Photographing Suzan-Lori Parks at work. Behind the scenes at Zach.

Just like 90% of other humans I like to think I'm pretty smart.  Reality?  Probably right in the middle of the Bell Curve.  Smart enough to know about the Bell Curve but not smart enough to make up my own curve.  But my profession tends to give me reality checks all the time.  Yesterday's reality check came courtesy my friends at Zachary Scott Theatre.  They asked me to photograph Suzan-Lori Parks at work. Don't know who Suzan-Lori Parks is?  See, we're all sitting right in the middle of the big Bell Curve....together. 

Suzan-Lori Parks is the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for playwriting,  is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award,  won a Guggenheim,  nominated for a Tony award, and so much more.  She's in town to put the finishing touches and polish on her latest work, The Book of Grace.   Here's what the folks at Zach have to say:  

Step into the imaginative playground of Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks for an extremely rare opportunity -- the first production of her new play directed by Ms. Parks herself! A South Texas family breaks through familial borders when a young man named Snake returns home, lured by his stepmother Grace, to reunite with his father, a border patrol agent. The prodigal son confronts his father, and fences are erected as everyday life erupts into a battle for personal survival. At once fiercely intimate and explosive, this surprising and truly original play finds three people bound together by longing, passion and ambition.

Ms. Park's cast got together on Sunday morning to go over changes in the script (a process that continues right up until the first show) to work on notes from previous rehearsals and to rehearse anew.  I sat in on part of the process.  I wanted to capture the real feel of the rehearsal so I depended mostly on the dim work lights high up in the ceiling.  My only nod to technical constraints was to bounce two LED (500 bulb panels) into white panels on the wall behind me.  The LED panels were covered with one half CTO filters.  I didn't want to use flash because it would have broken the concentration of the actors and director.  I tried to work in as much of a "matter of fact" way that wouldn't make me stick out.

For better or worse I elected to use the Canon 5d2 and the 7d with three Zeiss manual focus optics.  I used the 35mm f2, the 50mm f1.4 and the 85mm 1.4.  How low were the light levels?  My exposures were basically ISO 3200, f2.2-f2.5 @ 1/125th.  All handheld.  (See my previous post for a discussion of the hubris of manually focusing while growing "more experienced...").

I worked hard at getting sharp focus where I wanted it while still maintaining a fluid shooting style.  I shot 368 photos but came away with only 260 sharp, useable images.  Usually I throw away a few percent but those are usually a result of timing or expression, not technical unsharpness.  This really woke me up to the idea that practicing focus (something we were aware of in the old days) is vital if you are going to do low available light work with fast, wide optics......and manual focus.

So, back to the subject.  I didn't know what to expect when I started shooting and watching and listening but after a while I felt myself being pulled into a different world. Ms. Park's direction was brilliant, her presence was amazing.  I wanted to stay all day and watch rehearsal.  I was in the presence of something rare.  Real, honest genius.  I left so they could get their work done without the old Heisenberg Theory coming into play.  But I can hardly wait for the dress rehearsal and I'm already lining up my tickets for the first night.  It's going to be amazing.

What about my choice of lenses?  Well.  I really like the way they look.  They just take more work.  And is that really a negative?

All images ©2011 Kirk Tuck.  


Archer Sully said...

As usual, Kirk, your photos capture your subject beautifully. Her energy and intensity come through. Of course, she can't take photographs as well as you can.

kirk tuck said...

Archer, I'm not so sure......She's pretty incredible.

Bold Photography said...

Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.

That's why I stick to primes -- and am now lusting after these Zeiss lenses...

Paul Glover said...

Excellent shots, and I'd be mighty pleased with that percentage of keepers; of course I'm not doing photography for a living. A good reminder that being a pro takes much more than just grabbing a "nice camera" and blasting off a cardful of images in the hope a few will stick.

Also reminds me that I need to get back into the habit of practicing focus for a while every evening, even when I'm not actually shooting. Who cares if my wife thinks I'm a bit crazy, if I can draw a bead on our cats in cruddy artificial lighting I should be in good shape, surely.

Dave Elfering Photography said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
theaterculture said...

Great photos of one of my artistic and intellectual heroes - must have been a great opportunity to spend some time watching her work!

The essay "The Elements of Style," though ostensibly about playwriting, is like a letter from a loving big sister meant to shake you up in the face of a bout of creative stagnation. It's my go-to whenever I feel like I just can't write a word, no matter what the word is supposed to be about. Well worth checking out, if you don't know it; it's published in the Theatre Communcations Group edition of "The America Play."