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Faces forward: for an instant, portraits enact the tension between a photographer's vision and the subject's desires.


Photographs by Ken Collins, interviews by Victor Wishna, Umbrage Editions, New York City. 288 pp, $35 cloth



Directed and Photographed by Howard Schatz, with a foreword by Roger Ebert, Bulfinch Press, New York City. 264 pp, $50 cloth


Someday a major museum of fine art will want to organize a large-scale exhibition of portrait photography depicting American theatre artists, and the curator will be appalled to discover that a great avalanche of pictures to consider don't truly get under the skin. Superstar shutterbugs will take care of themselves, naturally: Richard Avedon's harshly opinionated portraits of Genet, Beckett and Stephen Sondheim are, for example, going to be difficult to ignore. Lesser known lights like Napoleon Sarony, Eileen Darby, Donna McAdams, Susan Johann and Rivka Shifman Katvan will be snapped up. But for the most part, the curator will be confronted with an accumulation resembling the mountain inside the basement of Xanadu. The only words the curator can utter are the final ones uttered in the film Citizen Kane: "Throw that junk."

Portraiture is all about paying attention in the present. Photography may be "par excellence a medium expressive of our mortality, holding up, as it does, one time for the contemplation of another time," as the photographer Robert Giard states. But most stage portraiture doesn't hold up well, because, as a genre, it is about canned seduction. Headshots are airbrushed to give an actor or writer a youthful or eye-catching appeal. That sneer on an actor's face, that frozen Alaska of non-expression or that sexually suggestive stance has been calculated to entice you into buying a ticket. And when a theatre photograph is not selling staged excitement, the person taking the photograph is usually involved in the paparazzi aspects. Fame and notoriety have their attractions. In photojournalism, the subject is considered more important than the aesthetics of the image. While clarity, composition and exposure are, to a degree, taken into account, news value drives the profession. The function, frequency and frank commercialism of magazines make images on assignment more ephemeral than most art photography.

Star wattage is the main selling point of In Character: Actors Acting, Howard Schatz's amusing, though overblown, array of extreme close-up portraits of stage and film actors (100 of them, to be exact) including many of the biggest names in Hollywood. An accomplished fine-arts photographer who has published some 15 coffee-table books, Schatz has placed the actors before his ruthless lens, snapping up their mugs against backgrounds that are always white, with no backlighting, no props, no costumes, no scenery. Many pictures bear the scar of a self-conscious smile or scowl or squint. Others bear petrified witness to concern, frustration, irritation or anguish. In a majority of instances, the stars are caught openmouthed in frigid hilarity.

What are they reacting to? Each of them has been presented with various assignments (one-line scenarios, brief situations, predicaments) and then has been photographed as they act them out. Charles D. Dutton, for example, puckers his mouth when asked to assay "a salesman back from a long trip being welcomed by your wife" and bites his lower lip as "a small-business owner just realizing that your brother-in-law has been pocketing the profits." In a full spread consisting of four contrasting shots, Fran Drescher bugs her eyes as "a young, single mother in the middle of the night, hearing someone downstairs in the kitchen," purses her lips as "a scheming nun plotting to bring down a rival for the affections of the abbess," erupts in laughter as "a lady-who-lunches hearing gossip about one of your circle" and crumples her face as "a kid being made fun of by 'the clique.'" With the exception of a few people (Bob Balaban, Judd Hirsch and Giancarlo Esposito) who offer minor, restrained or barely-there reactions, you have never, in your entire life, seen so much overacting stuffed into one book.

Schatz's bright, petrified close-ups focus only on the actor's visage--so tightly that the camera can register every pore, every wrinkle, every imperfection. (In the case of Kelsey Grammer, you can contemplate his nose hairs.) Occasionally the actors gesticulate for added emphasis: Patrick Stewart raises a fist in one of four expressive photos that are remarkable for capturing head-on his balding pate, rarely seen in official movie stills. Some women toss, twirl or pull their hair. Martha Plimpton, Illeana Douglas and Kate Burton are among the few shown from the waist up.

WHAT KEEPS IN CHARACTER FROM being indistinguishable from an album of police mugshots is that Schatz was able to corral the willing actors into thinking that what they were doing was indeed acting. To bolster the point, each actor's commentary about his or her craft, fame or career accompanies the images. While most actors mouth the usual palaver about "the holy communion" between actor and audience or pontificate that "theatre is a visceral medium," some don't mince words: Dutton argues that going on stage "is the most beautiful violence one can engage in. I look at the other people on stage as opponents. Before the night is over I plan to knock them out."

Schatz is convinced that his function was akin to that of a director: Right there on the book jacket and the cover page, his credits read "Directed and Photographed by." The conceit of In Character is that Schatz has challenged a group of famous actors into giving performances.

He has done no such thing. Along with his wife Beverly Ornstein, who produced the book project, Schatz may have set things up, like a still-life painter who places an apple to the side, and goaded his sitters to do interesting tasks, like a casting agent in a private audition. But he did not stage any dramatic scenes, in the real sense of the word; nor did he help the actors sculpt, excavate deeply or collaboratively chisel an accurate portrayal of character, as any true director would. At the worst, these actors are making faces. At best, they intuitively take first stabs at rendering characters that have been vaguely described. (The tear that moistens Rosemary Harris's bruisingly beautiful visage is a rare moment in which the actor's technical skills trump the sheer abstraction of the task at hand.) The conceptual divide that separates spur-of-the-moment response and the hard work of acting reveals itself in those rare cases when you are treated to a series of poses with a connected narrative, like when Nestor Serrano imagines himself in a gay bar "gossiping with a cute guy at the bar about fashion at the Oscars, then reacting to your jealous boyfriend" by moving from joy (with a limp wrist) to disgust (he gives the finger).

Unlike photojournalists who take great pride on their fly-on-the-wall freedom to capture things as they are, Schatz is staging things as they aren't--or, more precisely, as they might likely be if there was rehearsal time. His pictures push the boundaries set by professional celebrity flatterers like Irving Penn, David LaChappelle and Annie Leibovitz, in that Schatz freezes moments of interaction with the famous, achieving an undistracted level of intimacy that glamour photos almost never achieve. But to argue that his portraits somehow seize good acting, that they illuminate its complicated processes, or that they snap up "the truth" in the face before it is heard in dialogue, is to puff up and exaggerate what they actually capture--spontaneous behavior and broad emotion.

In the foreword, film critic Roger Ebert finds it deeply disquieting to read that the actors, in their comments, "speak again and again of the differences between their media." "What surprised me," Ebert writes, "was how consistently they respect the stage and love it, how they feel limited by film, and how for the most part they dismiss television." Ebert is taken aback when Philip Bosco declares: "I don't believe you need to act in movies." The great fallacy of In Character is that you need to act in still photographs.

At least In Character has the courage of its conviction to be kinetic and theatrical--to become so much more than an assembly of embalmed images. A quasi-anthropological study of the universality of people's faces, it is fascinating and curious, if a bit diverted by the fame of its subjects. It makes sense that the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum has put on view an exhibition of In Character that runs through Feb. 24, 2007.

MOST THEATRE PHOTOGRAPHS TRY not to deviate from established aspects of the genre. New York-based photographer Ken Collins's portraits of American playwrights, which have been dutifully gathered in In Their Company, represent an admirable recent sample of what would be found in a stage-photography heap. Currently on the faculty of the International Center of Photography, Collins has organized an elegant album of official portraits of American dramatists. He performs the classical duties of court portraiture: If you've never met Jack Gelber, Corinne Jacker, Arthur Kopit, Howard Korder, Timothy Mason, Peter Parnell or Susan Yankowitz in person, Collins's photographs offer their visages up for your inspection: "This is what they look like," they reassure.

Collins mirrors the conventions and styles of the communities or environments in which his subjects hold sway: Against what seems like a brick wall, Edward Albee's gaze confronts the camera with a poker face. Eric Bogosian's wild shock of black hair contrasts with the gray folds of Venetian windows and a radiator. Constance Congdon looks outdoorsy, wrapped in a thick jacket in a forest clearing. Richard Foreman, Richard Greenberg, John Guare and Romulus Linney pose in front of booklined shelves. An astonishing number (Jon Robin Baitz, David Henry Hwang, Donald Margulies, Suzan-Lori Parks, George C. Wolfe) look like neophytes, perhaps a reflection of the provenance of Collins's black-and-white pictures as magazine assignments or book commissions. Some portraits (Wendy Wasserstein and Lynn Nottage, for example) don't present their subjects with their best faces forward.

The look of these images--staid, formal, shadowy, steeped in high contrasts that make the writers look ghostly (the best one is of Israel Horovitz)--does not challenge the conventions of polished magazine portraiture. Victor Wishna's interviews that accompany the pictures are noteworthy for their modesty and restraint: The interviewer deletes himself and his questions from the transcripts so that the running commentary gives the illusion that the playwrights spoke at length.

In front of a camera, none of the writers, it seems, were willing to go for broke. They display very little sense of humor: Why does the comic writer Paul Rudnik, shot in his overstuffed Greenwich Village apartment, want to be remembered so goddamned seriously? Several writers look down or off to the side. A photograph is a transaction. In In Their Company, the images that pass between the man wielding the camera and the object of the lens are dappled with as much drama as the photographer can negotiate under the circumstances. Collins is photographing two distinct things: what he thinks of the person, and, more significantly, what the person thinks of himself. American dramatists, according to this double perspective, are a dull, unremarkable lot.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS; In Their Company: Portraits of American Playwrights
Author:Gener, Randy
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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