Ken Howard
Ken Howard
To be able to capture not only the look but also the heart of a performance is a great talent, that makes performance photographers essential to the success of a production. 

We sat down to find out all about this often unsung job with Ken Howard, who for over 40 years has been shooting for The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, LAOpera, Washington National Opera and many other companies around the world, including in London, Paris and Amsterdam.

How did you become a live performance photographer?

I was always interested in theatre, acted at the Globe in San Diego and while in the US Coast Guard I was a public information officer managing photographers. One weekend one of them really didn’t want to work so gave me a Pentax Spotmatic camera and showed me how to use it: surprise, I actually got good photos. Uncle Sam paid for my photographic education and by the time I left the Coast Guard, I worked for all three TV stations in San Francisco and most of the important theaters, including the San Francisco Opera. Then one day a San Francisco Opera production was photographed for Time Magazine but the film was on a plane that crashed in the bay, so they used one of my photos instead. I thought: if I have to wait for a plane to crash to get my pictures into a national magazine, I’m living on the wrong coast! I moved to New York and here we are, almost half a century later.

Which equipment do you use?

I’ve used every kind of 35mm camera, but now I’m using only the new Sony mirrorless cameras. They’re totally silent and let me get pictures that I would have never been able to get with film. I can shoot at much higher ISO (film speed) and get images in very dark shows. These cameras have ISO of 8000 which is almost science fiction to photographers who started when fast films were ISO 400. People talk about shooting Raw images but they take up a lot of hard drive space and more time to process for no real gain in quality, so I only shoot JPEGs. Nowadays people want images immediately: no film to develop so we’re all our own lab. I photographed Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met last month and while I was shooting the second act, the press person was editing what I had shot of Act 1. By 4pm that afternoon there were pictures online. It’s pretty hectic!

Kelly Kaduce in <i>Sister Angelica</i>, Opera Theatre of St Louis © Ken Howard
Kelly Kaduce in Sister Angelica, Opera Theatre of St Louis
© Ken Howard
How do you avoid disturbing the artists on stage?

There’s no way to be invisible, but the silent camera has been a big help in being less distracting. But we are in a media age with cameras and video everywhere so performers are pretty used to it. I want them to know I’m there and I’m doing something important. While I don’t want to bother them too much, I get as close as I can because I want to get the best photos they’ve ever seen of what they've done.

How long do you spend on a production?

I don’t think there’s any show I’ve shot that I spent less than five-six hours on at least, up to 40+ hours for a Ring production. I always try to see a show before I shoot it, even if I’ve covered it before. I want to know who the people are, what the characters think of each other and where I’m going to be to get the shots I want. If I can shoot a show two or three times or more, I will, even on a non-paid night, just to be sure I’ve got it all the right way.

What is the most difficult thing when shooting a live performance?

The most complicated things are the lighting changes and getting to shoot when costumes, wigs, makeup and lighting are all actually finished – which they sometimes aren’t, even at a final dress. Also, when I shoot I’m moving around constantly to get the compositions I want, and sometimes theatres don’t like that movement. I have to reserve rows to move in, so I’ll ask people to sit somewhere else if I can, to clear a row for me to work in.

What tips you would give to someone who would like to be a performance photographer?

If you can think of anything else you’d like to do, then do it, because I guarantee somewhere along the line, while trying to pay your rent, you’ll find yourself saying "darn, I could have been a ..." This is not a simple, automatic-big-money business: the Annie Leibovitz and Steven Meisel’s are few and far between. Next I’d say get the best equipment you can afford. Then, get paid, but if there’s no one paying, shoot anyway: if you want someone to hire you, you have to show them what you can do. It’s all about taking thousands of pictures, doing the work, telling the story and selling tickets. I want John Smith to look at the photo in a paper or a poster and say "hey, Barbara, we oughta see that". If I don’t get them excited to see the show, I’m not doing my job. You also have to tell the story and that means composition, putting people in the right place. There was a PR person one time that dismissed what we do by saying: “Well, operas look like that" ...and you know, they don’t “look like that” at all: I make them look like that by moving around and composing the shots and telling the story. And when a show is over and people see photos of it, what they’ll remember is what I show them, not what they actually saw.

Are there artists (no need to name names!) that have been asking to be photographed only from one side, or have made other special requests?

Of course! There are performers who give me very exact ideas about what Photoshopping they want done. In a big Broadway show some years ago, the star wanted to be shot only from her left side, but when I had shots from her right side I just reversed the negative for a print and she never noticed. Mostly the singers I cover know what I’m doing and trust me to get the right photos and make them look their best. But we do a lot of slimming and other retouching on almost every picture we send out!

What’s the worst disaster you’ve ever had on an assignment?

Disasters don’t exist: stupid things happen, and I’ve shot shows two or three times where we just discarded hundreds of photos because maybe a wig wasn’t right until the final dress or similar. But I recently photographed Siegfried here at the Met and there was a moment where a performer’s big, blonde wig came off right in the middle of the scene: the audience got a laugh, and I got the photos. It was not a disaster, it was just live theatre.

<i>Wozzeck</i>, Santa Fe Opera © Ken Howard
Wozzeck, Santa Fe Opera
© Ken Howard

What is something most people do not know about your job?

I think a lot of people see us working and think "wow, that must be fun". In one sense it is "fun", but on another level, it’s intense concentration, flowing with a show and, working the way I do, hand-holding cameras and moving constantly: it’s a pretty intense job. I can say afterward "that was good, even fun", but it’s not “fun” while we’re doing it. I’ve always considered what I do a dance with performers: they lead and I follow. However, there are definitely moments when I know I just got something and it’s a thrill! I’ve always considered myself a story teller: this is what happened, this is what I saw, this is what these people were doing: let me show you something interesting and important, and maybe powerful, and maybe something that might change your life... Telling the story is what I live for.