Martha Swope, whose production photographs of Broadway shows from the 1950s to the 1990s form the mental images of those shows, has died of Parkinson’s disease at age 88, according to The New York Times.
As a freelance photographer specializing in theatre, Swope took thousands of photos of the original casts of shows that were used as their official art in newspapers, books, magazines, and, toward the end of career, on the nascent internet.
Think of the photo of the cast of A Chorus Line that adorned the show's original logo, Patti LuPone with her arms upraised in Evita, or Bernadette Peters with her finger poised as the Witch in Into the Woods, and you see Broadway through Swope’s eyes.
Having chronicled over 800 productions, she earned a special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre in 2004 and was granted a lifetime achievement award from the League of Professional Theatre Women in 2007.
Swope also photographed dance as the official photographer for the New York City ballet. She recorded the professional lives of George Blanchine, Martha Graham, and Jerome Robbins.
She was born February 22, 1928 in Tyler, Texas, but left Texas after a year at Baylor University to pursue a dance career. She met Robbins while he was taking class to prepare for West Side Story. Robbins invited Swope to use his dark room, as she was always with camera in hand, and, eventually, invited her to rehearsals for West Side. Her dance career officially gave way to her photography when one of her snapshots landed in the pages of Life magazine.
She was preceded in her specialty by the team of Leo Friedman and Joseph Abeles, whose works were credited as Friedman-Abeles. Since her retirement, Joan Marcus has stepped into her shoes. Marcus told Playbill.com, “I do what I do because of Martha. She helped me see possibilities. She was a pioneer and a legend.”
By the late 1970s some two thirds of Broadway shows turned to Swope when they wanted crisp, classy photos that captured the essence of each show in a single image, much as caricatuist Al Hirschfeld did with his distinctive line drawings. Most photographers work in studio where they can easily control the all-important light source and intensity. Swope worked with the lighting designs built into the show, and with subjects who were often in swift motion. She sometimes snapped hundreds of images to get just the right ones, though time constraints often forced her to manage with far fewer.
It became her special skill to perceive the perfect moment, the evocative facial expression or telling hand gesture, and open the shutter right then.
Here are just a few of Swope’s iconic images: