“Photography is the ultimate short story”: Portrait photographer Simon Annand discusses his major exhibition The Half
Simon Annand is one of the most prestigious British portrait photographers. With a reputation for his honest and vivid images, he has gained unprecedented access behind the scenes at world-renowned theatres throughout his 30-year career.
His latest exhibition, The Half at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, showcases a selection of 74 photographs capturing intimate shots of actors and actresses, including images of Maggie Smith and Priscilla Presley, as they prepare in their final 35-minute countdown to stage.
We spoke to Simon about how this project began and the stories that photography can tell us.
What first drew you into photography and led you to a particular focus on the theatre?
Photography is the ultimate short story and I love translating aspects of human nature into an image. Photography is often about something other than photography and my subject of interest is the theatre, particularly the live aspect of performance.
The Half explores an intimate level of portraiture that is rarely accessible. How did this project begin?
Intimacy is connected to vulnerability, that is the willingness and capacity to be open with emotion, a subject that I am especially interested in, and a subject that photography can describe well, depending on who is holding the camera.
Do you always choose the actors that you would like to photograph?
Yes, the casting is personal. This is a huge advantage and allows an absence of compromise, which might be imposed if an editor had commissioned the work. There is a broad range of actors who attract my attention, but an ability to interpret aspects of human nature and transform this into an archetype is the most important factor.
How would you describe the atmosphere and what do you find most interesting about photographing actors in the final moments before their stage time?
All actors in every production in every room and at every point of the runtime are all different. The atmosphere in a room when you enter is unique and requires the photographer to be open to the possibilities of not knowing what the actor may have been through during the day as him or herself. Theatre actors have to go on the stage in half an hour’s time. There is no escape. This contrasts with actors on a film set who may have to wait around for hours before being called. In a live performance the tension is palpable, whereas before a performance on film the energy is dispersed, making it less photogenic.
How much direction do you give to ensure you have the perfect shot?
There is no perfect shot. Some actors require more “direction” and some less, depending on either their surety in front of the camera or their degree of confidence about themselves as a person. I find it relatively easy to put someone at ease, if this is required. Staying silent during the session is less preferable, if requested by the more “method” actor.
What camera do you use for your portrait work?
Canon 1DS MKIII
The Half exhibition has toured since 2008. How do you choose which photographs to display at any given time?
The edit for a particular exhibition depends on the local catchment area and which actors the people visiting the exhibition might be interested in. This has varied considerably, including New York, Moscow, Paris, London, China, Huddersfield and Birmingham.
Is there a huge difference between photographing a celebrity and an ordinary person?
Not really, unless the celebrity takes themselves too seriously. What makes someone photogenic is not the physical shape of their face or body but how they relate to themselves inside their own head. Every person born has to deal with this as a daily existential challenge, whether they are a genius or a beggar.
For you, what have been the most challenging aspects of being a photographer?
Feeling and thinking quick enough to translate a momentary flash of human nature into an image. The relationship between this (freefall) and control (knowing the equipment and what it can do) is fascinating.
What are your favourite images from your career so far?
The ones that have surprised me, either in the moment of capture, or when someone else has chosen a poignant photograph I took but missed in the edit.
The Half is at Lawrence Batley Theatre from 7th September 2019 until 1st February 2020. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.