Whether you are a regular in the experimental theater circuit or an occasional downtown denizen, chances are you have been exposed to some of the most memorable performance images around, as captured by the impeccable eye (and camera) of the Russian-born photographer Maria Baranova. Over the last few years, Baranova has shot to prominence in New York, producing deeply resonant imagery of some of the most forward-thinking theater and dance artists. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with her these past two years, as she has been documenting the multiyear process of developing PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!, a new work I have been creating with my company WaxFactory.
Growing up between Moscow and Helsinki, Baranova initially attended a preparatory fine-arts program, focusing on painting and collage techniques. During her early experimentation with photography, she would scout outlandish locations—crumbling factories, vast fields—and style her friends into fashion-based imagery, creating evocative worlds and fictional characters. This type of work led to collaborations with young Finnish stylists and clothing designers.
I recently sat down with Baranova to discuss her transition to theater, working in the United States, and the secret to capturing the essence of the dramatic moment.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): You started your journey as a photographer with fashion-based work, and the way in which you were staging these images immediately brings to mind the idea of character. It seems that you had a fascination for creating personae and theatrical environments from the very beginning.
Maria Baranova: Exactly. When I started shooting performances, I looked back at that work and I realized that, in a sense, I had been doing my own theater. I was interested in creating scenes that would capture specific feelings. As I was working on them, I wasn’t exactly scripting them, or writing directions, but I had a vision of what I wanted the scene to look like and the feeling that I wanted to capture.
Rail: What prompted the transition to work in theater?
Baranova: I was introduced to the work of the Double Edge Theatre in Massachusetts [in 2011], and I really liked their work. I came to the United States on several occasions to observe and photograph their work just for myself.
Rail: What was it that drew you to their work?
Baranova: I was never really a theater fanatic. I went a few times, I had friends in Finland and Russia who worked in theater, but I never cared that much. People knew that I was doing editorial work, so on one occasion I was asked to photograph images from a theater production for an editorial article, and that lead to other theatrical assignments. As I began working in theater, I observed that, in a sense, I didn’t have to do anything—action was already happening, I just had to take photos, and I was getting paid to do that. So when I went to the Double Edge Theatre, the work was completely different from the theater that I had seen before. It’s very engaging and in a way very simple, very truthful. The company members, they don’t just show up for theater rehearsals and then move on to other things—they live it. It was just amazing, the energy, and how it looked visually and also the trust that happened very quickly—I was right on the stage, they allowed that. After that early experience they expressed the desire to continue working together, so that prompted my move to the United States: I spent extended periods of time shooting their process and rehearsals and training that they do with students.
Rail: How much time did you spend with the company?
Baranova: We’ve worked together for four years now. Before I met them, I was working on another project, with Dmitry Krymov and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Helsinki, which had been a completely unexpected assignment that came my way through a friend, a producer. I started going to rehearsals, and I became friendly with the company—they rehearsed periodically from February until August of 2011, and I was there from the very beginning. At some point, they realized they didn’t have any promotional photos for their upcoming world tour, so they bought some of my images. Coincidentally, Philip Arnoult [the founder of the Center for International Theatre Development in Baltimore, and prominent facilitator of exchange between U.S. and international theater artists] came to the opening night. He saw a small book of photographs that I had prepared for Baryshnikov and Krymov, and he immediately requested a copy of it. He also said that he knew a company in the United States—the Double Edge Theatre—that would be interested in working with a photographer for the entire rehearsal process of their upcoming show that was premiering in 2013 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. So I went to the U.S. to see them work, and that eventually led to our long term collaboration.
Rail: It seems that a lot of work that you’ve done in theater—with my company as well—has coincidentally involved extended processes having to do with documenting work over longer periods of time, which I think is quite unusual.
Baranova: I think it’s very unusual in theater. Performance photography that is long term usually happens on tour with a rock band. I haven’t heard of anyone going on tour with a theater company. But for me, that would be a dream. If I could land that kind of a client, and work on something for a year, that would be incredible. With Krymov and Double Edge Theatre’s work, I was really amazed to see how those pieces developed. In both companies, there is a deep trust in the actors—they build the work, and the director just steers them. I shot their production of The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) probably a hundred times, as well as in rehearsal, but it was never boring. Every time they do it, even now, as they tour it, it keeps changing. I don’t know why more companies don’t do that.
Rail: I think it has a lot to do with production schedules in the United States—in many cases, how quickly the work gets made is tied to the funding, which needs to be expended in that given year. This is challenging for companies interested in extended processes, when one is expected to have a deliverable work by the end of the year.
Baranova: My ultimate idea would be to create a book that would show how a contemporary theater piece gets built—collect comments from collaborators and illustrate it with photos. Actually, there is interest from a publication to do that kind of a book about David Neumann’s piece I Understand Everything Better, and it would include notes from the designers. I shot that piece for three years in different stages, so that would be interesting, and I hope it will work out. We tried doing that with Double Edge Theatre, but the funding didn’t come through.
Rail: I have seen a great deal of your work, and I have seen you at work. When you are in rehearsal or in a theatrical situation, what is your process there? How do you find moments or images that capture your attention?
Baranova: I think a lot of it comes from my background in painting and ability to create a composition in a frame—which is odd in theater because I am not really creating anything. But just framing the specific moment and using your imagination about how light could work in that moment, even if it happens very fast—with that background, I feel it helps a lot. When I am in a space, it’s probably my favorite time in life, because I am so concentrated that I don’t think about anything else. It’s like meditation—everything disappears, and you are just there. There is a great deal of concentration, and you just need to let go—you listen to the music or the sound design and look at the actors’ patterns. There is this magical thing that happens, when I go in sync with a piece, which I don’t even know how to explain. The most extraordinary example of it happened when I was shooting Andrew Schneider’s piece [YOUARENOWHERE] when it premiered at The Invisible Dog Art Center last year. I never saw his work, I had no idea what it was going to look like. I normally do a bit of research, but this was happening during the COIL festival—I was shooting many shows, so I showed up and did it. And, from the first moment, we were completely in sync. It was as if we were anticipating each other’s moves. That I can’t even explain.
What I try to catch, and what I specifically look at when I shoot a show, is relationships between people on stage. I look for what the actors are looking at—where their gaze is most intense and they are in their zone—that’s the picture I am looking for. And the shots that convey what the relationship is between those characters, or with the space, or with the music. I search for that one picture that can describe the whole show.
Rail: Live performance is extremely ephemeral, so it’s a tremendous challenge to capture the experience of this living, breathing, three-dimensional art form in a two-dimensional frozen moment. It takes a special eye and skill to get that, which has always been fascinating to me about your photography.
Baranova: Shooting performance is physically very difficult, especially the way I shoot it—basically I run around madly, and if people allow me to be on stage—and some people do—I go on stage. My biggest fear is that I may not catch everything. The performers are doing everything for you—all you need to do is pay a lot of attention and just open yourself up to getting it, be involved, become part of the piece. It’s very hard emotionally—I cried many times while shooting a show, just because it was so beautiful, or so emotional, or so tragic. I get into it so deeply that I react as the characters would, living it right there at the same time. That’s what it takes. You get into it, and you get good shots. That is why I like to shoot the process—you can go to all the places that no one will ever see. It’s like behind-the-stage images. I admire all directors who let me do that, because I know that when they direct a piece, there is a specific way they want it to look. It depends on what they are doing, but maybe they don’t want the work to be seen from a particular angle, or to have someone who brings their own perspective and vision. So far, I’ve been very lucky with people trusting me to engage with their work in this way. That’s even more interesting, to show that part that never gets seen.