If you were in New York City and active in theatre or dance anytime from the 1960s onward, you were aware of Martha Swope. Her enthralling photographs appeared regularly in The New York Times and other top publications. As a performer, being photographed by her was both an honor and a sign that you had 'arrived' in a particularly visible way. Her sense of composition—of the essential excitement of a moment during a performance or rehearsal—was unparalleled. I was saddened to hear about her death last week of Parkinson's Disease, and felt compelled to revisit some of her amazing photographs, a few of which are reproduced here.
Take a minute to read Martha Swope's obituary in The New York Times. It's engrossing. Here's an excerpt:
"Even as a girl, she carried a little camera wherever she went. But her real passion was dance. After a year at Baylor University, she was accepted at City Ballet’s training affiliate, the School of American Ballet. She left Texas to pursue a dance career—setting out, she recalled, with 17 hats and 'visions of going to cocktail parties and meeting all those West Pointers.' Instead she met Jerome Robbins, who had returned to ballet class to get into shape for directing and choreographing “West Side Story.” An amateur photographer, he offered his fellow shutterbug the use of his darkroom, and then, when rehearsals began, he invited her to bring her camera. One of her pictures appeared in Life magazine, and her photography career took off. By 1978, she was photographing 60 to 70 percent of the Broadway roster, working out of the apartment below her own on West 72nd Street and using the bathroom as the darkroom."
She was a true, irreplaceable genius of the theatre. It is somewhat of a comfort to know that in 2010 she donated her life’s work—contact sheets, negatives, prints, slides and digital files—to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. This is an archive worth visiting, and I intend to do it the very next time I'm in Manhattan.