HOW I TAKE SUCCESSFUL
THEATRICAL PRESS PHOTOS
Publicity for New York theater is increasingly photo-driven.
So what does it take to make sure the newspapers will print what you send them?
by Jonathan Slaff
I am both a publicist and a photographer for professional theaters in New York. This article explains my approach to one of the smaller producer's most difficult problems: pre-production photography.
VIVID AND UNIQUE -- For Alice Farley's "Black Water (dancing below the light), we used this image of a 14-foot dancing puppet that seemed emblematic of the show. (photo: Jonathan Slaff)
When I began as a theatrical press agent, I asked a major critic how I could get a story on one of my "downtown" plays published. He said his paper didn't usually cover theaters of this type, but if I could come up with a really striking photograph, it might be used in the paper's pictorial section--a big, splashy photo layout.
It was the best advice I ever got, as it made me aware of the manifold opportunities for photo placement on behalf of small and medium-sized, non-profit theater groups. I also realized, at a stroke, that downtown, avant-garde, Off-off Broadway productions, being vivid and unique, have all the visual ingredients to make wonderful photographs.
Believe it or not, there are more photo placement opportunities available than most small theater companies routinely take advantage of. So producers can only gain by strengthening their efforts in this area overall. Your press photos can be effective, professional, affordable and successful.
I have laid out some thoughts on techniques of publicity photos that succeed. All the photos illustrating it are mine. Some of them are black and white because this article was originally written when photos were shot on film (and I'm too sentimental to remove them).
To discuss any aspect of this article, please contact me at (212) 924-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
FIRST RULE OF SUCCESS: ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
What are my deadlines? It comes as a surprise to many new producers that the most important photos are taken before the show opens, not after. That's because the "pre-production" photos that appear in the press prior to the opening are the ones that bring in the initial audience. For calendar sections in metropolitan Sunday newspapers, photo deadlines are as much as three to four weeks before your opening. Many magazines need them three months ahead. For seasonal calendars, the lead time may be even longer. The best strategy is to consult with your publicist, identify "targets" for pre-production photos in your media market, and then schedule photo sessions to provide artwork in time for the deadlines of the publications you have selected.
BACKGROUNDS MATTER -- Note how the sign, an inexpensive touch created on-the-spot, established the restaurant motif for this photo, shot for "A Waiter's Nightmare" by Freestyle Rep. Laura Valpey played out a Hitchcock-type scene. I caught a lucky reflection of her face in the meat cleaver.
Do I need color or black and white? A trip to the corner newsstand will tell you that most magazines are now full color, while many newspapers still have a lot of black and white pages. What's not obvious is that most theatrical photographs originate in color these days, since most publications are now full color and color photos can be converted into black and white. But "colorizing" black and white photos is a technology that is still restricted to the movies.
This article contains a few black and white photos because it was originally written before digital photography was widespread. I have left them in for sentimental reasons.
What are "high resolution photos?" These are digital photos of sufficient resolution that they will give a good result when printed. Typically, the Photoshop settings of high resolution photos are (at minimum): 300 DPI, size 8" x 10" (or larger), quality = 9, baseline = Standard. The resulting files are approximately 1.3 MB in size, which is a good compromise between quality and size for images that have to be emailed.
When digital cameras are set to save photos to their largest JPG size, they typically deliver high-resolution images, but with different proportions. In most consumer cameras, the default setting for "dots per inch," or DPI, is 72 or 180. The resulting images are not actually smaller, it is just a matter of scale. While their DPI is lower, their height and width are proportionally larger. Their file size is commonly 1.8 to 2.3 MB.
Usually, publications will stipulate that they need 300 DPI photos. So before submitting your images, it is a good idea to use Photoshop and resize your photos to the minimal settings I specified above.
DIGITAL OR HARD COPY? -- Thanks to new technologies, it is now standard to submit publicity photos digitally. Hard-copy photos are still accepted, but seldom used because of the convenience of email. When it comes to hard-copy color photos, magazine photo editors traditionally have preferred slides or transparencies over color prints. This is because most art directors believe that slides print better. Slides can be scanned for Internet use. The source of this photo was a slide of Bill Walsh in "Lincoln." (Photo: Jonathan Slaff)
What kind of photos are they running? A little first-hand research will tell you a lot. Look at about three weeks of theater coverage in the New York newspapers and note the kinds of photos you see. There will be production shots that run with reviews and smaller illustrations on calendar pages that range from stock photos of actors in costume to "art" photos of performance artists. It is interesting to note that dancers' feet are usually, but not always, visible in production shots. On the calendar pages, you will notice that photos are cropped tightly, with the lower body usually not shown. This is a function of space: when space is tight, shots will be cropped down to the faces. Depending on the nature of the coverage, different kinds of photographs are required.
How can I tell if a photo is technically good enough? Remember that for photographs to be publishable (and for them to reflect well on your company), a certain standard of technical quality must and can be maintained. When photos are dark, blurred, smudgy or burned-out, don't use them. In color photos, watch for color shifts, smudgy areas, focusing problems and overall bad color balance. The biggest problem in theater photography is that photos are, in general, too dark. The problem is compounded by the prevalence of black-box theaters and dark costumes. Whenever you shoot dark costumes with a dark background, you are asking for trouble: a blackness swallows up the cast. Remember that medium-toned wardrobes photograph best--neither black nor white. Be aware that dark greens, reds and purples also come out very dark when reproduced in black and white.
HUMOR WORKS -- Modern business buccaneers met their forebears in a swashbuckling musical, "Pirates," Theater for the New City's street theater production, which toured City streets, parks, and playgrounds. Even though it was an outdoor production, we shot the photo indoors with controlled lighting for a more "theatrical" look.
(photo: Jonathan Slaff)
OK, I GOT THAT. NOW, WHAT MAKES A "BANKABLE" SHOT?
Publicists search ruthlessly through many different styles of photos in search of a "magical" shot, always mindful that if it can't earn placement in the papers it won't make the phone ring in the box office. Some photos are attractive and artistic, but not suited to journalism because they do not fulfill the standards of news. I have found photo editors pretty open-minded when it comes to the content of photos, but they draw the line at certain obvious "sins." Do not ask a photo editor to run pictures of people who are not in the show, photos of an aging danceuse that were taken in her youth, or photos of settings that are not in the production.
When the production is a premiere, you have an advantage in publicity because an opening has implicitly more news value. But as you have not yet mounted the show, you are in the peculiar position of wanting to provide photos of a production that has not yet happened. The photo you will come up with is a sort of a preview--a reasonable facsimile--that is as truthful to the production as the time frame allows. Designing these pre-production photos casts the producer and publicist into the role of an art director. This a truly creative, enjoyable process that should be relished, not dreaded. In brainstorming ideas for your premiere, keep a few things in mind:
ART DIRECTORS' TRICKS
Sell with people. People perform for people. You are popularizing people. Your photo is answering the question, "Whom are we going to see?". So, show the faces.
Use costumes and props. The cooperation of your set designer and costumer is often required in creating photos that are distinctive to your production and also pleasing and interesting to look at. This is often a problem because you are often shoting before costumes are made and props built. So, improvise. Design the look of the people, don't just use "rehearsal clothes." For example, if your show is set in Dogpatch, don't dress the dancers in leotards--run out and get them bib overalls. Often a particular symbol, setting or object is emblematic of the production: find a way to simulate it or suggest it in your photo.
DRESS "EM FOR SUCCESS -- The costume designer has always been part of the team in pre-publicity photos for Jean Cocteau Repertory. Finished-looking costumes gave a finished look to this photo, which was taken three weeks before the opening of Frank Wedekind's "Lulu." (Photo: Jonathan Slaff)
You don't need the whole cast in a publicity photo. Since the photo will probably be reproduced in a small size, it is often to your advantage to plan shots of one, two or three people. Single photos of the leading actors or title characters are also good choices.
Get your performers to interact. If you can get them to improvise, your photos will come out refreshing and "real," avoiding the frozen formality of many photos. Improvisation will also help your subjects to relax as you shoot.
THE POWER OF PUPPETS -- To stage a unique version of "Hamlet," Czechoslovak American Marionette Theater drew upon Shakespeare's text, Ur-Hamlet sources and a popular Czech puppet version published in Prague for a toy puppet theatre in its heyday, the 1920s. This photo testifies to the power of puppets and masks in publicity photos. Here, Hamlet lays his head in Ophelia's lap. (photo: Jonathan Slaff)
Use masks and puppets. Such wonderfully theatrical touches have great appeal in photographs, and photo editors seem to relish them. Masks have an inherent mystery and theatricality that makes for successful, attention-getting photographs. Puppets, too, are innately theatrical and always make great shots.
Don't shoot "family photos." It is unimaginative and boring to shoot the whole cast, smiling at the camera. Why? My theory is, there is no dramatic context. Shots exploring relationship between characters (for example, seduction, subjugation, worship, etc.) would be more interesting than a photo of two actors frozen in an arbitrary, formal pose.
Don't try to get away with "rehearsal shots" if you are promoting a show. By this, I don't mean shots taken during the rehearsal period, but shots that make it look like you are rehearsing. Why should a photo editor run a photo of you rehearsing when he has a photo of somebody else putting on a show? Shots with a mirror in the background inevitably suggest the location is a rehearsal studio, not a theater. And when the the photographer is reflected in the mirror--oy vey!
Beware of outdoor shots. If the show is to be performed outdoors, I would definitely shoot some exteriors. This is because part of what you are selling is the pleasure of outdoor theater, and you want to suggest that in the photos. But if the show is to be performed on an indoor stage, you want it to look "theatrical." Think about it like this: if you were a classical music producer, you wouldn't promote a Pavarotti concert in Carnegie Hall with pictures of him in Central Park.
TRICKS OF PROFESSIONAL PUBLICISTS
Send them out on time. Believe it or not, people forget this necessary step. In the financial boom times of the 1980's, it was said people made money just by showing up. I have found that photographs get published just by showing up, particlularly when the competition's photos don't.
Supply informative caption info. With digital photos, a caption can be made part of the file be entering it as IPTC metadata. Open the image in Photoshop, drop down the File menu and choose "info." In Photoshop 5 and later, you will get a window in which to write the caption. Fill in the necessary information like this:
"Dress British, Think Yiddish," presented by La MaMa E.T.C., NYC January 2-20, 2011. L-R: Harold Dean James, Nicky Paraiso, Jim Neu. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Click OK and save; now the information will never get separated from the photo.
WHEN TO USE EXTERIORS? -- This photo of Theater for the New City's clown ensemble seems to say, "the streets are our stage," partly by its use of a New York taxicab. In this case, it was true. But if your show isn't outdoors, you should be wary of exteriors in pre-publicity photos. They can give the wrong impression. (photo: Jonathan Slaff)
Please always remember that under our existing laws, the photo is copyrighted to the photographer when the shutter is snapped. Also remember that federal law prohibits copying or reproducing copyrighted material without permission. This means that swiping a photograph from the pages of another publication (including library books and foreign publications) is a no-no, as is altering a photographer's work without his or her consent. The photographer who retains his negatives will not only ensure creative control over his images, but also guarantee his ownership rights. "Work for hire," in which the photographer turns over his negatives to the person who pays him, is extremely rare in theatrical photography.
WHOM TO HIRE FOR THE JOB
The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers proved irresistable to editors of the calendar sections. (photo: Jonathan Slaff)
When you need results, you hire a professional. Entry-level producers often try to get by with a "friend" (i.e., amateur photographer) or a professional from another specialty (i.e. table-top, weddings, etc.) whom they know. They most often spend just as much money and get photos that don't run in the papers.
In theatrical photography, there is a quick way to determine who is a professional and who is pretending to be. When interviewing photographers for a pre-production job (photos for advance publicity, before the show is built), simply ask, "Do you bring lights?" If the photographer says no or waffles, you know you've got the wrong person for the job because theatrical pre-production photos always need additional light, even if there is stage lighting available.
PAYMENT TERMS AND RIGHTS TO THE PHOTOS
BE CONCEPTUAL -- Roger Rosenblatt's "Bibiomania" was about love of books, so we buried him in them. Rosenblatt was already well-known and this photo was less a dramatic photo than a high-concept "celebrity shot." (photo: Jonathan Slaff)
Most professional theatrical photographers I know who shoot publicity photos do it on a fee-plus-expenses basis, and the fee generally gives the producer the publicity rights to the photograph. (I say generally because there are as many types of deals made as there are stars in the sky. But this is a typical arrangement in New York theater.) "Publicity rights" means that the company may duplicate and submit the photographer's photos for newspaper and magazine coverage of the production without further payment to the photographer. When a producer of good repute (or an established publicist) submits such photos to a newspaper or magazine, it is with the understanding that publicity rights have been arranged, and that the publication will not be liable for further charges from the photographer. The producer must generally negotiate with the photographer separately for uses including album covers and posters.
A theatrical photographer is generally free to exert his ownership rights and make his best deal for use of his photos in published playscripts, books about the artists, textbooks and publishers' catalogues as well as for stock agency use. The photographer will not be sharing procedes from these sales with the producer, unless some contractual provision for this had been previously made.
It is always good business to present the photographer's name clearly on photos you distribute for any purpose. Beside passing on valuable copyright information, it enables photos to be published with the proper credit to the artist who made them.
PHOTOS AS A RESOURCE
Companies find that publicity photos, once created, become a wonderful asset. They are often well-suited to accompany reviews and are used in press kits that are given to reviewers attending the performance. Publications often retain interesting photos on file to illustrate articles which may come out long after the show, and this can give additional visibility to the company as well as recognition of its past work. Although originally intended to stimulate advance sales, publicity photos are sometimes faithful enough to the finished production to substitute for production photos, which saves money. They are also frequently adapted for use in newsletters, calendars, posters and newspaper ads. I would end with a word for small companies, who often feel "closed out" of the papers because larger companies seem to dominate the editorial coverage in their market: newspapers are always looking for photos that will dress up their pages with novelty and pizazz. With today's large selection of photo placement opportunities--"choices" sections, arts calendars and going-out guides--there are many outlets for small presenters to outshine larger ones by simply being more imaginative and creative in their publicity photos.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Slaff is a press agent and photographer for arts organizations in New York. A professional actor since childhood, he has been has been active in arts management since 1983. He lives in Greenwich Village. You can contact him at (212) 924-0496 or E-mail him at email@example.com.
Versions of this article by Jonathan Slaff have appeared in "Stage Directions, "Poor Dancer's Almanac," "Dance Teacher Now" and "All About Jewish Theatre."