50 Seasons of Shaw: A Look Back in Pictures
Here is a look at the new display at the Shaw Festival and an introduction by Scott McKowen.
Theatre is always doomed to become a memory once the final curtain falls. A few tangible records remain – house programmes, newspaper reviews, a poster; the fabulous caricatures of Al Hirschfeld featured in this space over the past couple of seasons. These bits and pieces are no less ephemeral than the theatre experience itself. But we have one tool that can keep a fleeting moment alive forever: the camera.
Theatre photography has enormous archival interest, especially during a milestone anniversary season. But it’s important to remember that the primary function of these images has always been for marketing and publicity. Great images attract attention and are used to help sell tickets! Many of the iconic photographs in this exhibit first appeared in newspaper and magazine advertisements during the run of each show.
The history of photography at the Shaw Festival divides neatly into two eras. From 1964 to 1979 the company worked with Toronto-based photographer Robert C. Ragsdale. Bob was the best-known theatre photographer in Canada during these years – he shot hundreds of productions at the Stratford Festival, as well as many regional theatres across the country. Always polite and professional, he was a real gentleman, sporting a natty jacket and bow tie at photo calls. Ragsdale preferred shooting “setup” scenes – carefully adjusting actors, props, lighting and camera angle until he was happy with the composition. Then he would call “action” and the actors ran their lines – “in character” but always remaining on their marks. In effect, the photographer became the director of the show for a couple of hours. The photo call list, worked out in advance by the marketing department, included only eight or ten key scenes. Production deadlines were planned so that the costumes, wigs and props required for these scenes were finished six to eight weeks before the rest of the show – making production photos available for marketing and publicity well in advance of preview performances. Ragsdale was a master technical photographer. He always used a 2.25-inch-square Hasselblad – the larger film format (more than twice the size of 35mm) ensured spectacular image quality. His black and white prints, hundreds of which are filed in the Shaw Festival archival collections at the University of Guelph, are always superb quality. Ragsdale is retired, and his negatives are now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada.
David Cooper has been The Shaw’s company photographer since 1980. David shoots “on the run” during each production’s final dress rehearsals. He sets up his tripod and 35mm camera in the auditorium and watches the show unfold through the viewfinder. Cooper is one of North America’s leading dance photographers and has a remarkable instinct for capturing perfect, split-second moments of action. Setup photographs can sometimes feel “posed” – Cooper’s images come alive with the energy level of live performance.
David generally brings with him an assistant who shoots from a second camera angle – his daughter Emily Cooper, and his brother Michael Cooper are his usual collaborators; Andrée Lanthier, an assistant for almost a decade, now runs her own studio in Montreal. Cooper shoots 1500 to 2000 images for each production – more for musicals and larger shows – almost 20,000 frames per season. The process of editing contact sheets begins immediately following dress rehearsals, narrowing down to final images for the house programmes, and for publicity and advertising deadines.
The Shaw has constantly adapted to changes in photographic technology over its fifty seasons. At the end of his photo calls, Ragsdale drove back to his Toronto studio (in the basement of the Four Seasons Hotel on Avenue Road) to process film; contact sheets and print orders were all sent via overnight courier. Cooper could not very well commute to his own studio in Vancouver so The Shaw built him a complete darkroom – sandwiched into a compact space under the balcony of the Festival Theatre! This allowed film to be processed as soon as the photo call ended, and 8 x 10 press prints were available the same day. (Colour slide film still went to a lab in Toronto for processing.)
The revolution in digital technology that began in the late 1990s changed everything. The Shaw’s 2000 season was the last to be photographed using traditional film cameras. The darkroom was retired and The Shaw started investing in Nikon digital cameras, Apple Macintosh computers and keeping up with the latest version of Adobe Photoshop. There are always tradeoffs with new technology but in this case there was really no choice – the relentless industry-wide shift to digital took place with breathtaking swiftness. Film stock we relied on for decades isn’t even manufactured now; the printing industry has moved to direct-to-plate technology, sending high-end cameras and platemaking equipment to the junkyard. A frustration for graphic designers is the limitation of digital file sizes – an image on film can always be scanned or enlarged to any size required, but a digital photo is made up of a finite number of pixels. This imposes a maximum reproduction size which is sometimes not adequate; and interpolating the image larger can degrade image quality. Nobody is sorry that we no longer pour all those chemicals down the drain, but some of us get nostalgic for the rich tonal beauty of black and white prints made in darkroom trays. The compensations come in the superlative image quality of the current generation of digital cameras, and the ease with which digital images can be incorporated into page layouts with type.
The 28 photos in this display provide only a taste of the photographic riches in the Shaw Festival archives. A larger selection of images is reproduced in The Shaw Festival: The First Fifty Years, a 320-page book available in the bookshop in the Festival Theatre lobby. Also, be sure to visit the Shaw Festival Retrospective exhibition at the Niagara Historical Museum until September 15.
Art Director and designer for the
Shaw Festival’s House Programmes