By Arthur H. Gunther III
When you are a newspaper photographer, you are like a stage or film director – you set up shots, scenes that capture, it is hoped, the essence, the nut, the who, what, when, where, why and how of an event, occurrence, etc.
That surely was the way I worked as a lensman for The Journal-News, a daily paper in Rockland County, N.Y., some years back. Today the focus is less on such set-up shots and more on capturing the moment candidly, ostensibly so you do not “manage” the moment, so you do not add artificiality or even the hint of a staged check-passing photo.
Actually, we photogs of the 1960s at The JN – Ken Muise, Andy Dickerman, Al Witt, Warren Inglese and I – never clicked away at check-passing moments, and we tried not to over-direct or stage a set-up so that it became cliché. Most of the time, we took what Al properly terms “posed candids,” which simply meant you observed a scene and maybe moved a person to keep from cutting someone else’s head off. The result was the better telling of a story, in my view.
But no matter what the approach, the shot must say something.
That’s what I was trying to do one hot summer afternoon in Nyack, N.Y., at the former Tappan Zee Playhouse, a seasonal theater off a street called Broadway.
The play was “Three Men on a Horse,” a 1930s comedy in three acts by John C. Holm and George Abbott. The director was Sam Levene, his fifth Tappan Zee appearance, Levene not only directed “Three Men On A Horse,” but reprised his original starring Broadway and film role as Patsy, a professional if not always successful gambler. Bert Parks co-starred as Erwin in the farce Levene originated on Broadway in 1935 that at the time was the longest running comedy, running 835 performances.
Levene was principally a character actor – gangster, detective, neighborhood colorful figure – of the 1930s and ’40s, a balding man with a mustache and a sharp New York City attitude and accent. He was excellent in his work, especially when he hit Broadway in the original “Guys and Dolls.”
The fine actor was directing when I walked into the cool, darkened theater for 10 or 15 minutes. I was there to do a publicity photograph for the summer stock play, soon to open. I quickly grabbed a few actors – my standard approach, for I wanted a tight close-up to dramatize the play rather than a bird’s-eye view of 10 thespians on a stage, taken from the tenth row.
I had composed many such photos and enjoyed theater publicity, for you could be a bit more creative with play shots, using natural or “available light,” and the actors were just perfect, ready with all manner of great expression, unlike most living photographic subjects. So very easy to “direct.”
Usually the director knew I was coming and would let me do my thing, recognizing that I, as a professional, was a “director,” too. He or she would step back as a “second unit” director, helping if needed.
Not Sam Levene. He was just like one of his tough film or stage characters, grabbing me by the arm and interrupting the shot. “I am the director here,” he said. “In my theater, I set up the shots.”
Well, Sam set up the shot he wanted – not unlike my own – but I worked the angle my way since I was the cameraman, not him. We used the same three actors I was already “directing,” and the photography went quickly, allowing Sam to go back to his main directing job.
I chuckled as I left the playhouse, adding Sam Levene to the long list of characters – famous and seemingly ordinary – that you meet as a news photog.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column originally appeared on Jan. 22, 2007.