he’d been mentally framing.

“Basically, you’re photographing light,” he explains, but that doesn’t explain the superb composition and textures of his work, work that’s excellent enough to hang in area galleries.

Although he now calls himself semi-retired, theater photography remains a passion. “It’s like street photography, but in a controlled environment,” he says. And he challenges himself to go beyond the straightforward. “Most theater shots we see are setups, they’re not done on the fly. Technically, they’re going to be more perfect, with eveything perfectly balanced. They can lack a certain authenticity. A theater performance is not the same every night, and you want to capture that sense of spontaneity.”

Eileen amplifies the appeal from an actor’s perspective: “It feels like you’re being invited in to something special. It’s very intense for a short period of time, and then it’s gone.”

Timothy Deenihan and Jenny Strassburg in
“Venus in Fur” | Photo by Joseph Schuyler
As an example of the challenges Joe sets himself, he points to his work on Capital Rep’s “Laughing Wild,” a show he shot in 1991. “I had Matt Desiderio working with me then,” he says, “and we decided that the show’s two characters, who couldn’t get their lives together, were kind of scattered. So each of us took one of the actors to photograph in parts. I had the guy. I’d take shots just of the arm, just of the hand, a section here, a section here. When we did the display, we printed all those sections and built the person out of them, with the pictures spaced slightly apart. They were something like ten feet high and 20 feet long, those two characters.”

Another early favorite was 1993's “Gang on the Roof.” “That was visually incredible. Albany Steel constructed a three-story framework on the stage with gates that slammed shut. It was a Vietnam-era play set on an aircraft carrier, where the most dangerous jobs were on the roof of the ship. And that’s where all the black sailors were sent. It led to a mutiny, which failed. I shot it in the black-and-white era, and it was very stark.”

A significant change in Joe’s recent work for Capital Rep – and for photographers and their subjects everywhere – was the transition from black-and-white to color. “It happened around 2002,” he recalls, “which is when we were all finally moving from film to digital. I started with digital around 1999, but you only had a one-megapixel camera back then. At that time, not only was I learning it but I also had to train Cap Rep and my other clients. They didn’t know how to deal with it. They were used to slides and negatives. And back then, color was much more expensive. Now black-and-white and color cost the same.”

How the show is designed plays a part in its visual appeal, of course, but for Joe it goes beyond that. “A lot of it happens when the cast really jells and is having a good time together.
They work together, socialize together. It has the atmosphere of a family. That doesn’t always happen, especially if you have a lead with a big ego, who wants the play to be about him or her. And you need a cast in which every person is engaged.”

“I do some of the post work,” adds Eileen, “which means I’m looking at two or three hundred photos of a show, you can see who is involved, who’s engaged – you can see when a connection is tight among people.”

“If they’re not paying attention, and just waiting their turn,” says Joe, “you know it’s not an ensemble piece. It makes a tremendous amount of difference to the pictures.”

When starting on a show, he always reads the script to prepare for the photographer’s multiple requirements. “First we have pre-production publicity, so we take a few actors to a studio location with costumes and do setups for press. They’re one-shot things; they’re not really the play. They go out with the publicity material.

“Then I watch a rehearsal. Usually it’s during tech. It lets the actors know you’re there again, establishing rapport. You see lighting, you see sets, you meet the designers. Then I actually shoot the show, at a dress rehearsal. That’s what you’ll see with the reviews.”

“Now, in the days of the internet,” says Eileen, “a paper like the Times Union will run a lot of pictures on its blog. So people looking online can see a range of pictures they’ve never seen before, which is a great thing.”

What you won’t see with calendar listings and reviews is anything that gives away the play’s climactic moments – but those are photographed, too, for the actors and for the theater’s archives.

As Eileen points out, the shows that yield the most successful photos “all have solid emotional content. Even the funny ones.”

“Theater is a microcosm,” says Joe, “a cocoon that’s a whole complete world of very talented people. And I believe that when you’re photographing people who are playing characters, you’re going to discover a lot more about them than you can with real-live people. Real people in real life tend to hide a lot, whereas actors as characters are revelatory. I think you learn more about people in theater than you do about people anywhere else.”

– Capital Rep season brochure, 16 March 2013

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