Iconic performing arts photographer Martha Swope died on Jan. 12 at the age of 88.
I was two years out of school, unemployed, when a press agent friend told me Martha Swope was looking for someone.
“Who is she?” I asked. Shaking his head in wonder, he replied, “Pick up any New York Times and look at the theatre photo credits.” Luckily for me, I did not realize that Martha was the preeminent dance and theatre photographer in the world. Had I known that she photographed every major dance company (New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Martha Graham) and every Broadway show (A Chorus Line, Pippin, Annie, For Colored Girls)—well, I never would have had the moxie to go and meet her. Sometimes ignorance really pays off.
I called her, and she asked me to come to her studio in a brownstone on 72nd Street. The darkroom was the bathroom. The film developing room was a closet. She showed me in, and the first print I ever made was of Louis Jourdan in 13 Rue de l’Amour. She offered me a job, but in reality she gave me my future. George Balanchine, Michael Bennett, Joe Papp, David Merrick—Martha photographed them and their productions, on the stage and in the studio. Every night was another show or another dance performance.
Those were the days of four-hour setup photo calls, of processing the black-and-white film at midnight, printing contact sheets the next morning. Martha watched the show and made stick-figure drawings of possible setups. The show came down, and we would set up two quartz lights on either side of the stage. Martha’s shooting style was unique: She would stand onstage in fourth position and shoot—no one else did that. She’d create a pose, a big fat close-up of the “star,” and the rest of the cast in total focus spanning out behind the main character. No one ever looked bad in a Martha Swope photo.
Of course, her timing was impeccable. Before digital, before auto-focus cameras, Martha would hold her Leica camera and shoot a dance’s perfect moments. Baryshnikov leaping. Donna McKechnie, electrifying in the iconic “Music and the Mirror” from A Chorus Line. Arthur Mitchell, Edward Villella, Gelsey Kirkland—ballet superstars all. Few people realize that the white-suited John Travolta, with his hand raised and his hip cocked on the disco dance floor from Saturday Night Fever, was a Martha Swope original.
When actors and dancers knew it was Martha coming to take their picture, there was a communal sigh of relief. They knew they would be protected and cared for. No dance photo with a badly turned foot would ever see the light of day. She taught me never to shoot anyone en pointe until they had fully extended over their arch. Fingers, hands, necks—all perfect.
And there was another side to Martha—her love of animals. At her house in Atlantic Beach on Long Island, she rescued and neutered every stray cat she could catch. One day, while the studio was still in the 72nd Street brownstone, she brought a litter of stray kittens to her apartment bathroom upstairs to be socialized. My job was to sit on the floor and pet them so she could find them homes. And she did! She took in stray dogs that others would have abandoned. Topo, the dog who shared the 72nd Street studio, was terrified of thunder and lightning. He would hide out in the darkroom with his head up the skirt of whoever was in there printing. Later, when we moved to Manhattan Plaza, Bert, the greyhound mix, joined us. A messenger who also worked for a vet told Martha that the owner was planning to put Bert to sleep; would she take him? Bert lived a long and happy life on West 43rd.
Martha loved to travel and took many exotic vacations with her friends: Africa, Switzerland, Italy. Work also included traveling. Washington, D.C., every year for ABT at the Kennedy Center. Travel with Martha always included a lovely hotel and a great meal. She was up for anything. Once in Milwaukee, we went on a Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery tour, drinking beer samples at 10 a.m. so we could make our airplane home. Long before Chicago deep dish pizza became available in NYC, we had it delivered to the stage door of the Shubert Theatre in Chicago to eat on our way to the airport.
As long as I knew her, she lived above her studio. On 72nd Street her apartment was upstairs. Later, Manhattan Plaza gave her an apartment in their 9th Avenue building—just an elevator ride away from her ground-floor studio. She was never far from her work, both physically and spiritually. She leaves us a legacy of beautiful moments caught on film. She invited me in, and I owe her my path in life. I didn’t even know a career in theatre photography existed until I met Martha. She took me under her wing as a teacher, mentor, and friend. For that I will be forever grateful.
Prolific theatre photographer Carol Rosegg frequently works on Broadway.