Kent Meister began his investigation of Off Off Broadway theater in 2004, when he moved to New York City from Oklahoma as “a hungry young actor,” he writes in a statement about his series “We Are Stories: Face of New York Indie Theater.” After years of performing in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, he realized that “the people I was making art with were creating our own ‘scene,'” and when he turned to photography, “I was compelled to capture these artists, many of them my friends, in the way that I saw them.” The result is a collection of documentary images showing the camaraderie and hard work that goes on backstage, and formal portraits of actors and directors, which together capture the texture and personality of life in these theaters.
“The approach for both the portrait and documentary photos developed over time,” Meister tells PDN by email. He began shooting the portraits first. “I approached people in the indie theater community who’s work I really respected and kept the sittings to about 30-45 minutes. I kept the look very stripped down and knew going in that I’d be working in black and white because I wanted to really focus on nuance and expression. I didn’t want anything else getting in the way of that connection. The sitting is always a conversation and I’m trying to be sensitive to what they are putting out there and how they’re responding to my direction.”
Meister began the documentary portion as a student in SVA’s MPS Digital Photography program, where a class with James Estrin, co-editor of The New York Times‘ Lens blog, helped shape the series. “Jim was very encouraging and pushed me to go further. I began to realize that the two approaches could blend together into one project with the documentary images providing more environment and context while the portraits highlight some of the key players.”
The project presented a few technical challenges. “I was working in low light a lot, plus I needed to be quiet and unobtrusive. I ended up using a Leica rangefinder for much of the documentary work and it solved a lot of logistic and creative problems for me. There was also the challenge of dealing with some questionable light in terms of color temperature. Processing in black and white helped out perfectly with that.” But, says Meister, “I’d say one of the biggest challenges of this project…was the edit. I had a really large volume of images to wrangle into a tight edit that tells a story. That can be hard, especially when you get attached to certain images that eventually need to go because they’re not serving the overall project.” But with help from Estrin and photographer Nigel Parry, he was able to focus the project. The series, he writes, “evolved into a celebration of the indie theater community and a love letter to these artists making a home in the tiny corners of New York City.”
Setting the Stage: David Leventi’s “Opera”
Ken Howard, Theater Photographer, On Covering the Stage (for PDN subscribers; login required)