Shakespeare and Still Photography
I am delighted to be awarded the Louis Marder Scholarship by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. My PhD research on ‘Shakespeare and Still Photography’ relies heavily on access to performance archives, and the scholarship will allow me take full advantage of the Shakespeare Centre Archive, particularly, its formidable collections of photographs dating back to the founding of the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1875, and recording the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company right up to the present day. In many ways, with their Stratford base, and, since 1961, royal charter, these theatre companies have dictated the orthodoxy of Shakespearean performance, and thus their work is crucial to understanding the development of Shakespeare’s visual identity over the last 138 years.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the category of cultural output defined as ‘Shakespeare’ has grown out of all recognition, and we can now encounter the Shakespearean in every medium. Since, in 1859, Charles Baudelaire described photography as a ‘very humble servant’ to other media (painting, sculpture, poetry and inevitably theatre), it has been a difficult medium to delimit and define. In Shakespeare studies, we have been inclined to follow Baudelaire’s advice, and used photographs predominantly as documents of performance, though with an increasing awareness that, as documents, they can be notoriously unreliable.
There is a palpable tension in the photographic record between the desire to document performance accurately and the impulse towards artistic composition. The stillness of photographs puts them in natural competition with other types of image; as George Frederick Watts put it, in a letter to the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘what would not do in a painting will not do in a photograph.’ This artistic impulse is occasionally discernible, even in photographs which ostensibly document performance: the composition of a photograph may pay visual homage to predecessors in painting, illustration, or, increasingly, earlier photographs.
The photographic history of Shakespeare in Stratford is rich and varied, and, by the nature of photography, peppered with startling details and unanswered questions. In the early twentieth century, under Frank Benson’s management, the cast are often photographed by local ‘photographic chemist’ F.D. Spencer, against a backdrop of bricks recognisable as the exterior wall of the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. In the late ‘40s and ‘50s, Angus McBean’s mannerist portraits combine the motives of glamour photography with recognisably Shakespearean compositions. On receiving their royal charter, the RSC’s commitment to ensemble aesthetics is also discernible in the photographic record: rehearsal photographs appear, and the production photographs are less artfully composed, governed instead by the ethics of photojournalism – the desire to capture an event at ‘the decisive moment.’
I hope that this research will provide an opportunity to study photographs in a new context, focusing not on their inadequacy as documents of performance, but rather on the stories they do tell, sometimes inadvertently, and what those stories tell us about Shakespeare’s visual identity. I look forward to working in the archives of the Shakespeare Centre and plundering their collections for edifying images to bring to bear on this project.