Ivan Kyncl was a theatre photographer, a recorder of the stage for posterity, the chronicler of an era, but always capturing the moment. He was also a superlative artist.
Ivanov at the National Theatre, directed by Katie Mitchell, 2002
The V&A’s exhibition: Ivan Kyncl: In the Minute displays 60 productions, as many as the seconds in a minute, thus demonstrating Kyncl’s unique ability to get inside his subject and to capture it – in that moment – for ever. He worked hard at this apparently instantaneous click of the shutter. For a start, he was not satisfied – as previous stage photographers had been – with a static figure or scene viewed from the stalls. Instead he roamed backstage, into the wings, into the flies, finding unusual – always telling – angles and perspectives, often capturing movement. And then he worked on the result, getting particular effects which summed up a play or a particular director’s take on it.
Introducing the exhibition, the director Terry Hands, who first recognised Kyncl’s talent in this country, said that directors loved him because he could always make their productions look better than they were. He had known Kyncl since he came to Britain from Prague, a political refugee, in 1980. He died far too young – only 53 – in 2004, having photographed 500 productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Court and the Almeida.
The V&A acquired the Kyncl archive – a million images – last year. Those on show, all monochrome, in a cool white space, exemplify his ability to nail not just the truth of a person or a moment, but far more about the play in general. It is a beautiful exhibition, jolting memories for those of us who remember the productions, but equally satisfying as a collection of brilliant photographs in their own right. My only quibble is that it would have been even more pleasurable for those in the first category to be given a little more information in the captions beyond the year, theatre and director. The actors and designer are also important ingredients after all. But perhaps there was a deliberate decision to present this as a gallery of artworks in their own right. Either way they don’t disappoint.