Over the years assignment photography has gotten more and more controlled and to the point. We get a brief about the project, maybe some samples or comprehensive layouts, and then we work to deliver something that exists only in a very narrow envelope. I understand that this is an "efficient" use of time and resources and that people are in a rush but there are other ways of working and those are the ways I miss.
I like this off hand photograph of actor, MATT McGRATH as Sergei Pavlovich Diaghliev in the late Terrence McNally's last play. McNally came to Austin to produce his final piece, Immortal Longings back in 2019.
I made it a habit, back when the theatre was open and running, to drop by the early rehearsals and try to get some interesting shots that we might use for human interest stories and stuff like that. Maybe short teasers for the news outlets...
In these visits I didn't have a brief, there were no expectations of any particular sort. I'd stay for an hour if the rehearsal was slow and draggy or multiple hours if there was constantly changing visual stimuli. It was totally up to me. And since I was hanging out at the early part of previously unproduced plays I had no idea of how the action would flow or even what to expect.
Occasionally I would read the script in advance but not usually.
It was early Fall of 2019 when this play was being produced. It changed a lot throughout the process. Even after the first week's "soft" opening the script was being cut or edited or added to between shows. A wild process when compared to commercial work. On the evening I dropped by I was still working with Fuji cameras and I was particularly interested in the 56mm f1.2 lens and how it rendered images.
I tried to project a low energy, anonymous persona and I tried not to engage anyone while I was shooting. More of a "fly on the wall" sort of perspective. I'd see something I liked and I would shoot a few frames. Then I'd put my camera down at the end of its strap and wait, passively, for something to change or build or even fall apart. It's the only way I know of to get really authentic working photographs. Stuff that doesn't look set up because it's not.
We used to do something like this process with conventional clients as well. We'd come into their location and treat the project like anthropology. I'd walk around and just look for images that told small stories. Expressions, details, gestures, etc.
It seems that now we have shot lists, tight schedules, and we have to hurry through them. And when we finish the clients head for the doors and scatter. It's not just a reaction to the pandemic because the "adventure" of advertising photography had been heading in this direction of "cut and dry" non-engagement for while.
A fantasy I used to have earlier in my career would be getting hired to do a historic documentation of a major company like Dell or IBM (in its earliest days) where one would work in the same way that the White House photographers worked (pre-Trump). Which was with day-to-day and hour-by-hour access in an attempt to create a visual history of an administration. Or the early history of an important company.
We used to do more of this but I guess in today's efficiency obsessed arenas, and with clients who demand total control, the casual, photojournalistic style of documentary photography is failing quickly.
Too bad. I really liked it. It was the magic ingredient for visual story telling. "It" being time spent exploring and photographing whatever catches your eyes...