A collage of theatrical photos by Dan Norman. Larger and uncropped versions are available below.
Page through theatre reviews and websites in the Twin Cities and you’ll see Dan Norman’s name coming up again and again. In the past 12 years, Norman has become one of the most distinguished theatre photographers in the area, trusted by performing arts organizations to capture the action and drama on their stages for promotional and archival purposes. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with Norman about his photo work and the art of capturing a theatrical experience through photography.
How long have you been working as a photographer?
I started taking photos professionally in 2005 when I bought my first pro film camera. I took photos of some events and live music when I first started.
How long have you been doing theatrical photography?
I got into theatrical photography in 2003-04 while working at the Children’s Theatre Company.
What got you into this specific field?
I moved to the Twin Cities in 2003 when I got a job as a stagehand at the Children’s Theatre Company. While working backstage, I would bring my camera to work and snap photos during tech and during shows. Working out of my dark room, I would print my favorite photos from each show and share them with my coworkers – and soon people took notice of my work.
What was the pro film camera that you got in 2005? What’s your main camera body these days?
In 2005, I bought a Canon EOS 3. It was the best film camera I could afford at the time. It was not a pro body, but pretty much the next best thing. It could shoot up to 7 frames a second with the battery grip attached. Think of that: a roll of 36 exposures, gone in about 5 seconds.
I was super excited about this because I started shooting windsurfing around the same time. In fact, I think one of the first photos I got published in a national magazine was in Windsurfing Magazine. Windsurfing required fast glass and a fast camera. So it was this camera that got me really started and motivated with photography, because it also had auto focus.
Auto focus was a new feature to me [then] because everything I was photographing at the time was all manual focus. I got my start on a Canon A-1 that was given to me by my dad (who by the way, paid his way through college photographing weddings). With the new EOS 3, I would rent lenses and any equipment I could so I could practice and figure out what I really needed.
These days since I have upgraded to digital, I currently shoot with 2 Canon 5D Mark IVs.
When did you make the switch to digital?
I made the switch to digital in 2007, I think. I got the Canon 30D as my first digital body. I do remember taking my first digital photos in college on the Sony Mavica with the 3.5″ floppy drive for memory storage.
Seussical the Musical is one of the first shows that I photographed with a digital camera back in 2007.
Do you have a favorite lens of choice for each of the 5Ds on a shot?
I use the 24-70 mm lens on one camera and the 70-200 mm lens on the other. This makes it easy to cover the whole range and gives me the most options for a show. If I know the space is larger or smaller, I will bring my wider or longer lenses.
You’re still a professional theatre carpenter as well as photographer – how do you divide your time?
Good question! I am still trying to figure out how to manage my time. The beauty of production photography is that most first dress rehearsals occur in the evening…which means I can build scenery during the day and take photos at night.
It does sound convenient, but it does lend [itself] to some (or most) nights with very little sleep.
The amount of creative license in event photography can vary considerably, especially for live performances. Is there a typical “Dan Norman shoots…” formula in your theatrical work?
My formula or goal with every production photo shoot is to follow the action and tell the story. Every show presents its own challenge, so I can’t miss a moment and I have to be ready for anything. As you may know, a show can be so dynamic with stage lighting, choreography, the tempo of a show, and more. I try to pay as much attention as I can to the show and what is in my camera frame – all the while keeping in mind what is or could be happening elsewhere on stage.
Are there any photographers (not necessarily in the Twin Cities) whose work you especially follow and appreciate?
When I first started taking photos, I admired the work of Michal Daniels. His photos were everywhere! I love his work, and today I am honored to follow in his footsteps now that he has retired from the Twin Cities theatre scene.
Outside the Twin Cities, I would say that Joan Marcus is a photographer who inspires me the most with her work and career.
What’s a recent photoshoot/project that you especially enjoyed and why?
The most recent photoshoot that comes to mind is The Bluest Eye at the Guthrie Theatre. I love a good challenge and this show provided that and then some. Simply put, The Bluest Eye is an important show and at times difficult to watch. The Bluest Eye is beautiful and fast paced play that takes you on a journey of a young girl as she grows up. Along the way, she endures hardships and grows up faster than she ever wanted to. There are some exceedingly difficult moments in this play covering the abuse of a child that are heart-wrenching to watch.
As a photographer, I have to take the context of these moments and capture them in a way that can relate the gravity of what is happening on stage in a still image. This is hard to do, especially when the content is so difficult. I am especially proud of the photos from this show because they tell that young girl’s story. They are beautiful, moving, and have all the emotion from this play packed into each photo.
Now that you’ve moved from analog developing to digital editing, has the amount of time spent after a shoot increased or decreased? The number of photos delivered?
I think both film and digital take a fair amount of time. Though if I photographed as much as I do now in film I would never keep up with the work. The most remarkable thing that I have noticed from my film days is that the percentage of photos that I would deliver has not changed. I have a standing average of 10-12%, so if I shoot 100 photos I will have 10-12 keepers.
Even though digital is faster, the [greater] amount of photos I can take now still keeps me very busy. I keep telling myself I need to focus more and not take so many photos; I should know by now what makes a good photo. The trouble is that with live performance, I almost have to lead the action just in case something great will happen. Thus, it’s very easy to end up with 2,500 photos at the end of the show.
What’s a non-theatre-related hobby of yours?
Hmm… Getting back to your question earlier of how do I manage my time between 2 jobs? That’s about it. I don’t have time for much else!
I do spend time with my girlfriend Alyssa and our little dog who has her own Instagram account (@pixie_storman). I do like to build things, so I am always trying to think of projects to work on. For example, I have a bowling alley slab that I turned into a dining room table. I welded up a steel and walnut plant table.
I am currently trying my hand at making wind chimes out of some scrap mech tube. Tuning the chimes is a fun challenge. Other projects are to think of new ideas for photoshoots. I try to keep exploring with my photography outside the theatre world so I can keep it fresh. I am hoping to have more time this summer to get back into my studio and create some photos for myself again.
Your website says that you were working on building a canoe for a trip to the Boundary Waters – how’s that canoe doing?
I need to update my website. Sadly, that canoe never got finished.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.