Theater press photos can be an editor's nightmare. I can't count the number of times I've reenacted this scene at The Stranger: The print deadline is hours away, and I'm upstairs with the art director, sifting through promotional shots for local productions. We're running multiple reviews that week and have room for only one image—but they're all wretchedly staid, with costumed actors in goofy poses, and about as flattering as fluorescent lighting. There are exceptions (dance photography tends to be better, since dance is so visual to begin with), but even the best plays tend to advertise themselves with photos that look like they were taken at a tackily themed prom.
In early 2012, photographer LaRae Lobdell began a one-woman mission to change that. She wanted, in her words, to reinvent "the visual landscape of theater culture." By taking pro bono portraits of actors, writers, directors, and designers, as well as more conceptual production shots—capturing a mood instead of just another put-on-your-costume-and-stand-over-there moment—she's altered the way we see Seattle performers. Her project has been so successful that, starting this week, ACT Theater is hosting an exhibition of more than 200 of her photographs, all of them taken in the last year and a half.
Lobdell grew up on a subsistence farm in Eastern Washington and was mostly homeschooled, but she found her way to photography via community college. She wound up in Seattle and set up shop as a wedding photographer. Eventually, she got bored—plus, she said, "I wanted my summers back"—and started looking for a personal project to get her out of the wedding rut. Around the same time, a friend began introducing her to Seattle's theater crowd. Lobdell, who describes herself as an introvert, was hooked on the outsize personalities and dynamism of the people she was meeting, but dismayed at the sterility of their marketing photos.
"Most of those images could've been shot any year, anywhere," she said last week, sitting in her sunny studio across the street from Gas Works Park. "There's no intrigue." So she began to offer her services, first shooting for White Hot at West of Lenin, and quickly built new relationships—with Washington Ensemble Theater, ACT, Intiman, and others—from there.
"She started pretty insular, with who we think of as already visible in the Seattle theater community," said Caitlin Sullivan of the Satori Group, a performance ensemble that has been photographed by Lobdell. "But she has reached out in interesting ways—I've watched her expand her gaze and begin to follow smaller companies and develop longer-term relationships with artists she's interested in."
Lobdell's ability to evoke a show's aesthetic was refreshing for newspapers, too. Just a few months after starting her project, she was being prominently and regularly featured in The Stranger, the Seattle Times, and elsewhere. "The secret sauce for her is taking the time to get to know people and shoot them in an environment that reflects their personality," said AJ Epstein, proprietor of West of Lenin. "She very, very quickly became the 'it girl' of Seattle performing-arts photographers. She went from nobody knowing who she was to everybody knowing who she was in a matter of weeks."
Lobdell's project has also paid unexpected dividends: While taking pictures of artists in Intiman's summer festival last year, she got a few minutes to photograph Dan Savage, who was in the middle of directing his musical Miracle! at the time. A few months later, she got an e-mail from his publishers—they wanted to use one of her photos for the cover of Savage's new book. As Lobdell's project demonstrates, there's really no point in waiting to be invited to do something. Sometimes it's best to just do it.