Photographer Tristram Kenton: ‘I never take a camera on holiday’
Nearly 30 years ago, The Stage’s former editor took a chance on an inexperienced, 24-year-old photographer. Nick Smurthwaite finds out about his chase for the perfect shot and the fear of losing a moment forever
Regular readers of The Stage will know the name, since the eye-catching production photographs of Tristram Kenton have been featured in these pages for three decades. His first commission was a production of Candide at London’s Gate Theatre in 1988, at the invitation of the then editor, Peter Hepple.
“Happily for me, Peter seemed to think it was okay to take a chance on a 24-year-old with very little experience of photographing plays,” recalls Kenton.
Once he had managed to get himself invited to all the West End photocalls, Kenton started supplying pictures first to the Daily Mail and then to the Guardian and the Observer, for which he has now been the leading theatre photographer for 20 years. Guardian Newspapers paid tribute to his work last year with an exhibition at their offices in King’s Cross.
“It was nice, but a bit embarrassing,” says the friendly but diffident Kenton, who eschews the limelight in all its forms. He took some persuading to agree to be interviewed for this article. “I just want to go along to the photocall, take the pictures and go away,” as he puts it.
Given that he is the son of the distinguished Shakespearean actor Godfrey Kenton, who played Malcolm to John Gielgud’s Macbeth in 1930, and Laertes to Donald Wolfit’s Hamlet in 1937, Kenton’s horror of uncalled-for attention is perhaps a little surprising. Though his father was widely respected in the business and went on to play leading roles, Kenton says his upbringing was dominated by financial insecurity and the need to seek his own amusements.
“My father was loving but self-centred. If we went to the theatre, he used to take me around to the dressing room after the show to meet the actors. I never knew what to say to them. I just remember going bright red with embarrassment. I was really shy and I don’t think I talked much at all until I was about 20.”
The turning point for Kenton, who knew he didn’t want to work in the theatre, was meeting Sacha Rocos in his A-level politics class. “Sacha quit the class to become a press photographer. He took himself off to El Salvador and got the front cover of Newsweek, aged 18. He knew I was into photography so for about six months he and I were teenage paparazzi, chasing celebrities around London. It was fun, but I was aware even then that it was immoral.
Q&A: Tristram Kenton
What was your first non-theatre job? Delivering mango juice from a van in London.
What was your first professional theatre job? Supplying production pictures to The Stage.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To believe in yourself.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My school friend Sacha Rocos, who flicked a switch in me.
What’s your best advice for production photographers? Leave your ego at home and learn from your mistakes.
If you hadn’t been a theatre photographer, what would you have been? An architect.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? If I see a ladder, I’ll walk under it.
“At the time I thought I might develop into a news photo-grapher of some kind. I quickly learnt about dealing with picture editors and agency people. I’d also met Conrad Blakemore, who was supplying The Stage with production photographs at the time, and he asked me if I’d be interested in taking over from him while he went to Australia.
“Having had actor parents, I suppose I felt comfortable in a theatre environment. It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for, so I worked as hard as I could to make a go of it.”
When he started out, Kenton’s modus operandi was a lot more complicated and labour-intensive. “I had two black-and-white cameras and another one for colour. I’d develop all the black-and-white pictures myself, in my own darkroom, and send the colour ones to a lab to be processed. Then I’d take all the prints to the outlets I was working for by hand. Now I have four digital cameras with auto-focus lenses and you just download all the images on to the computer. For a musical or a ballet commission, I might take as many as 5,000 pictures.”
Kenton says ballet dress rehearsals are more nerve-racking to shoot than straight plays, opera or musicals. “They are always in motion, so if you miss the moment it’s gone forever. I try to move around as much as possible to get different angles. In my 20s, I might have thought I’d got what I wanted, even if I hadn’t. Now if there is any doubt in mind that I haven’t got what I want I will ask the director or the PR if I can do it again or slightly change something to make the picture work better.
“So by being more rigorous about getting what I want, people will trust you to do a good job and get that special image that works for everyone.”
The more his reputation grows as a production and press photographer, the more pressure there is on Kenton to capture that special image, even though the circumstances of a photocall are sometimes chaotic and uncongenial. “It can be quite stressful if you’re under a time constraint. The director normally chooses three or four scenes for us to photograph and obviously some directors are more accommodating than others.”
This is where the theatre PRs can sometimes step in and act as mediators between the photographers and the directors, although, by all accounts, Kenton is the least likely person to ruffle any feathers.
Rosie Neave, director of communications at the Place in London, says: “When Tristram is photographing a dress rehearsal or a show, I know I don’t have to worry that he’s going to upset anyone or get in a position that will put the dancers off, because he judges it perfectly in a way that doesn’t compromise his photographs. He is the consummate professional who shows up, quietly gets on with the job, charms everyone and goes away again having taken some brilliant images.”
Kenton says he likes to be as inconspicuous as possible when he is working. “You’re being invited into these brilliant centres of excellence like the National, the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne to do a specific job and my aim is always to get on with it and get out with as little disruption as possible. In an environment where people are under all kinds of stress, the last thing you need is some egotistical, grumpy bloke going in and throwing his weight around.”
The fact is, Kenton doesn’t think what he does is all that special, despite such laudatory statements from people such as Michael Billington that he has “a remarkable capacity for pinning down the essence of a particular performance”. Kenton himself says: “Obviously it’s a good feeling when you manage to take a set of pictures that people like, especially if the dress rehearsal or photocall has been challenging. And yes, I’m very happy when I see one of my pictures has been well used, whether it’s in print or for marketing purposes.”
A dedicated family man, Kenton has three sons, all of whom are keen on the theatre. His eldest son was inspired to follow a career as a director after seeing Complicite’s A Disappearing Number with his dad. “One of the good things about what I do is that I know within five minutes whether a show is something I’m going to want to see,” says Kenton.
Away from the hurly-burly, he is happy to set aside his camera. “I want to be able to experience things without feeling the need to record them for posterity. My family doesn’t understand why I never take a camera on holiday. I do take pictures on my mobile phone but I never get around to downloading them.”
CV: Tristram Kenton
Born: 1963, London
Career highlights: The Stage (1988-present), Guardian and Observer (1998-present), Retrospective exhibition, Guardian Newspapers, King’s Place, London (2016), Commissions to take production pictures for the Royal Ballet, National Theatre, Glyndebourne, Royal Opera and the West End