Over the course of a year, photographer Matt Humphrey was granted unprecedented access to photograph backstage and behind the scenes during 60 of London’s top theatre productions, as part of an ongoing book project with actor John Schwab. Humphrey used exclusively Leica equipment and found that the M-P 240 paired with a Summilux 35mm 1.4 lens was the perfect kit to work unobtrusively whilst shooting in available light in the wings and backstage areas whilst actors were on stage during the actual performance. Whilst being allowed to photograph some of the industry’s top actors, moments before going on stage, Humphrey was also interested in the process of putting on a production as well as the backstage life inherent to each production. We had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his immersion in the scene and the importance of the project itself.
You have documented the ins and outs of London’s top theatre productions, how did this project become a reality? What were your objectives and creative approach?
I have been photographing backstage for a number of years, and as I have previously worked as a member of the stage crew, I had been aware of the incredible perspectives you get of a stage production when seen from the wings and backstage area. There is so much that happens that the audience are completely unaware of, and I wanted to celebrate this and capture the world through the ‘art of backstage’. I wanted to get as close as possible, and reflect the work of those individuals as well as offer a fresh point of view of each production. Obviously this meant using only available light and the spill from the stage area. A key part of the whole process for me was making sure that I watched each production as an audience member first – this completely informed me as to key moments that I wanted to capture so that I was prepared for my backstage visit. That said, there are always happy coincidences of being in the right place at the right time, and quite a few shots in the book were completely unexpected. Another creative parameter for the project was that I only ever visited backstage once for each production, so if I didn’t get the shot, there was no second chance. My creative vision was to represent what was there, so being as unobtrusive as possible was a major aim – I dress completely in black, like the crew, and try to be as incidental to what is going on around me, a fly-on-the-wall. In fact, I have been nicknamed ‘backstage ninja’, as the cast and crew often don’t realise I am there.
As commonly known for their unobtrusive design, you chose the Leica M-P 240 with a 35 mm lens for this project. Considering the low-lit conditions you shot under, how did the camera perform? Were there any specific settings you thought were the best?
You would be amazed how dark it is backstage, and low-light is more like no light in a lot of circumstances. This means that I have to shoot at a high ISO (normally 2000), and I like shooting wide open anyway, so the low f/ number helps in tackling the challenging light. The weight and small size of the M-P also means I can hold the camera steady, which is helpful when you sometimes have to shoot at 1/30 sec. Basically I completely push the camera to its’ limits – sometimes a little noise creeps in to the images, but I don’t mind that as much as it gives a true reflection of the fact it is so dark. It can also get really quiet on stage, which is important to respect, and not break the silence or concentration of the actors around me. I’ve tested the Leica Q on a couple of shoots now, and have been really impressed by how well it performs in low light, as well as how truly unobtrusive it is with such a quiet shutter – I think I’ll be using one a lot more now.
After being immersed in this industry, you may have seen some of the rituals the actors and production staff have before, during and after the shows, were you able to photograph this? Or what is your perspective towards this?
Absolutely – the nature of the project and the way that we cover each show is to represent and document the whole life of the show, from the warm-up before right through to when the show is over, and everyone is either packing up or going home. Some productions have quite a comprehensive clean-up process – one that particularly stands out is the award-winning Ivo van Hove production of ‘A View From The Bridge’ which ended with a huge blood bath on stage (spoiler alert). Different company’s prepare in different ways (depending on the nature of the show), and it is fascinating to be allowed to witness and capture this. I am always surprised by how different each production is from others, and there is always something new to capture or a perspective that I have not seen before. Of course this is hallowed space, so I have to be careful not to encroach on the personal preparations or rituals that are in place – I have to respect that and work within whatever parameters they are happy for me to do so. Mutual trust and respect is at the heart of this project.
Some of the portraits you shot were of John Goodman and Nicole Kidman, among other celebrities. Seeing such celebrities in their “zone” must have been quite an experience. First of all, what shows were they working on, and second of all, what was the experience like?
Yes, it was a real privilege to meet and photograph both those actors, as I have been a fan of their films for years, and they do not do a lot of stage acting. For John Goodman it was his first time ever on stage in London for the play ‘American Buffalo’, in which he acted alongside Damian Lewis and Tom Sturridge. The production of ‘Photograph 51’ saw Nicole Kidman return to the London stage after an absence of 18 years, so there was also quite a buzz around that production, and it will soon transfer to Broadway. If I am able to, I try to get a more formal portrait, like I did for these two but I don’t always get that much time with them, so I have to work quickly and use whatever light is available. I am quite used to working with actors now, so I don’t see it as any different from a normal shoot – my aim is still to get the best shots I can.
There are quite a few big names that take to the London stage every year, and it is a real privilege to witness them close-up at work. What I have noticed is that there is no room for ego’s in theatre, as it is such a collaborative process. You can have an Oscar winner like Mark Rylance working alongside a young actor fresh out of drama school, and they are all working together to create the piece. I work exactly the same way regardless of who is in the production, as the mission of the project was to celebrate the work of all the individuals involved, not just the big names.
The other celebrities, the ones that don’t go on stage and usually stay behind the curtains working arduously every night including light technicians, stage managers, etc, what was the process like of photographing and documenting their work?
As I mentioned, the nature of the project is really to explore and celebrate the work of all those who work on a production. I used to work on the stage crew a few years ago, which has massively helped in terms of knowing my way around a theatre, and respecting the various jobs that make it happen. It is important not to get in the way and the trust thing is just as crucial when it comes to photographing the unsung heroes. The technicians, stage managers and others need to know that I will not get in the way, so I work on building up those relationships and making everyone feel as at ease as possible.
The theatre industry in London has years and years of history. After seeing first hand the process and hard work it takes to bring a production to life, how do you see this industry evolving? Is it still a very traditional industry or how do you perceive innovation?
UK theatre is definitely going through a boom period at the moment – more people watch theatre than attend Premiership football matches. The reason for this is that there are some incredible creative minds supported by insightful producers who are constantly looking for new ways to tell a story and present it differently to make it relevant to audiences. This makes it an exciting industry to be a part of, as it evolves and reinvents, regardless of whether the piece, the play, is new writing or 400 years old. It is one area of our culture where there are no boundaries and anything is possible. The innovation comes through the creative visions, as much as technological advances and each year sees several productions pushing the limits of what had hitherto not been considered, or overlooked.
What is your favorite show and why?
This is a tricky question, as several shows have truly impressed me, for very different reasons. I guess that, photographically, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ was one of my favourites to shoot from backstage, as there was just so much going on. The company manager told us that each night it takes about 150 people to make that production happen, which is a great example of just how collaborative this industry is. It is one show that I felt I could have photographed 5 different times and got a completely different set of photos each time I did it; there is just so much going on.
Another of my favourites was a show I photographed recently starring Kit Harington from Game of Thrones. The production of ‘Doctor Faustus’ was by one of my favourite directors, Jamie Lloyd, and it really pushed the boundaries and expectations of the audiences that flocked to see it. I got some great shots from it, as the stage design was quite open, and the whole company of cast and crew really bought in to what I was trying to capture. Kit is also a Leica user, so we were able to chat about cameras quite a bit. The photos will be in our next book, most probably, as we covered the show after our first book was released.
The book, Curtain Call, has sold quite well, are there more plans to expand the reach of this project? Exhibitions?
Yes, we’ve been really lucky with book sales so far, and I’m really pleased with how it has sold. The book seems to have captured the imagination of quite a few people, whether they are into photography or theatre. I always wanted the book to be predominantly a photo-book, but one that would introduce photography fans to theatre and vice versa. We have had some images on display at the V&A Museum here in London as part of an exhibition, and also plan to do a specific Curtain Call photography exhibition with Leica in their exhibition space also here in London. Of course, I would be open to other exhibition suggestions too!
Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to add or mention to our readers? Maybe other projects in the pipeline you’d like to mention?
This is the main project that I am currently working on, but I am as interested in getting my street photography out there too, which is something I do in my own time. I put out images on my Instagram feed, as well as through my Twitter account, and occasionally through Lens Culture. Moving forward I have now started work on the second Curtain Call book, which we have really exciting plans for … watch this space!
Matt Humphrey is an international photographer, based in London. He is best known for his behind the scenes work in theatre, where he continues to work through Curtain Call. His intimate portraits and insightful backstage photography reflect the sensitivity to the process, and he has worked with some of the film and theatre industry’s top actors and creatives, reflecting life on and off stage. Humphrey’s work has been published internationally.
If you want to purchase Curtain Call, please visit this link and use the code LEITZ10 for a 10% discount.