NEW YORK CITY | Theater photography, as a genre, is mainly about canned seduction. Headshots are airbrushed to give an actor or writer a youthful appeal. Production photos are a record of staged events — which is why they rarely thrill or surprise. Although they claim to give us a peek into what we will see onstage, they are often posed and look artificial. That sneer on an actor’s face, that open-mouthed eruption of joy or that sexually suggestive stance has been calculated to entice you into buying a ticket.
And when a theater photograph is not selling staged excitement, the person taking the photograph is often involved in the paparazzi aspects of the job: who, when, where… and what were they thinking going out in that frock?
Amid this dreary parade of celebrity-spotters and mediocre hacks, photographer Rivka Katvan stands out. What lifts her work from the run-of-the-mill theater photography is its honesty and authenticity. She excels in the behind-the-scenes shot, backstage portraits of famous people like Carol Burnett, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Angela Lansbury, Liam Neeson, Kevin Kline, and Gregory Hines caught in their cramped dressing rooms, down the squalid hallways, inside messy wardrobe closets, or in green rooms where they quietly await for their cues. Her series of portraits of Alan Cumming, for instance, finds the actor drinking a bottle of water on a carpet while waiting in the gloom of his Cabaret costume, and in another, he is shown meditating in a garden surrounded by lights and foliage, as if he’s bathing in the glow of a Shakespearean fantasia.
“Broadway Behind the Curtain,” a new exhibition of Katvan’s photographs, gathers together a broad sampling of the photographer’s 20-year career. The show opens today, Thursday September 6 with a reception from 6pm to 8pm at Soho Photo Gallery in New York, where Katvan is a guest resident photographer. The exhibit’s title borrows from the subtitle of Katvan’s book, Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain, which has recently been published by Harry Abrams Books.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of her photographs will be donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Soho Photo Gallery’s exhibit aims to promote and encourage public support for national and international programs and services which benefit people with HIV/AIDS.
“In 1978,” Katvan recalls, “during a visit to my friend Natalie Mosco at the Cort Theatre where she was appearing in The Magic Show, I experienced the contrast between the reality in front of the stage and the reality from backstage. Those first photos opened doors to many other shows. To have been a privileged observer celebrating and sharing life in the theater has been an honor.”
Since 1997, Katvan has photographed male and female dancers and actors, in various stages of dress and undress, before, during and after the naughty burlesque spectacular, conceived and directed by Jerry Mitchell (choreographer of Hairspray and the upcoming Kinky Boots).
Like such notable photographers as Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus, Katvan is a woman obsessed. She sometimes spends six months on one specific show, always coming back until she becomes “just like another stagehand,” she says. And so the images she captures evince an almost fetishistic interest in shadowy moods, the graphic physicality of skin and flesh, the colors of eye shadow and lipstick traces.
Katvan is never exploitative or sensationalistic. She gives her subjects the necessary respect and dignity, even when they are caught naked or seen in an unflattering moment. “You have to be so quiet when you are taking people’s pictures backstage,” Katvan says. “I don’t use flash; I use available light with a handheld camera. Sometimes I will see a shot, which is amazing, but you know that it will upset the person if you take a picture of it, and so I decide not to take the shot. You have to respect their privacy. You have to know how to work with them to make them feel comfortable. I’m on their territory—they are not on my territory.”
The results linger in the memory long after you’ve seen them — the explosion of laughter in John Cameron Mitchell’s face while he is still in make-up as Hedwig in the Off-Broadway rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the concentrated intensity in Elizabeth Taylor’s dark eyes while she preps for her entrance in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes; the rot in Liam Neeson’s face when he portrayed Oscar Wilde during his last days in prison in The Judas Kiss; the heartbreaking intimacy of Gregory Hines’s embrace a friend in a shot from Jelly’s Last Jam; and the sternness in Ron Rifkin’s demeanor even though he is wearing a silk nightie during a Broadway Bares event.
Katvan’s photography fulfills a documentary function while veering and edging toward a form of poetic realism. Her portraits are most eloquent when they capture a fleeting look or a spontaneous gesture — when amid the continuous forward motion of the theatrical life, grit of the evanescent is seized. She is a kind of cartographer of the unscripted event, those mysterious and surprisingly private moments when an actor is still in the process of becoming a character.
See more of Rivka Katvan’s candid portraiture and fine art at www.rivkakatvan.com.
“Broadway Behind the Curtain” runs through Sept. 29th, with an opening reception Sept. 6, 6-8PM. Soho Gallery is located at 15 White St. in NYC. Gallery Hours are Wednesdays to Sundays, 1 to 6 PM and by appointment. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 212.226.8571
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