There is nothing more fascinating than getting a taste of a world that is usually completely off-limits, and it's one of the reasons why theatre photographer Simon Annand's 'The Half' project has been such a huge and enduring success since it was first unveiled in 2008.
'The Half' refers to the period after the bells have started for the audience to take their places and the actor is in their dressing room preparing for their performance. It's a private time but Simon's affinity with his subjects has allowed him access to this most hallowed of inner sanctums and has resulted in an extraordinary series of portraits that show some very familiar faces in a completely new light.
"For anyone to go on stage and perform live in front of an audience requires considerable bravura and skill," says Simon. "To repeat this night after night, and to keep it fresh, the theatre actor also needs to be highly disciplined and self-possessed. Each evening an actor enters the building as themselves but will go on the stage as somebody else. To achieve this transformation a dressing room is provided, which allows him or her to make the psychological negotiation that is required between themselves and the fictional character. To photograph actors when they are 'getting into character' is to see them at their most photogenic, as you can see why they have been attracted to this particular thrill of becoming another."
This is the kind of project that can't be rushed and has no logical end, and it's already lasted nearly 30 years, pre-dating Simon's photographic career by some distance. "In 1983 I was working in the bar at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith," he explains, "and it was at the time that Griff Rhys-Jones was giving his wonderful performance in Charley's Aunt. It gave me so much pleasure to witness Griff's hold over his audience that I decided to take a photograph, without consent, from the lighting fly tower, and this became my first ever theatre production photograph.
"I subsequently asked Griff if I could photograph him, this time one step removed from the stage, in his dressing room. There I found him to be reflective, quiet and almost melancholy. The difference in energy fascinated me and these were the pictures that started me working on a project that explored an actor's journey from the dressing room to the stage."
Building the project
As his project developed, so too did Simon's career. One day a Russian director, Yuri Lyubimov, arrived at the Lyric with a brief to oversee a production of 'Crime and Punishment'. "At that time I wanted to be a director myself," says Simon, "and so I tried to think of a way I could bluff my way into the rehearsals to watch Lyubimov at work. In the end I got myself a camera and passed myself off as a photographer and I eventually put together an exhibition of my pictures, which was quite successful."
It was a start, but things weren't quite so straightforward as all that: several years working as a gardener followed until Simon got his big break when Jonathan Miller took over at the Old Vic in 1987, with a remit to revive its fortunes. "He likes quirky people," says Simon, "and I was given the job of resident photographer."
Since that time Simon has become established as one of the country's leading theatrical photographers, having covered a string of productions at theatres all around the country, and all the time that he's been producing the pictures for front of house The Half has remained dear to his heart.
"I always saw it becoming a book, even when I was just starting out," he says. "I've always approached each shoot in the same way, working very simply and often with available light simply because it wasn't the kind of situation where you could spend any time setting things up. The dressing rooms in the West End are small and pokey, and reflect the fact that they date from Victorian times when the status of actors was quite low. There are also often other people in there as well, perhaps other actors sharing or dressers, and space is very tight.
"I sometimes go along with an assistant with a small light, but at other times I just work alone and with what I've got. I try to make the most of the confined space by often shooting pictures via the mirror that's always in there, and working this way I can get away with a 70-200mm zoom."
For many years Simon worked with film, using Tri-X and pushing it to ISO 640 or 800, but in more recent years he's graduated to a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III and it's allowed him to work at higher speeds and, for the first time, to shoot in colour. "I now love what digital cameras allow me to do," he says, "and it's moved the project on considerably. When The Half was published in 2008 it featured black & white portraits and one picture of each actor I covered. I'm now working on the follow-up book and this will feature a lot more colour portraits and there will be more pictures of each of the subjects over across maybe two to three pages."
Simon has ensured his project has remained fresh by keeping the remit wide. Productions ranging from Shakespeare through to light comedy and musicals have been covered, and he's headed all around the country to shoot in the dressing rooms of the smaller repertory theatres and outdoor locations such as Glyndbourne as well as in the high profile London venues. His most recent shoot was with Britt Ekland who was playing the Wicked Witch at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, and he loves the variety that his job throws up.
"The whole project is very much a monograph," he says, "but although it may sound like a narrow subject there is a lot of depth to it and I have had to work in many different styles and within a host of differing guidelines to take account of the hugely varied situations that I've found myself in."
Simon Annand has worked as a photographer in the theatre for over 25 years. After making his breakthrough by working with Jonathan Miller at the Old Vic from 1987-89, he has gone on to work with everyone from the Moscow Arts Theatre through to the Lyric in Hammersmith.
Taken from the April 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine