An Interview with Photographer Lynn Lane
by Alley Theatre's Director of Design, Michael Locher
The Alley@Home Designer Talk series focuses, as the name implies, on the work of designers—professional artists who dream up the sets, lights, costumes, and sounds for theatre productions. However, this week I spoke with Lynn Lane, official photographer for both the Alley and our sister organization, the Houston Grand Opera. Read on for Lynn’s unique perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic, collaboration, and the survival of the arts. Learn more about his photography at www.lynnlane.com, and visit www.tsmcollective.com for information about Transitory Sound and Movement Collective.
Michael Locher: Lynn, a little later, I’m going to ask you about your impressive range of interests. To start, I thought I’d ask about the aspect of your work which most Alley patrons are already familiar with: performance photography. Could you tell us a little about the profession, and how you came to it? Did your background in the performing arts lead to photography, or did you come to the camera in a more deliberate way?
Lynn Lane: This is always an interesting topic for me…how did I find my way into the performing arts? I grew in Houston and just about every weekend my mother took me to Miller Outdoor Theatre to sit on the hill and watch whatever performance happening that evening. At first, I was too young to really appreciate what was happening and I was really only interested in rolling down the hill and then one day…I remember it clearly… I decided to sit down and pay attention and from that moment forward, I stayed there and fell in love with the performing arts never taking my eyes off of the stage again.
As far as photography goes, when I was a kid, my mom gave me this little point and shoot camera to play with. I didn’t shoot much of anything other than friends being goofy, but then I started shooting things I saw that were abandoned in the mountains of West Virginia while visiting my grandparents. I started seeing photography as a way to tell story: not merely taking pictures, but freezing moments in time and then being able to take those moments home with me. From those walks in the mountains of West Virginia and finding abandoned beauty, my life has always been in the arts in some capacity. Somehow,I ended where I am with a camera in my hand in the world that I love.
ML: As a theatre artist myself, I’m well aware of the creativity that goes into creating a performance. Part of what’s so interesting is that you, too, are very much an artist when photographing a production. Great performance photography can be hard to come by, but when done well, it elevates what’s onstage in wonderful ways. Could you talk a bit about making art with the art of others? What’s it like balancing a “great photograph” with one that satisfies the needs of a theatre or opera company?
LL: Thank you so much for your kind words and for your appreciation of my work. This is something that I’m very passionate about. I don’t want to just document the work of others. That would be truly unfulfilling. When I enter a theatre, my goal is to tell the story that the director/choreographer is trying to tell in a single image. The challenge is to not just be a documentarian, but to be a collaborator in the process of telling a story so that when an audience sees my work, they want to see the director or choreographer’s work even more. I have to sell the production in the most powerful way that I can. Also, I don’t look at photography as just photography. My background is in painting and drawing, so I look at photography from a painter’s perspective: light, shadow, and composition. I try to think of light the way that Caravaggio thought about light and how it is another living being on the stage with the actors.
ML: Among other clients, you’ve been the principle photographer for the Houston Grand Opera and the Alley for some time. What’s been particularly rewarding to shoot?
LL: Another challenging question…are there favorite productions that I’ve shot? There are so many, but what really excites me are the challenges of shooting live theatre, opera, and dance. I love going into a theatre and having no idea about a production that I’m about to shoot, and then being engulfed in the magic of the art form. It’s kind of magical to be able to live this life and do something I love. Every week, I am able to see some of the most beautiful things in the world and on top of that I’m also gifted with the responsibility to preserving it for posterity. It’s kind of amazing.
ML: When we first met, you were photographing Murder on the Orient Express for the Alley. As we’ve become friends, I’ve learned about your extensive life across the worlds of art and design. Architecture, dance, music; you’ve done a lot. Most people don’t love talking about themselves, but humor me and tell us a little about your path.
LL: That’s a question that definitely could have a very long, assorted answer. I’ve done a lot in my creative life ranging from fine arts to the performing arts. I grew up and went to school in Texas, but moved to New York City as an artist and lived there for almost two decades before coming back to Houston. For quite a few years there, I owned a furniture and interior design company with a friend; we were featured in countless magazine and won quite a few design awards. Domino Magazine name our sofa the “Sofa of the Year”. Also, I served on the Board of Advisors for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in NYC. My work is still shown and sold in NYC and CT through showrooms there. It’s still always funny when I see a movie and one of our pieces is on screen. It’s great that that work still has life. For a while, I was making documentary films and was represented in NYC and London, creating all kinds of projects, even teaching documentary filmmaking to high school kids in the South Bronx. I had the opportunity to write an article for International Documentary magazine at one point. Now that I’m in Houston, my focus is that of a photographer in the arts.
I’m also the founder and artistic director of the Transitory Sound and Movement Collective, an experiential performance company rooted in sound art/dance/intermedia works. We primarily perform in museums and theatre spaces.
ML: Pretty incredible, Lynn. To some, that range of experience might appear disconnected, but many artists with broad interests describe a sense of unity across their work. For instance, I’ve worked as an illustrator and graphic designer for theatre companies – for me, the process of creating poster art for a play and designing scenery for a play always felt like a similar pursuit, despite how different the media are. Do you feel similarly?
LL: Oddly, everything that I do, I approach as a painting and how I think about things visually is grounded in that aesthetic, whether it’s how I think about work as a photographer, or how I think about layering sound and visuals in performance-based work. I don’t really see any of it as different from the other. Sure, when shooting for the Alley, the Houston Grand Opera or another dance or music performance, I’m not creating my own work per se, but I’m trying to tell the story with my voice. I want my creation to feel like ART on its own and still definitely tell the story of what I’m documenting. So, in the end, it truly is all painting to me…just the paint doesn’t always come out of a tube.
ML: Let’s discuss the COVID-19 crisis. In previous Alley@Home Designer Talks, we addressed the plight of the performance design community. Like most actors, designers generally work in a freelance capacity: traveling around the country, contracted by different theatres to work on a show-by-show basis. With productions and even whole seasons canceled due to the pandemic, designers have seen their livelihoods vanish. What’s the situation been like for you? You’re in a slightly different line of work, but I imagine the challenges are very similar.
LL: It’s true. I’m in a different situation because an actor is contracted for a period of time for a single production, and I’m typically contracted for a season with a company to document all of their work, but my role only is one to three days per production depending on what all we are doing for it in regards to documentation and marketing materials. But…I have lost everything. Every job and contract I had is gone. It’s like staring into the abyss right now. Photography is one thing that does not translate well to working over the internet. I need a theatre. I need a performance. I need live arts.
It’s terrifying right now to think about where we are and what the future holds for all of us. I know we will come out of this and life will look different for a while, but I’m hopeful and believe in the power of the arts more than anything.
ML: If I may, you’ve become slightly famous as a sort of informal hub in the Houston arts community. Instead of compartmentalizing your collaborators, you have a knack for promoting connections and friendship between your partners in worlds of theatre, opera, dance, museums, and so on. Houstonia recently wrote a piece about your “Art & Tacos” sessions, and how they’ve persisted as an online affair during the pandemic. I have a sneaking suspicion this collaborative spirit (and resourcefulness) is what’s going to save the art world as we emerge from this crisis. Could you speak to this? How have your instincts regarding art and community played our in the coronavirus moment?
LL: Community is a huge thing for me and it’s something that I’m really striving to develop here. This need for community actually stems from my life back in NYC with my friends there. We used to get together every week on Tuesday nights for something similar to what I do here with Arts Chat & Tacos, sharing experiences and inspiring each other.
I created this weekly gathering on Friday mornings at this little restaurant on the Northside called Herrera’s Cafe. It’s an amazing little family-owned restaurant that was started back in the late 1950s in this little red house and it’s still going. As you know, having been there, it’s quite a diverse group from all aspects of the art and arts administration. Oftentimes, the arts can exist in silos and for me, that’s really painful and doesn’t really allow for true all-encompassing cultural growth within a city. We need to broaden and experience all of the forms of the arts. We need to reach across the aisles and collaborate, share our voices together, and broaden and challenge our audiences.
After the pandemic hit, I saw another way that our Arts Chat & Tacos could function and serve a larger community and open up a global dialogue. So rather than happening at Herrera’s Cafe, we now gather in a Zoom meeting at the same time weekly. Instead of a local group, we have people from all over the country joining in and sometimes from abroad. The discussions are much more targeted and are not about getting together and just checking in about our own personal situations. We focus more on where we are now within the arts/performing arts and where we go in the future, both long-term and immediate. The discussions are intense and we bring about some incredibly difficult subjects, but these challenges need to be dealt with head-on.
One interesting thing did happen recently through the current online iteration of Arts Chat & Tacos: my partners and I were just invited to perform in an online event with an Arts organization in NYC in June. It’s a pretty big event filled with some incredible internationally recognized performers. We are thrilled to be on there and accepting the challenging of a live performance with three of us in Texas, and one in New York.
ML: As we wrap this up, I wonder what your thoughts about the future might be. Are there lessons to learn from this? Anything in particular you’re looking forward to?
LL: The future… I believe in my heart that now is the time for artists to become activists again. Our world is upside and we have to fight our hardest to make sure that our voice is heard, not just heard but heard loudly and recognized as being crucially important for society and our country. The arts can save lives and add beauty to a world that at times seems to make no sense at all. We address topics in ways that others can’t. We open eyes, create dialogue, inspire movements and when we are all locked down during this pandemic… everyone is turning to the arts to get them through it, whether it be a movie, a live performance online, a performance like the Alley’s “1984” that took on the challenge of these times and boldly pushed through with something beautiful and kept theater alive; a virtual tour of a museum or one of the many new combinations of Arts that are happening now in the Zoom format.
I’m looking forward to seeing artists take on this new world that we are living in, and step out of our safe zone and start creating work that is challenging for not only the audiences but for ourselves. After being cooped up for so long – I can’t wait to see how everyone stretches their wings! I can’t wait to see everyone be artistically loud!
ML: Thanks so much, Lynn. I’ll see you at another Arts Chat & Tacos soon.