Art Press

December 2004

Rhona Bitner: Theater Magic

Interview by Barry Schwabsky

Art Press, Dec. 2004, p. 41-44

What is theatricality? For the American photographer Rhona Bitner, it is a matter not of spectacle or kitsch, but of the distanced gaze of a spectator attentively watching the figures and objects that emerge from the shadow. The acrobats, trapeze artists, c/owns and stage curtains captured by her lens have a presence that is both strong and fragile, abrupt and poetic.

From Picasso on, clowns and the circus have been among the recurrent subjects of modern art-and of its Greenbergian other, kitsch. The American photographer Rhona Bitner spent much of the 1990s traveling the world photographing the circus, not from the viewpoint of an insider but as a spectator like any other, making images of rare intensity. As Adam Weinberg has written, “she turns the public spectacle of the circus into an intimate, personal revelation. In the new series she has embarked on, she investigates theatricality in a different way, by depicting empty theaters seen from the stage. B. S

What were your beginnings as a photographer? Where did you start?

You begin to think about photography by reflecting on the ways in which you look out at the world, how you see what is around you at once as a whole and in pans. In the beginning a camera is a way for you to jot down those thoughts, like a notebook, and only gradually are you able to make something coherent, clear, and particularly separate from what you see. 


That idea of something coherent, clear, separate- it suggests an aesthetic very different from the sense of the stray or tangential perception found in the work of people like William Eggleston or Stephen Shore, let alone the overwhelming sense of flux in which Gary Winogrand immersed himself And of course its also a world away from the diaristic model of Nan Goldin, which really goes back to Lartigue. Instead there is a sense of monumentality to your pictures. Sven a trapeze artist seen hurtling through the air seems possessed of a sculpturesque stillness! What were the sources of this approach to the image? 

Sculptural? I would say, formal. I think perhaps the monumentality you observe arises from the spectacle of the circus, the circus acts themselves-they certainly can be spectacular-not the image or how the work appears to the viewer. The work is mailer-of-fact, inasmuch as it reflects the considered gaze of a detached observer. However this gaze is not casual, nor is it an empathetic self-insertion into the world of the subject mailer. 

Certainly the primal nature of the circus has to be considered. It is one of the oldest, most basic forms of theater. But in contrast to its subject, my work is rather straightforward; perhaps one can call it minimalist in its direct unfettered observation of the subject as it presents itself to me-a directness reinforced by the isolation of the image within the frame. I’d like to think the images reflect a certain autonomy. 

I like the idea of the poetic you suggest by “sculpturesque stillness which, I suppose can be expected-the subject mailer could invite the poetic, perhaps even the monumental. However the associations a viewer brings to this work are not directed or controlled by me. I have frequently been impressed by commentators’ references to the uninformed, pure point of view of a child. I like that-it reinforces the immediacy and directness of the subject in the picture. And suggests to me that my process is working. 

Anonymous in the Audience 

I’m skeptical that your images are as straightforward as you claim. To me they seem to take on the theatricality of their subjects. Certainly timing is of the essence of theatricality and your circus pictures grab extreme moments. Lighting, too, seems part of your theatrical artifice. Can you tell me something about how you went about making those pictures? 

Yes, they can take on the theatricality of their subjects. However, the process of making the photographs is straightforward. I am an anonymous member of the audience. I do not manipulate the image in any way. What is presented in front of me is what I photograph. The lighting is the lighting of the circus; the resulting picture is what it is. I suppose when I decide to snap the shutter that I do, to an extent, control the timing of the moment recorded, but that is simply a selection process. 

The pictures reveal a directness in that what is being observed is not being manipulated. (The performers are engaged in various acts of choreography and manipulation, not the observer.) The directness and anonymity of my role as observer reinforces a rather simple act of “looking. The matter-of-fact nature of this process allows for the resonance of the image (or the subject), not the picture making. 

It may seem a fine point, but reducing this act of seeing to its essential process allows the viewer to perhaps be affected by the theatricality of the image. But this essential process is not in- and-of-itself theatrical; it does not create it. To be impressed or amused by the image is not unwelcome, but I am not interested in guiding anyone to a sense of awe. The awe is there. 

What you’re staging is viewership as such-an activity that is as essential to the structure of theater as performing is. In your most recent photographs. the focus has shifted The performing body has disappeared, spectatorial consciousness has moved into the background, and the scene of the performance has come to the fore. How did you come to your new project of photographing empty theaters? 

I like the activity of performance-as it is perceived on both sides of the curtain. The large clown portraits I made between these two series allowed me to explore the experience and perspective of the performer as well as that of the spectator-each equally active and passive. That led me to consider the precise moment that preceded the start of whatever is being presented. That absence (or gap) was as interesting to me as the performer or the act. 

Subjective and Universal 

These new images, much like my earlier work, are quite direct-theatricality is certainly there, but again. I don’t create it, it is simply observed. In much the same way that you noted the performance as inherently theatrical, the moment when everything is hushed, when the illumination of the spotlights on the curtain or through its opening generates a certain palpable electricity; absence, expectation, and anxiety resonate much like the performances that follow them. It is an extraordinary moment that is highly personal and subjective, yet universal.

Perhaps these images further distill this idea of “looking for me. Take away the actors, the clowns, and there is still a shared experience arising from these matter-of-fact inanimate subjects. 

What’s next? Moving back behind the curtain to the backstage construction of the illusion, or turning your camera around to finally face the spectator as such? How an illusion might be constructed is not interesting to me, it will always remain the act or the scene itself. Facing the spectators? Possibly. But being an observer is still a rich field to mine.

Barry Schabsky is the author of The Widening Circle: 
Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art 
(Cambridge University Press) and Opera: Poems 1981- 2002 Meritage Press).