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Remembering Martha Swope Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

13 January 2017

She spent her career capturing the most ephemeral arts. Dance and the theater. "The important thing is that actors and dancers and theater people be recorded and remembered because it was a wonderful era, a terrific era," she explains in this nearly eight-minute tribute:

Born in 1928 (a well-kept secret) in Tyler, Tex., on Washington's Birthday, she was named for Martha Washington. As a girl she took a small camera with her a everywhere.

She had, however, another ambition. She wanted to become a dancer. And after a year at Baylor she was accepted at the School of American Ballet, where she expected to dazzle West Point cadets with her collection of 17 hats.

Instead she met Jerome Robbins who had been working out in ballet class to get into shape to direct West Side Story. He was an amateur photographer himself and offered Swope the use of his darkroom.

He also invited her to shoot rehearsals for the production and when one of her photos was picked up by Life magazine, her career was launched.

'The important thing is that actors and dancers and theater people be recorded and remembered...'

She admitted to not knowing much about photography. "I didn't even know what an interchangeable lens was, or a Leica." But she knew dance and recognized the peak moment of a movement.

She was pulled out of class by City Ballet general director Lincoln Kirstein, who ran the school, who offered her a job photographing the company's productions.

She approached the job like an old pro, attending rehearsals to learn the choreography, shooting the dress rehearsals and following the action with wide-angle and close-up lenses, sometimes using a third camera loaded with color film.

Beginning her work in the late 1950s, she profited from technological advances that permitted shooting performances live. It was, in fact, a new field.

By the end of the 1970s she was the photographer for two-thirds of the shows on Broadway each season, capturing 300 shots each and using the bathroom in her apartment for a darkroom.

Post production was part of her craft even then. Carol Rosegg, one of many competitors who learned the ropes from Swope, said she was a master retoucher, using a single-edge razor blade to scratch wrinkles out of the negatives.

Her archive at retirement contained over a million images. She sold them to Time and Life Pictures but regained possession in 2002. She subsequently donated the collection to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Among our prized possessions is Following Balanchine by Robert Garis, which is illustrated with a number of her photographs. Her work has been featured in number of other titles as well.

In 2004, she was awarded a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater. That was followed three years later with a lifetime achievement award from the League of Professional Theater Women.

"Now it's someone else's turn," she says at the end of the video. But it will be a hard act to follow.

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