Simon Annand has been photographing actors for over 25 years. His latest book, The Half, is a collection of photos of actors in their dressing rooms, capturing the half-an-hour before they appear on stage. Annand speaks with Chris Hislop about his photography, and the care that goes into working within a usually private space.
Simon describes these dressing room circumstances as very photogenic – that his instinct as a photographer takes over, and he tries to capture a combination of two different people: the actor and their character. It’s these moments, when actors are their own selves but with elements of another, that offer such intimate pictures. The actor is not necessarily posing for a shot; they are building up a form of tension that will allow them to become someone else within a set structure, as well as getting themselves ready for a room full of a thousand strangers.
And it’s not something that can be settled into – every day is a different experience. Simon tells me that he recently went to photograph Bertie Carvel, who is playing Miss Trunchbull in Matilda (at the Cambridge Theatre), and that this was an attempt to capture a different picture: one that showed how much Bertie has absorbed and intermeshed with the character, two and a half months after the first picture was taken – which it certainly has, as Bertie now admits that the moment when he becomes the female character has shifted! With runs of a couple years not being too out-of-place on the West End, an actor’s professionalism and discipline means that their performance will be constant, but how they get themselves into character, in the privacy of their own space, will change.
Simon is also particularly fascinated by which characters actors are drawn to play: he gives the example of a photo of Charles Dance, who has a public persona as a rather affable British gentlemen, but who was in the last week of playing a Nazi on stage when Simon took his picture. Here is a perfectly pleasant actor, having to get caught up in the character of a Nazi, who next week will be affable again, but for now might even be a little unpleasant – although Simon knows, by now, when not to take offence! It’s these moral crises, both onstage and inside the actor, that make the best theatre so watchable.
There’s clearly a huge love and fascination for the theatre in Simon himself – he says that a photographer must know his own subject, and it’s very important to him that he photographs each specific show he works on differently. He attends rehearsals, technical rehearsals and reads the script. It’s not his job to take hundreds of photos — “I’m sorry, I’m not a snapper,” he says — but instead to plan carefully, to make a picture in his head and earn the right to take the photo: all lessons he learned as a younger man when he only had one reel of film and had to make every picture count. He finds that actors respond well to this method – he knows their rhythms and decisions, and they can feel that he knows when he will get the best pictures. Although it isn’t always easy – Simon describes working on War Horse, where he sat through five days of technical rehearsal to try and get the photos he needed, and the difficulty in finding resonance with the huge horse puppets and translating the dead pieces of wood into something more.
These difficulties also translate into the dressing room – some actors, no matter what, will always pose (which Simon describes as ‘offering an image’), although he was far too polite to name names! It’s to his credit that it isn’t always obvious which is which in his exhibition. The Half exhibition is at the Idea Generation Gallery until April 8, and this Sunday between 3-6 Simon will be signing copies of The Half.