The Origin of Love | New York City Documentary Photographer
FALLING IN LOVE WITH DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY
It felt appropriate to pick a show tune for the title of this post, since documenting life backstage in the theater was what first made me fall in love with the genre of documentary photography.
Many women photographers attribute having children as their first inspiration to learn how to master a DSLR. For me, it was touring the country. For those of you reading who don't know, I am a professional stage manager. I began working in stage management straight out of college in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 2002 I moved to New York to pursue work on Broadway. From 2006-2010 I toured around the country with two different shows - Monty Python's "Spamalot" for three years and "Rock of Ages" for a year. I traveled to over 100 cities in the U.S. and Canada during that time - it was an amazing experience!
While in Dallas with "Spamalot" in 2007, I finally paid off all my previous debt (that felt so good!!), and had enough saved to invest in a DSLR. I had always loved photography but didn't have enough money for a "real" camera until then. I started off the tour with a little Canon Elph pocket camera - I think it was 4 megapixels! I went to a camera store in Dallas and looked at both Nikon and Canon DSLRs - the Nikon felt the best in my hands, so soon I was the proud owner of a Nikon d80 and a kit lens. I soon added a 50mm to my collection as well.
I began learning how to use my new Nikon by embarking on a 365 project of self-portraits. Looking back on that project now, there are so many bad pictures (I was editing with Picnik at the time - remember Picnik??) but also some real gems of me in these amazing locations around the country! Looking back now, I think those self-portraits were the beginning of my love for storytelling photography.
As I grew more confident with my skills, I began bringing my camera to work and documenting life backstage. I loved capturing little moments without my co-workers being aware of the camera. In 2008 I bought an 85mm 1.8, and that quickly became my very favorite lens for backstage documentary work. It allowed me to stay far enough away from my subjects so as not to disrupt them while they were doing the show, and it was also a champion in low light.
MOVING TO FAMILY PHOTOJOURNALISM
When I returned to New York in 2011, I began working at "Rock of Ages" on Broadway, and I continued documenting life backstage on that show. I also started experimenting a little bit with video. When Lila was born later that year, I began photographing her in the same way that I had been photographing my coworkers all those years - it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I never dressed her up or made her smile for the camera. I just documented her naturally at home. It wasn't until I read Jessica Thomason's breakout "The Art of Authenticity" at Clickin' Moms in 2014, after the birth of Logan, that I realized documentary photography did in fact cross over to family photography, that there was actually a market out there for it - and a name: family photojournalism.
"Rock of Ages" closed in early 2015 and I took the opportunity of the down-time to launch my family documentary business. I still keep my feet wet in the theater world by "subbing" as a stage manager (currently at "Kinky Boots") - I go in and work for the regular staff stage managers when they are on vacation or out on personal or sick days.
I am so grateful (for many reasons) for the amazing opportunities theater has given me, but one of the big reasons is for giving me the means to buy a real camera, and secondly - for giving me such amazing material to photograph over the years! Although I miss photographing life backstage, I am truly thankful for the all the inspiration, skill, and experience that I gained from doing that for so many years, and for being able to apply that to photographing families. The Origin of Love, indeed.
Here is a look at some of my favorite documentary photographs taken backstage or in the wings during "Spamalot" and "Rock of Ages".
For more information about what a stage manager does, check out this great article.
I've also written a number of posts:
On Stage Management - Part 1: Getting There.
And here are a few videos:
I made this with my friend Matt (he is the stage manager in this video) for a stage management class he teaches. This is a little bit about working backstage on "The Color Purple"
And some very early fusion videos I made at "Rock of Ages". Please don't judge the quality! I am very proud of how much I have grown in both my photography and video skills since I made these. But despite their roughness - I am so glad I have these memories preserved!
Francesca Russell is a documentary-style family photographer and filmmaker located in Garden City South, NY. If you'd like to see more of her recent documentary family photography, head over to her Facebook page or follow her everyday adventures on Instagram. If you are looking for a family photographer on Long Island or in the New York City area to document your family's story in photos or a film, please contact her for a session!