Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Martine Franck and the Théâtre du Soleil

Martine Franck’s vivid photographs of the Shakespeare Cycle are the highlight of a fifty year project documenting the pioneering theater company
Feature, Magnum Photos — March 2017

Photo: Martine Franck / Magnum Photos

Martine Franck’s long and creative collaboration with the Parisian avant-garde stage ensemble Théâtre du Soleil developed out of her friendship with its founder, Ariane Mnouchkine. Franck photographed every groundbreaking production put on by the company over a fifty year period, producing a body of work that captures the development of her own practice as well as the evolving creative direction of Mnouchkine. Both women would go on to rise to the top of their professions: Mnouchkine as an eminent director and one of the first women in the industry to receive such critical acclaim, and Franck as a celebrated photojournalist and an early female member of Magnum.

Franck first began experimenting with photography in 1965 while accompanying Mnouchkine on a research trip through Japan, Cambodia, India and Afghanistan. She found solace in the medium’s ability to provide her with a way of involving herself in a situation; social occasions were something she openly admitted to struggling with due to her shy and introverted nature. On returning from the trip she decided to pursue a career as a photographer, becoming a trainee at Time-Life in Paris and working as an assistant to Goon Mili and Eliot Elisofon. When Mnouchkine founded the Théâtre du Soleil in 1964, its activities provided an obvious subject-matter for the young photographer.

Recognized as one of the company’s most important achievements the Shakespeare Cycle espoused a new theatrical approach to the famed playwright’s seminal works, by presenting the stories’ characters as psychologically one-dimensional and placing an emphasis on the formality and artificiality of the scripts. Franck regarded her images of this series as the best work she made during her time photographing the company. Making an exception to her usual rule, Mnouchkine allowed Franck to work onstage during preparations for the performances and the increased freedom and proximity to the subjects this gave her is reflected in the dynamism of the resulting stills, all taken during rehearsals.

Franck wrote about how her ongoing project with the Théâtre du Soleil differed from her other long-term work in that she was “representing something that somebody has already put in place rather than discovering something for yourself”. She reconciled the problematic task of recording another artist’s creation through focusing on the aesthetics of the performance: producing stills with dynamic compositions, playful lighting and vivid colors.

This approach was undoubtedly rooted in her background in art history. Studying the subject at Madrid University and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris equipped Franck with an understanding of the power of the formal elements of an individual frame, which translated into the aesthetics of her photographic oeuvre. This is particularly true of her photographs of the Shakespeare Cycle: the masterful compositions and affecting lighting of the stills render them as powerful as stand-alone images as they are in series.

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