Rich pickings in 2014. The Hobbit BOTFA, ITS, UATSC all gave us plenty of material to feast our eyes upon. But it was The Crucible in particular that gifted us with many new images of our favourite photographic subject – promotional images, press photography, stage door candids and theatre stills. For the latter, Johan Persson produced a wonderful array of images that initially gave us an insight into the rehearsals to TC (and feature in the theatre programme), and then photographed the staged version of the play in all its evocative drama. Recently, a number of previously unseen stills surfaced on RA Bulgaria and brought Persson’s work back to my attention. After a rehearsal still I would now like to take a look at a still from the finished production.
Here we have Proctor, handcuffed and dressed in a tattered shirt that shows some of the actor’s chest in the v-neck, screaming in despair or frustration. Proctor is standing at a 45 degree angle to the camera, his head thrown back and his mouth wide open. The subject is slightly leaning back, his body tense. This is, we can make out, a scene of high drama. The subject is alone in the frame, the only props a haphazardly arranged pile of chairs to his left. In the background right we can make out railings and steps. (Since I saw the play myself, I can say that those steps and railing are not part of the set but the stage exit at the back and the steps that lead up to the seats that were on-stage, opposite to the main auditorium.) A shaft of light illuminates the back of the stage while there is evidence of more light from straight above the subject.
This is a great choice of scene for a theatre still. Whether the viewer is familiar with the play or not, the image depicts an evocative moment – an emotional extreme that is sure to touch the viewer and/or spark curiosity. Who is this man? Why is he in distress? Why has he been handcuffed? What is his crime? Where is he? Well, we know the answers. This is John Proctor, falsely imprisoned for devil-worshipping. He has been pulled from his prison cell and given the chance to save his life. And he is refusing to be saved on the court’s terms, crying in despair. “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (Or that is my guess – judging from his attire, although in the performances I saw, he always wore prison trousers in Act IV, too – these OTOH seem to be Proctor’s own trousers. Hm, *and* he is not handcuffed at the point where he makes this speech, because the “leave me my name” comes after he has signed the forced confession? Maybe you have any guesses?)) If I am right in my assumption, then this is a crucial scene in the play, climactic, and a turning point for the character. And not only that, it is also most probably the most demanding scene for the actor to play, showing the character at the top of his arc, emoting and giving his all. What better scene to advertise the play?
And yet, the scene is wisely chosen because the resulting photograph does not give too much away. If the viewer is unfamiliar with the plot, the image will not give away how the play ends – or how Proctor got to be where he is. We may deduce from the handcuffs that Proctor ends up in prison – but the resolution of the play is not implied in this image. It gives insight into the highly emotional dimension of TC and clearly characterizes the play. As a potential audience we can see what we have to expect from TC – a drama, not fluffy comedy.
On a slightly less cerebral level
and this is directed at you, dear fellow appreciators of “the bod” that embodies the role the image also gives us a few tantalizing hints of the physicality of the actor – and the character. There is the hint of chest hair in the open collar, and the unobstructed view of the neck. Under the tattered shirt we can make out the left bicep and the bulges of the chest. We get a sense of his lithe, athletic body. I doubt that this image is intended to convey a sense of Proctor’s “voracious sexual appetite” (as Armitage describes the core of Proctor’s essence in this video interview for DT; the comment is at about 4:05) but it may be a by-product of catching Proctor in exactly *this* moment, and is an added layer of personality, at least for those in the know.
Leaving the play and the character aside, Persson’s image also appealed to me as a photographer. And this harks back to something that I noticed the very first time I watched the play – the lighting design made quite an impact on me (as you can read in my first review of TC). I loved the atmospheric lighting of TC, and Persson manages to capture it magnificently. Which is quite a feat! Because we cannot “see” light as such. What we see is the reflection or refraction of light, i.e. light catching an object and bouncing of it, or light changing its direction by meeting a different medium. Light in the air becomes visible when it hits particles, for instance dust floating in a room, or water in the shape of fog and mist outside. When seen or photographed against the light source, the light is visible because it is caught in the particles contained in the air.
And that is what is happening here – where the light from a stagelight is caught in smoke and leaves a sharp bright shaft in the image’s background to the left of Proctor, creating a ray in the haze. This haze creates a wonderfully atmospheric feel when photographed. Mind you, the photographer has to be careful as to the use of artificial smoke in an image. While it creates depth, i.e. visibly separating the foreground from the background, the object or subject in the foreground has to be close enough to the camera to be clearly seen. One step too far back, and the subject is obscured and becomes a hazy character himself. Persson has sussed this out perfectly in this shot: Proctor is sharply visible with every detail, while the haze seems to be confined only to the background of the shot – which is impossible, of course, as smoke will evenly spread in an enclosed space. But you can see the added depth very clearly in this shot. Just compare how the chairs to the right of Proctor are seen as clearly as Proctor himself. It is hard to make out that they must be slightly behind him. The shaft of light, and the slightly obscured railings in the background, however, are clearly further back. (If you want, you can ascribe that also to our “world knowledge” of assuming that an object that appears blurry in an image, is probably further back because it is not on the same focal plane as the subject that is in focus. But most likely the railings appear hazy, here, and not blurry – obscured by the smoke, and not out of focus. I think Persson shot at a small aperture here, leaving all image components *in* focus.)
What is so atmospheric about light caught in a haze (and subsequently this photo and this scene) is that the light is made to look “soft”. There is an aesthetically pleasing gradation from the bright, strong reflection in the middle of the shaft of light, which gradually thins out to the sides, and eventually transitions into the black darkness of the surroundings. There are no harsh edges to this representation of light, but a gradual merging of the light with the dark. No harsh edges – those are confined to characterizing the person in the image.
But aside from these purely aesthetic impressions, the light design (in the production and subsequently in this image) may carry meaning. The shaft of light may represent many things. It could be seen as a ray of sunlight, filtering through a high window into a dungeon. It could be the ray of hope, a symbol of life. And the way the image is composed here, we might be led to believe that this ray of *life* [sic] is illuminating Proctor. – That would be wrong, of course, as those who are familiar with the play, know, but aesthetically it makes sense. And maybe it is an altogether more positive association to have with haze and fog, which is usually seen as something creepy. It usually creates an atmosphere of mystery, even fear (cf. horror movies)
In terms of composition, Persson has balanced the image really well. The figure in the middle is sandwiched between the light in the top left and the pile of chairs in the bottom right corner. Proctor’s shoulders are exactly on the 2/3-line, and the slight leaning back of the figure creates a diagonal line that adds a dynamic feel to the image. Thus it conveys a sense of movement, despite the largely static pose. (There is also a tiny bit of movement blur in the hands, btw.)
Even though the pose cannot exactly be described as “beautiful” – a cry and scream of despair can hardly be considered pleasing to the eye – this image is one of my favourites of the collection of stills Persson has taken. No doubt that is influenced by my knowledge of the context in which this scene occurs, but the photographer has done his best in capturing a pivotal moment in the drama, incorporating characteristics of the staging, and thereby giving us a sense of the unique interpretation of TC as staged by Yael Farber. Looking at this image, I long to see the play again, #OneLastTime if you pardon the pun. And if I am lucky, I may just be doing that while you are reading this *ooof*. Bring on The Crucible on screen in NZ 🙂
PS: Forgive me if I am not
gracing bothering you with a ficlet today. They *are* an established part of the *ooof* series at this point, and I thank you all for indulging me in my pathetic efforts at fiction writing. But when it comes to Proctor and TC I just feel as if I’d be blaspheming – devaluing the play and its message – if I re-interpreted the context of the photograph in my usual mundane, trivial and shallow way. Yeah, I admit I have a rather “holy” and ethereal Kunstbegriff [idea of art], and I need to work on that as an artist, myself. Proctor is a bit of a Saviour in my book, the bearer of the word, who dies for the sins of his community. I just *can’t* mess around with the messiah. I owe him that. But I will happily continue to pull Armitage’s legs in any other context 😉 Maybe next week…
If you had fun with the commenting sans Guylty last week, please don’t hesitate to discuss the image (and my drivel) here. The comment section is *your* platform. I’ll weigh in if I get the chance.