This article was published in the Winter 2011 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Lisa Asher.
During a four -decade long career in New York, Martha Swope ‘51 captured moments of some of the century’s greatest performers and performances
Martha Swope—you might not recognize the name, but you will almost certainly recognize her work. The Saturday Night Fever movie poster featuring John Travolta, a white suit, and a lighted disco floor? Hers. The original cast of Cats snarling from the cover of Newsweek magazine? Hers again. Countless photos on countless theater programs, posters, and ads? You guessed it.
In fact, if a picture truly is worth a thousand words, than Martha Swope’s body of work is bigger than the literary output of William Shakespeare, Stephen King, and John Grisham combined—and doubled.
Considered to be the preeminent dance and theater photographer of the twentieth century, Swope amassed an astounding body of work in nearly forty years. Beginning in 1957, when choreographer Jerome Robbins asked her to shoot rehearsals of a new musical called West Side Story, the 1951 Baylor graduate became the go-to photographer of every major New York theatrical production—Annie, A Chorus Line, Of Mice and Men, and the list goes on and on.
Swope chronicled more than eight hundred different pro-ductions, and those are just theatrical performances. She also captured hundreds of dancers and choreographers, from George Balanchine to Martha Graham to Mikhail Baryshnikov. By the time she retired in 1994, she had amassed a col-lection of color and black-and-white photographs numbering more than 1.5 million images.
What’s even more startling than the sheer size of her col-lection, say those in the know, is the quality of her work. “Martha came along and changed the face of theater photography. She turned it into an art,” said Robert Taylor, the former curator of the theater collection at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, where Swope’s photos are currently being digitized and archived. Said another photography curator, “From the fraction of a second which her photograph captures, you understand the whole performance.”
Swope, who still lives in Manhattan, likes to let her pictures speak for themselves. “I was happy behind the camera, not in front of it,” she told the Baylor Line, adding that when she first found out she was being given a Tony Award in 2004 for her body of work, she thought it was a joke. “It was fun, and it was scary, too,” she said of the awards ceremony. “I still have no idea what I said because I don’t like to be up in public.”
What’s ironic is that Swope set out to be a performer. While her major at Baylor was education, her dream was to dance ballet. “I was too tall and too old,” she said with a laugh, “but I looked good—long legs and all that.” So after dancing in the chorus in a few Baylor productions led by legendary theater professor Paul Baker, Swope said she “sashayed on up” to New York City, where she enrolled in dance classes and was accepted into the School of American Ballet.
When Robbins, the choreographer of West Side Story, asked Swope to take some photos of the classic musical in the making, she said yes. “It was a real nice set of pictures,” she said. So nice, in fact, that they were published in Dance Magazine and got the attention of Lincoln Kirstein, the cofounder of the New York City Ballet, who asked Swope to take photos for the ballet company.
“I really started off knowing very little about photography, but I got the most amazing opportunities,” she said. While being at the right place at the right time certainly helped, Swope also made her own opportunities. She would ask dance companies if she could take pictures of rehearsals and productions for free, and since dance photography was not a popular genre at the time, most companies were happy for any kind of attention. Swope said she struggled to make a living, but she was happy “as long as I was working and could pay the rent and buy film. I broke even, and then in the 1970s I could actually have a bank account.”
What began as a hobby eventually became a successful business for Swope, who maintained a large Manhattan studio and employed several other photographers, whom she personally trained. The work was constant—she was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, covering not only New York theater and dance, but also touring companies and preview shows in all parts of the U.S. From long rehearsal sessions to opening-night performances, and from staged shots to candid photos, Swope did it all.
But after decades of that break-neck pace, she said she knew when the time was right to retire. Faced with the advent of digital photography and the prospect of having to learn a whole new system, she opted to close up shop and give her cameras away. When asked why she would take that kind of drastic step, she simply said, “Because it was over. I didn’t want to take any more pictures. And I liked my time [in the theater] so much that I thought it was somebody else’s turn.”
While Swope confessed to taking digital shots of her cats from time to time, most of her attention is spent helping the New York Library staff identify her photographs as they begin archiving her massive collection. “I was concerned with the fate of my collection as I disappeared from the scene,” she said, “so I’m going to spend a good bit of time editing and helping them catalogue so that the information won’t be lost with me.”
The digitized catalogue will one day be available to the public, allowing Swope’s work to be viewed and shared for generations to come. And while we can’t begin to show the numbers of photographs that will eventually become public record, the Line asked Swope to choose some of her favorites to share with the Baylor family.