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Dance Theatre

The filmic eye: Crispian Chan, performance photographer

From documentary filmmaking to stage photography


Published: 15 Oct 2021

Time taken : >15mins

This is the last of a three-part series on performance photographers. Read parts one and two on Bernie Ng's dance photography and Aloysius Lim's lensing of live music.

The two most important things for you to do are to listen, and to be present.

I’m looking straight into the dark lens of a camera, as performance photographer Crispian Chan gently directs me from the other side of it during a headshot portrait session ahead of our interview. He gives me directions like, “Act like you’re hiding a little secret behind your lips.” Despite not being a performer, I gradually ease into the flow of the process and get a sense of the artistry and intimacy that lie behind most of the headshots that grace the CVs of Singapore’s most prolific performance practitioners.

We are shooting on a Friday morning, one of Crispian's days off from his full-time job at theatre company Pangdemonium, where Crispian works as creative director. Sometimes, he acts. Mostly, he is known in the industry as a photographer. These are not necessarily discrete professions; Crispian sees his photography work, including the headshot sessions, as inextricably linked to his experience as an actor and director. “Photography is about listening; there is a dialogue there as well. It’s like you’re an actor on stage, and you need to be present in that shared space,” he explains.

As an undergraduate student of theatre and documentary film at Curtin University in Perth, Australia in the early 2000s, Crispian was part of a vibrant college theatre scene in which students regularly produced and managed performances from scratch. Crispian “fell into” the role of performance photographer there, due to a proclivity for documentation stemming from his film studies. “I always try to shoot my photos with a cinematic eye,” he says. “I love playing with thirds, I love negative space. The film part of me tries to go beyond just capturing what the audience sees. Theatre is a temporal medium, and what I always loved about film is how it records an ephemeral slice of history.” In addition to the technical training that the film curriculum provided, it sparked a passion for capturing all aspects of the theatre-making experience on camera: not just the onstage action, but also “the community, the lifestyle”, the unrehearsed moments backstage and the relationships between the cast and crew.

Aside from a dynamic arts education, working in his family’s Chinese restaurant fed greatly into Crispian’s development as a storyteller. “The dining room was an incredible repository of characters and stories: over the years, we saw families growing up there,” he shares. He jokingly reveals that he was often chided for being more invested in hearing the stories of some of the regular patrons, rather than working. “I was too busy talking to everyone and playing the PR guy. I guess that's the marketing part of me coming out.”

After our headshot session, Crispian took me through his extensive archives to share a few highlights of his career.

The stage transformed

The Cenci (2003) by Hayman Theatre

Crispian’s first paid gig as a theatrical photographer after graduating from Curtin University was to shoot a “very camp interpretation” of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci by Hayman Theatre in 2003. “It was very anti-establishment and edgy, full of university students doing deviant things on stage. That’s what I love about theatrical photography, that the stage is transformed for a period into a completely different world: it can be wacky and outrageous, it can be very straight and naturalist.”

As we look through the production pictures, Crispian laughs a little at his first company name: crisPian. “I was still working on my craft in many ways then. It took me a long time to get the gear to get the kind of shots I take now.”

From Perth to Singapore

Oresteia (2009) by LASALLE College of the Arts 

Attempts on Her Life (2012) by LASALLE College of the Arts 

Crispian moved to Singapore in 2005 to join the first batch of students of LASALLE College of the Arts BA(Hons) Acting programme. “I carried over everything I was doing in Australia to Singapore,” he shares, “Even this little Sony digital camera that back then had two megapixels only.” He continued to shoot school productions as a student and later as part of the school’s marketing department following his graduation.

He notes this period as key to the professionalisation of his practice. “That’s where I learned to develop what I wanted to do as a commercial trade. It wasn’t so much a trade in Australia, but I pursued it more diligently in Singapore.” He was working as a designer on a teen musical where he met actress Tan Kheng Hua, who was producing the show. Tan eventually introduced him to Adrian and Tracie Pang of Pangdemonium, who gave him his big break in the local theatre industry.

Shooting underwater

The Immortal Sole (2018) by Edith Podesta

“The most technically challenging shoot I’ve done, which was also really fun as well, wasn’t a performance, but a publicity shoot for Edith Podesta’s The Immortal Sole.” It was the first time Crispian had to shoot underwater, and it took place at the pool in his condominium at midnight. Fortunately, the property management “was cool with it.”

Such a demanding shoot would call for expensive equipment, but fortunately, director Edith Podesta managed to source a large black cloth to sink into the pool as a backdrop, and found a vendor who was willing to lend him lights, sparing him thousands of dollars. “The lights were so bright, they lit up the whole pool and reflected off the building, and it was a completely surreal experience shooting at midnight. It was freezing; we were in the pool for three hours. But it’s a beautiful, ethereal shoot, and I’m proud of it and thankful to Edith for trying this with me.”

The overseas shoot

Nathan Hartono and Jeon Na-Young for The Great Wall: One Woman's Journey (2017) 

The publicity shoot for the ambitious, independently produced Great Wall Musical in 2017 took Crispian out of the usual set-up of a theatre studio to the actual Great Wall in China. On a Scoot-sponsored trip with the producers and lead actors Nathan Hartono and Jeon Na-Young, the team spent a few days in the less touristy Tianjin area of the Great Wall, absorbing the history of the site. Apart from doing research, the visit allowed Crispian to try new and complex modes of photography. “I’d always wanted to try using a drone, and this was the best excuse,” he says. “Shooting on-site at the historical source of inspiration for the musical beats any kind of studio set-up. It was a three-hour drive between the wall and our hotel. We'd start early in the morning, arrive in the late morning, finish up by sunset, and it was a lot of walking, but it was worth it. Probably the most unusual shoot I’ve done.”

Between the shadows and the light

One of Crispian’s personal projects is a series of backstage photos of actors in the moments before they step onstage. He refers to the series as SATS, a Norwegian term referring to the momentum gathered in an arrow before it is released from the bow.

“This is kind of my little love letter to the world of theatre,” he explains. “This is my understanding of that crucial moment, that breath before the actor steps on stage. I love capturing two worlds in the same photo.” As an extension to this series, Crispian is planning on a photo project focusing on the unsung work of production crew members who, like the cast, work at least partly in the shadows, but are not necessarily recognised in the same light.

Shooting movement

Cut Kafka (2018) by Nine Years Theatre and T.H.E. Dance Company

Crispian’s journey in performance photography hasn’t been without its learning curves. When Crispian was first tasked to shoot contemporary dance performances at LASALLE, it felt like trying to decipher a new vocabulary. “I found it hard to read what was happening on stage, because I've been brought up with acting training, with theatre training,” he says. It took him some time to learn the appropriate settings to shoot movement without the punctuations of speech and dialogue found in theatre performances. The other learning point was to decode the narrative or concept of a dance piece in order to express it through photography.

“Even to this day, I don't necessarily feel like I always know what the dance choreographer is trying to say: a lot is my own interpretation,” Crispian admits. However, he found reassurance in a conversation with Kuik Swee Boon, artistic director of T.H.E. Dance Company, who shared that he was particularly interested in the photographer’s interpretation and the “in-between moments” that are captured in a dance piece, which allows for subjective perspectives. “That’s a freedom that I really appreciate from him,” Crispian says. He has also developed a practice of paying attention to subtle cues such as breath, the rhythm of the music and key moments of silence. “But ultimately, I think dance photography is more visceral; it’s an immediate kinesthetic response.”

Dance portraiture

Isabel Phua

Crispian’s interest in the idiosyncratic language of dance photography as an expression of the body led to starting a dance portraiture series Kinesthesia, a personal project in which he works with artists one-on-one to capture their uniquely creative corporeal vocabulary. It started when he met dancer Isabel Phua for a publicity shoot, in which she was bald and wearing a bridal gown. Inspired by that image, he invited her for a portrait shoot where she improvised to music as he explored different camera settings and techniques of capturing her movement. It developed into a collaborative practice in which he continues to engage with other dancers. “I’ve learned that theatre can get heady, a lot of talking, but dance goes completely the other way. There is an intellectual kind of engagement through the body, and it is a rawer form, which is refreshing.”

Kinesthesia is Crispian’s attempt at showcasing a mode of expression that contemporary dance audiences don’t normally see from individual dancers. Being organic and improvised are important qualities of such sessions. “I try not to give directions; it shouldn’t be guided by the photographer's eye, it comes from the dancer first, and I just observe. Recently, people have been using the word witnessing in relation to theatre, and I love that: to be a witness to performance.” 

Catch a virtual exhibition of Crispian Chan’s images of the Esplanade Theatre, captured for the production #THEATRE and part of Archifest 2021’s Singapore Through My Eyes, till 31 Oct 2021.

Find out more about Crispian Chan’s work at his website and his Instagram page.

Contributed by:

Akanksha Raja

Akanksha Raja is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.

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