The craft of acting is not what is seems. The actor is charged with a sleight of hand, so to speak. They must so embody their role that they cease to exist, and what remains is merely the surface of what once was. The actor dips below the surface and travels all the way down to the bone, to the space where boundaries cease to exist anymore. And when they re-emerge they are a character completely their own, words written on paper given voice through their lungs.
The actor’s craft is to become one with the spirit of another soul so that they transform, by all means possible, our understanding of the world. Photographer Howard Schatz intuitively understands this and has used his gift for portraiture to capture the actor’s gift for recreating life’s experiences. In Caught in the Act: Actors Acting (Glitterati Incorporated), Schatz presents a magnificent array of emotional moments.
As Academy Award winning actress Sissy Spacek reveals in her interview with Schatz, "The thing that gets me going about acting is that you're really exploring yourself/ I think as human beings we all share 360 degrees of emotion, and when you are exploring a character, you are really exploring yourself. You are finding in yourself qualities that help you illuminate this character you are trying to create, and I love that. There's so much preparation that goes into building a character. But when a scene as really taken off, when the scene plays you, when you get caught up, this life force grabs you.
"I have always thought of it as catching a moving train. You see the tracks and know the train is coming, and as you are getting up to speed and the train comes along and if you are fortunate, you can grab hold and it just takes you away. Sometimes you get hit by the train, you get run over. That's not so good. But I always have a laugh when the director says, 'Okay, just do again what you did then,' and I think, 'What happened? Where am I?" When a scene plays you, you don't know what happened. You just take this trip."
This trip is something we experience as viewers of the form, whether it is film or photography, the reaction bears fruit of the same tree. We are voyeurs, observers, an audience whose eyes insistently feast on creations from the lives of artists. As consumers of art we are equally charged to investigate the roots of the tree that nourishes our minds and hearts. Howard Schatz sat down with The Click to discuss his experiences of the photographic arts.
He recalls, “I have been interested in photography most of my adult life. I've carried a camera virtually all the time from the mid 60s. In the late 80s I decided to become serious about photography. I devoted every Saturday, fully, to an exploration of all things photographic. I visited galleries and museums, bought books and made pictures. I studied everything I could and wrote everybody I knew asking for help. I would tear out photographs from magazines and ask photographer friends how the images was made, how was it lit.
After about eight years and a fair amount of attention I received for my work (four or five books published, a number of museum shows, and many gallery exhibitions), we decided to move to New York from San Francisco for one year; i.e. take a one-year sabbatical, to do photography full-time.
“The first year was really exciting, challenging and fun: we went to bed giggling every night over the adventure. And so, we decided to take an additional year's sabbatical. After a few years it became clear that we would remain in New York to do photography full-time.
“I photograph to surprise and delight myself rather than to make books. I work hard to make as many images within a certain area of interest as I can. And, as has been the case many times, a body of work has been produced; at that point Beverly, my wife, felt that we ought look for a publisher. At least initially and primarily, I am not particularly interested in publishing books. I'm more interested in making photographs that are unique and original and that satisfy me. Nevertheless, because of the many projects I've taken on and work at quite seriously and diligently, twenty books of photography have been published.
“The last book, Caught in the Act, includes 85 actors. There is an extensive interview with each subject. I told the actors I was interested in creativity and imagination, i.e. ‘WORK’, not gossip, and thus the interview is about how an actor works to create an entirely different individual. Also, I wanted to make a portrait that was unique and different; I tried something new with each actor in an attempt to make a portrait that said something powerful.
“Finally, the crux and main thrust of the book had to do with actors acting. With the help of Owen Edwards, many scenarios and parts were written and then used to direct each actor to improvisationally become the character described and directed.
“As they did I made photographs.”
The results are astounding. They take us beyond the façade, deep into the heart of the actor who gives so much of his or herself in each and every role. As Tracy Morgan reveals, “I need insight; i can't just be funny. I have to have insight on what's going on. Insight gives you the proper guidance. That's part of my process. When I'm on stage, that's when I have insight into something, that's where the comedy lies. I can't just be a funny person on stage. Some people can do that but i want to enlighten. Richard Pryor enlightened....
"There are a million people inside me. It's all about getting in touch. Comedy is not just about laughter; comedy is relating. Before I put the damn comedy on, you've got to identify with me. I'll take the camera, and I'll look into the mirror, and I'll find it. It's all in the eyes. Sometimes it could be dangerous; you might need a psychiatrist afterwards to pick up the fucking pieces, because you play so many characters. I know I'm fucking shattered. I'm crazy. I've played so many different characters all my life, you better find your center. It's hard to come out of character. It's easier to get into character.”
Michael K. Williams’ experience reinforces this truth. In Caught in the Act, he reveals to Schatz, "I was playing it really close to the fire with Omar. Maybe even crossed the line at times on a personal level. Not walking around the street with a trench coat and a shotgun, but the mentality, the pain that this man lived in, the anguish. I didn't know how to turn that off. I had to stop getting high, number one. I had to deal with the pain. Drugs get in the way of everything. I've heard it, but now I finally listen to it. I learned that I can't run from my pain.
"There are certain things I would not do, and the main thing I would not do is play Omar cheap. The whole being seen with a gun, that image, I have to be careful with that, because people have a way of borrowing from bits and pieces about Omar, and I'm very careful not to do that.
"The hardest, worst day at the job was the day that Omar shot Stringer Bell. I felt really inadequate. I felt like I didn't want that responsibility. I felt like, am i doing a disservice to my community? Am I perpetuating black-on-black crime? You know, I'm losing a coworker; I'm losing a fried. It was a very jagged-edged pill for me to swallow, that scene, and then, going through what I was going through on a personal level, to have come to a day at work to have to deal with that, it was just a really dark day."
As Williams reveals, content is not without context, nor is it without consequence. The choice of an actor makes will affect not only the public’s perception but their own internal equilibrium. This is a common thread among creatives. We are constantly charged to deliver from our source, as well as replenish it. In this way, Schatz uses the photography book form to share his vision of humanity in all its brilliant and profound glory.
As Schatz explains, “The inspiration behind the Caught in the Act has to do with my fascination with creativity: how does a human being, an actor, take print on a page and using his body and voice and psyche and emotion become at an entirely different person. This has always fascinated me and it was through this fascination that the work of Caught in the Act was done.
“This project was fascinating, interesting and phenomenal. I felt greatly privileged to work, one-on-one with 85 professional actors. Each one found their own way with the various I delivered to them. I found it interesting that I would sometimes give the same part to an actor that I had given to another actor before and the second actor would develop the part in an entirely different manner becoming an entirely different ‘character’.”
It is here that the crux of the craft is born, in the singularity of a universal understanding of the experience of life. It is often said that truth is in the details, and an actor shows this by the precision of their understanding of human nature. As Ben Kingsley observes, “My most intimate connections with myself are, paradoxically, when I’m most public. Between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ I am sublimely private, and almost and beautifully uninterruptible. But at the same time I know that millions of others will see it, so that when a director says with a glitter in his or her eye, ‘We’ve got it,’ it’s a beautiful experience for me, beautiful.
“The job of the actor is to tell stories and to reassure the audience that, even if the stories are tragic, it’s going to be alright. There is a scramble at the moment to outlaw tragedy from our theaters, our television screens, our movie screens. It’s got to be fun. Fun doesn’t add one iota of growth to the soul. It has its place, but there has to be a balance; it can struggle to get very dark. And though that darkness you can struggle to fund your kind of light, but you have to include the darkness and the light.”
It is thanks to Schatz that we can share in this journey through darkness and light, through tragedy and comedy, the two spirits that light the actor’s path. In Caught in the Act, Schatz’s photographs reveal the craft as it is understood by leading professionals in the field. Each actor is charged to follow his or her own guiding star, just as we are charged to watch them light up the dark.
Michael K. Williams