Capturing dynamic and beautiful photography of performances in action is an essential part of the production process for TYA theatres across the country. What goes into the art of taking the perfect shot, and what is particular about photographing TYA? We talked to photographer Alexis Buatti-Ramos about her passion for TYA and her craft in action.
Why are you passionate about photography? How did you become interested in it?
Photography is something I’ve been surrounded by my whole life. My father was a portrait photographer, and when I saw him work—as he tested new setups or developed photographs in our basement dark room—I never once thought, ‘I’m going to be a photographer!’.
An interest in creating my own images came later in life, and piqued when I started working at The New Victory Theater, New York’s Theater for Kids and Families, a little over 10 years ago. As the theater’s graphic designer, I had to use the photographs on file to create our marketing materials, and without a photographer on staff to capture our audiences and events regularly, the available content was limited. And yet, when I watched our audiences experience theater, some for the very first time, I saw wonderful responses and reactions that were really moving, and I saw moments on stage that I wish I had at my disposal as a designer. I expressed an interest in taking photographs for the organization, and to this day I am thankful to the New Vic for their unwavering support as I discovered my artistry in photography.
Over time, I realized that an appreciation for family engagement lies at the core of my passion and that is evident in both my TYA work as well as the imagery I capture with my own business, Buatti-Ramos Photography, specializing in children and family photography. I’ve come to understand how much meaning, memory and life one photograph can hold. Whether I’m capturing a theater production, a headshot, an event or a family, I fully dedicate myself to the environment, the subjects of the shoot, and the authentic emotion of the moment.
What interests you in photographing TYA theatrical productions? Is it an art itself?
Though I grew up on Long Island, which allowed for city day trips to see Broadway plays, I wouldn’t consider myself a theater kid. The New Victory really helped me see theater differently. There’s a spark, or energy, that comes along with live performances, especially TYA productions. For me, this spark is not ignited by the lighting design, the costumes or even the actors’ lines; instead, it comes from the energy in the room and the way the audience reacts.
TYA creators continue to push the boundaries of various artforms, combining interesting subject matter with unexpected art forms, like Shakespeare and puppetry, circus and shadow play. I never know what will show up on stage next which adds new excitement with each and every shoot.
What are the challenges?
It’s easy to look at theater photography and say anyone can do it, everything is set up for you. You don’t have to direct anyone, you don’t have to set the scene, the lighting… And while this makes theatrical productions exciting, these very elements can also make an event challenging to photograph. As a photographer, I have to make adjustments that respond to every light change; in other words, every lighting cue can mean a missed shot for an inexperienced photographer. At the same time, the goal of every theater production photographer should be to emphasize what’s on stage, not to change it. Being able to correctly represent the lighting and tone of the production is one of the most challenging and important roles of a theatrical photographer.
I hate to call this next one a challenge because it’s honestly one of the things I love most about TYA photography: having to capture both the audience and the production. There’s a certain energy needed to do this for a TYA production (and to photograph children in any capacity!). Energy, meaning both the emotion and creativity put into the images themselves, but also the physical energy needed as you stealthily move around the set, jot from house left to house right to capture different audience members and scurry to the back of the house to get that wide angle shot. I once photographed an entire production laying on my stomach shooting underneath a curtain so that I could capture the audience and not disrupt their intimate theater experience. TYA productions are frequently interactive and more often than not I will ask to photograph two performances so that I have more than enough opportunities to capture both what’s happening on stage and what’s happening in the audience.
Could you walk us through your process when you’re photographing during a TYA production?
When I’m photographing theater I barely look up from my camera or at the back of my LCD screen, which means that when I finally get to my computer and upload the images, I get to experience the production for the first time. When I’m photographing I’m having an almost out-of-body experience. My focus is locked in (pun intended!), looking for movement, lighting, composition and emotion to create the perfect image. I can feel the energy in the space and understand the gist of the show, but it’s not until after the production when I’m reviewing my images that the whole story comes together.
While I try to remain focused on perfecting my shots during performances, there have also been times when the beauty of the show has moved me, spoken to me as a member of the audience and I have become swept away by the production and realized that I’ve paused for a brief moment. I have teared up while photographing a child with autism’s heartwarming reaction during an interactive moment on stage. I have smiled behind my camera when I capture the perfect moment of a child and parent sharing a moment of excitement together. Photographing TYA productions is demanding, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but it is a very unique and rewarding experience.
What have you learned about TYA through photographing productions and audiences?
As cliche as this may sound, I’ve learned how important TYA productions are and what a significant impact they may have on the audiences they reach. Over the last decade I’ve seen more TYA than I ever imagined I would, and over that period of time I have come to love TYA and witnessing audiences laugh, cry and become a part of what’s happening in front of them.
Working with companies that specialize in creating work for TVY/TYA has given me an inside look into what goes into a production. I’ve been lucky enough to photograph theater in all its stages including early conversations, read-throughs, rehearsals, final techs and opening nights. I’ve learned that TYA is much more than theater. Yes, I know the “T” stands for theater but it’s about education, engagement, connection, creating a safe-space, acknowledging differences, and, most importantly, it’s about a community.
I’ve worked alongside some wonderful TVY/TYA companies based in New York including Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, Spellbound Theater Company, Bluelaces Theater Company and of course all those who have been presented at The New Victory Theater for the last ten years. The work of all these companies will never cease to amaze me.
Why is it important to capture stage productions through photography?
For companies that are communicating their current production to their audiences, planning on touring their work, presenting with different venues or for those that want to ask for funding through grants – production photography, scratch that, high-quality, professional production photography is very important. OK, you may think to yourself, great – I have an iPhone or maybe even a DSLR, so let’s do this! I’m here to tell you that’s not going to cut it. As the Media and Design Manager for The New Victory, I can tell you that we will go back to companies time and time again asking them to retake their photos if they do not meet our standards—and we have very high brand standards. When you find a photographer who specializes in theater productions, even more specifically TYA, your work should look even better than you could’ve imagined. A team of incredible artists have poured hours and hours into creating something amazing, heart-warming, funny, etc. that could impact a young person’s life. This effort deserves to be reflected in the shows marketing materials and archival footage. The photos used to represent the show should document and communicate all of the work that went into the production. Everyone involved has come 90% of the way and that last 10% of completing a piece of theater for young audiences is the photo and video documentation that will continue to represent the work from here on out.
Based out of Long Island, New York, Alexis Buatti-Ramos primarily photographs families, theater productions for young audiences, headshots and special events. The staff photographer and graphic designer for The New Victory Theater in Times Square for over 10 years, she has a passion for working with nonprofits that serve children. Notable clients include The Gold Hope Project, Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, Spellbound Theatre, Bluelaces Theater Company, Beautiful Together and Kids Run Long Island. Alexis has continued to hone her craft by studying with world-renowned photographers Tamara Lackey and Peter Hurley, and of course, with everyday practice! A people person and a people photographer, Alexis considers her work a collaborative process between herself and her clients to create images that showcase energy, connection and emotion. Her photography has been featured in The New York Times, Rangefinder Magazine, TYA Today, American Theater and numerous family publications.