Ever woken up to the horrible realisation you’ve missed something? That was me a few weeks ago as it dawned on me that In the Minute, the display of Ivan Kyncl’s theatrical photography at the V&A, had just closed. It had been in the diary for months, I’d just failed to get there.
Kyncl was one of that breed of remarkable stage photographers, able in each fleeting fraction of a second exposure to capture more than just a freeze-frame of a moment, but the essence and emotion of the show. Perhaps that came from his background far beyond theatre. Born in Prague, he took a commercial course in photography after being refused a university education as punishment for his father’s dissident politics, going on to photograph the persecution of Czech dissidents by the secret police. Ivan was arrested and expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1980. Given asylum in the UK, a chance meeting with Harold Pinter led to a new life photographing theatre across London – for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Almeida, the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Court, the National Theatre and others.
Lighting designers and production photographers share a special, symbiotic relationship. One spreads photons of light across the stage, creating the illumination and atmosphere that is reflected back into the eyes of the audience. The other captures those photons. And though it is the designer whose work brings life to the show for the audience, it is the photographer’s work that enters history.
Theatre is transient, a lighting designer’s work is ephemeral (the emotional final performances of the original Les Misérables is a reminder that time comes for all shows). It lives on in the memory of those lucky enough to have been there, but even for them (maybe even for the designer who created that light in the first place) in time the memory defers to the photographer’s image. For everyone else, the pictures are the only record of the show.
Watching a photographer capture the light you have worked so hard to make is fascinating. Kyncl’s skill – in the age when you only knew you’d nailed the shot later, after the film had been processed – was remarkable. I feel honoured that he photographed one show I lit: staged in promenade, he had to move among the performers to capture their work. It was like watching the most carefully choreographed ballet, Ivan always just getting out of the way for a movement then back in for the shot – except of course this was a ballet with no rehearsal, just experience and perception and awareness and skill.
At the end, he said: “I like your light.” Coming from him, a master of light, of emotion, of theatre, of life, really there could have been no higher compliment. I treasure that single sentence to this day.
Tragically, we lost Kyncl in 2004. But that his work is now in the collection of the V&A is the perfect recognition for the talent that captured all those moments for history so viscerally.
Rob Halliday is a lighting designer and programmer. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/Rob-Halliday