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Martha Swope, 88, Who Etched Dance and Theater History in Photographs, Dies


Martha Swope, whose crisp, compelling photographs of dancers and actors at work recorded nearly half a century of stage history, died on Thursday in New York. She was 88.

The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said Jeanne Fuchs, her longtime friend and executor.

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From 1957, when Ms. Swope was invited by Jerome Robbins to shoot rehearsals of “West Side Story,” to 1994, when she shut down her Times Square studio and sold her archive, Ms. Swope produced hundreds of thousands of images of performers in action, capturing Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in full flight, the cast of “La Cage Aux Folles” in full drag and John Travolta in full Saturday night fever.


Slide show

Those photographs made their way into newspapers (the arts pages of The New York Times frequently featured her work), magazines and books. They decorated sales brochures, posters and programs.

And they eventually garnered her a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2004 and a lifetime achievement award from the League of Professional Theater Women in 2007.

As official photographer first for New York City Ballet and then for an honor roll of other dance troupes, Ms. Swope chronicled the working lives of George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Mr. Robbins and other key figures in 20th-century dance. At the same time, she was what Variety called “the go-to photog” for New York’s theater industry, documenting more than 800 productions.

Whether Ms. Swope was posing clients in her studio or capturing their live performances, whether on assignment for a publication, a dance company or a theater producer, her stated aim was to make a straightforward record of the artistry before her lens.

“I’m not interested in what’s going on on my side of the camera,” she told an interviewer. “I’m interested in what’s happening on the other side.”

She took ballet lovers into the studio with Mr. Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky as they worked with the dancers on “Agon.” She was backstage as Mr. Baryshnikov and Liza Minnelli prepared their television special. And she brought Irene Worth and Kevin Spacey squabbling in “Lost in Yonkers,” Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera vamping in “Chicago” and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton canoodling in “Private Lives” to those who couldn’t buy tickets.

Ms. Swope never revealed her age, even to intimates, who laugh about how often they tried unsuccessfully to find out, looking for her passport in a purse left briefly unattended on a trip, or searching her apartment for clues while feeding her cats.

Martha Joan Swope was, in fact, born on Feb. 22, 1928, in Tyler, Tex. It was Washington’s Birthday, and, Ms. Swope told friends, her parents, John Swope and the former Nellie Clark, named her for Martha Washington.

Even as a girl, she carried a little camera wherever she went. But her real passion was dance.

After a year at Baylor University in Waco, she was accepted at City Ballet’s training affiliate, the School of American Ballet. She left Texas to pursue a dance career — setting out, she recalled, with 17 hats and “visions of going to cocktail parties and meeting all those West Pointers.”

Instead she met Mr. Robbins, who had returned to ballet class to get into shape for directing and choreographing “West Side Story.” An amateur photographer, he offered his fellow shutterbug the use of his darkroom, and then, when rehearsals began, he invited her to bring her camera.

One of her pictures appeared in Life magazine, and her photography career took off.

“I didn’t even know what an interchangeable lens was, or a Leica,” she once recalled. But she was still hoping to become a dancer when Lincoln Kirstein, who ran the school and was general director of City Ballet, pulled her out of class one day to offer her a job recording the company’s work in pictures. She shelved her toe shoes.

Her routine was to attend rehearsals to become familiar with the choreography. She would then shoot the dress rehearsals for each cast, typically arranging her lanky frame in ballet’s fourth position, leaning back on her rear leg and switching between wide-angle and close-up lenses.

Sometimes — but only if she had to — she loaded a third camera with color film. She also took pictures, as unobtrusively as possible, at performances. Such sessions could yield as many as 300 negatives of a single work. But those that left her darkroom were the ones in which every toe, every fingertip was properly positioned, and dance and dancers looked flawless.

Delia Peters, a friend who danced with City Ballet, said in an interview: “Having been a dancer, she understood the timing. She understood what they were going to do, she understood where the pictures were going to be.”

Ms. Swope’s career began as technical advances and evolving tastes changed the way dance and theater performances could be photographed. Previously, slow shutter and film speeds had made it impractical to shoot dancers and actors unless they were prettily posed and carefully lighted in a studio.

Ms. Swope was able to catch them animated and sweaty and laboring onstage or in rehearsal. But she also pioneered the now commonplace practice of distilling the essence of a drama or musical by posing the performers tellingly and shooting them in close-up.

By 1978, she was photographing 60 to 70 percent of the Broadway roster, working out of the apartment below her own on West 72nd Street and using the bathroom as the darkroom.

Actors and producers valued not just her canny eye and instinct for flattery but also her ability to work swiftly and calmly. With her gentle temperament and Southern manners, Ms. Swope managed to get cranky, tired actors to do what she wanted without seeming bossy.

Back then, publicity photographs were printed from negatives one at a time for hand delivery to newspapers and magazines. Ms. Swope and her assistants regularly worked through the night preparing them for distribution the next morning.

“She was an incredible teacher,” said Carol Rosegg, one of several dance and theater photographers who learned their craft assisting Ms. Swope and then became her competition. “And she was a master retoucher. In those days you would sit with a single-edge razor blade scratching out wrinkles one at a time.”

In 1980, Ms. Swope moved her studio to a large storefront space in the Midtown complex Manhattan Plaza, taking an apartment there as well. By the time she retired and gave away her cameras, the studio contained more than a million images, which she sold to Time and Life Pictures.

But the deal ended in acrimony and litigation, and she regained possession of her archive in an out-of-court settlement in 2002. In 2010 she donated her life’s work — contact sheets, negatives, prints, slides and digital files — to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. A selection of her photos was exhibited at the library for four months beginning in the fall of 2012.

She is survived by two nieces, a nephew and a great-niece.

Ms. Swope’s legacy was important to her, and she was determined not to separate her dance and theater images. She had hoped to compile a volume surveying them together, but she never found a taker. The closest she came to marrying her two worlds in one book was “Baryshnikov on Broadway: Photographs,” which documented the dancer’s acclaimed 1980 television special.

Other books for which she provided photographs include Tanaquil Le Clercq’s “Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat,” Kenneth Laws’s “Physics and the Art of Dance” and Denny Martin Flinn’s “What They Did for Love: The Untold Story Behind the Making of ‘A Chorus Line.’”

Her friends remember an enthusiastic, card-playing traveler who loved animals and jigsaw puzzles. But Ms. Swope’s photographs will outlive those memories. They are in dozens of other dance and theater books, and they regularly pop up in web searches for graying Broadway actors or bygone ballet stars. They also reappear as her subjects die or when a reference to show business history needs to be illustrated. Only last month, a dramatic Martha Swope photograph appeared in The Times with an article about the 35th anniversary of “Dreamgirls.”
Tags: 1957 broadway, jerome robbins, martha swope
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