In Character: Actors Acting

When we want to say that someone is duplicitous, we say they are “two-faced.” We might use the word “muti-faceted” to describe a well-rounded person, to say that there are many sides, or “faces” to him. Rainer Maria Rilke once said that: “there are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.” In his book In Character: Actors Acting, Howard Schatz portrays those who make a living presenting different faces.

In portraiture, the photographer is often asked to capture and distill the many faces of a person to a single image. There are really two main approaches to portraiture: portraiture as collaboration between photographer and subject, and portraiture in which the photographer acts upon a subject. The latter can be illustrated by photographers like Richard Avedon, who famously confronted subjects like writer Isaak Dinesen and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to portray them in ways that were less than flattering, but in ways that he felt showed them stripped of veneer. (Ironic for someone who fashioned much of his reputation initially as a fashion photographer.) Avedon has been described as being more akin philosophically to a sculptor, working on subjects almost as if they were stone or clay, to be struck or molded in his vision.

Arnold Newman, whose affection for his subjects was often palpable, represents the more collaborative tradition—his portrait of the German industrialist Alfried Krupp being a notable exception. Which way presents the greater truth? A person is usually neither the person he himself sees, nor is he exclusively the person seen by others. More likely, he is a combination of the two: artistic collaboration can be a powerful tool in revealing that identity. Schatz takes that form of collaboration to an interesting place. In his book, Schatz gives each actor a direction, “a character to play, a scene, and at times, even dialogue. Photographs were made as each actor creatively developed the part.”

A pleasure of Shatz’s book is that it allows us to really see the physical skills of some of these actors. It is no accident that many contemporary actors still admire the genius of silent actors like Charlie Chaplin. Likewise, who better than an accomplished still photographer to believe in the ability of a person to emote without words or sounds? Theater and film directors giving actors guidance, but also give them space in which to interpret their characters. Richard Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Danny Glover, Hal Holbrook, Ellen Burstyn, James Earl Jones, Peter Falk and Kelsey Gramer are among the actors that headline Schatz’s project.

As Roger Ebert notes in his introduction to the book, Schatz works close to the actors on this project, in closer quarters than we might even see them on the small (television) and large (movie) screens. The way the actors’ faces fill Schatz’s lens is as if we were sitting in a café or diner across from them. It is a distance that at once calls for both clarity and subtlety. (Ebert admits that those absorbing the book might find a bit of overacting in an actor or two.) In some of the “performances,” the actors’ visages fill and bleed off the page, for instance, when Elliot Gould is in a “high stakes poker game, holding four aces.” The best spreads, though, are those where you see expression after expression after expression, as in the multiple poses of Melissa Leo or Nestor Serrano, which show us their acting ranges. We gain further insight from the actors’ notes that accompany each profile. Schatz’s project is wonderful, his photos enthralling, but many of the directions are more like the scenarios an instructor might give an acting class. This might be a quibble, but would we have seen an even higher level of acting if Schatz had taken his acting challenges from well-known scripts?

The opportunity to see the many sides of a person gives us fuller insight into that person. People live through both guarded and unguarded moments. In actors, however, we see people who are able to emote more quickly, to get “into character” more easily than the rest of us. Yet even actors struggle to balance the covering and uncovering of their emotions. As Scott Glenn says, acting for him combines “100 percent concentration with 100 percent relaxation.” Despite the artifice, acting come at least partially from somewhere inside; performance contains at least one kernel. In his direction, Schatz calls this forth, but how much of the real person can you call from those who make a living from “getting into character?” A lot, according to Ebert, who notes that film, and, presumably by extension, photography, “looks into their eyes and souls and shows us not only what they can control of their presentation, but, crucially, what they cannot.”

This book review first appeared on Takegreatpictures.com.

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