Ivan Kyncl: In the Minute marks 15 years since the death of the acclaimed, Czech-born theatre photographer Ivan Kyncl (1953-2004). His archive, acquired by the V&A in 2018, comprises over 100,000 negatives and is considered to be one of the richest chronicles of the British stage in the late 20th century. Focusing on the possibilities of theatre photography, the exhibition brilliantly exemplifies Ivan Kyncl’s unique ‘in-the-minute’ approach, his ability to freeze the feel of a show at the instantaneous click of the shutter. Sixty selected black-and-white stills symbolically refer to every single second of a minute.
The monochrome photos feature on white walls in two rooms of the Theatre and Performance Galleries. Music coming from the Galleries provides a soundtrack and the general theatrical experience is further reinforced by a lavishly decorated box from the Glasgow Theatre of Varieties, also exhibited in the room. There is no storyline or chronology in this compact and absorbing collection of images, accompanied by commentaries of distinguished theatre luminaries. In the words of the theatre director Terry Hands, Ivan Kyncl was ‘the Henri Cartier-Bresson of theatre photographers’.
Kyncl’s ability to frame and freeze a transient moment and the remarkable inner dynamic of his momentous stills were radically different from the traditional static press photos at the time. This fresh experimental approach originated from Kyncl’s previous experience as an oppositional photojournalist, who documented the activities of Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia. The persecution of Czech dissidents was promptly and clandestinely documented through his camera lens in dangerous circumstances. In 1980, Kyncl fled to the UK as a stateless political refugee and soon established himself as a theatre photographer of exceptional talent and originality.
During his career, Kyncl took photos of about 500 plays, operas and musicals. Giving a nuanced view, the exhibition is rich in detail about his tradecraft, compiling an outstanding register of Kyncl’s creative output, including the works by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tom Stoppard, productions of the Royal National Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Barbican Centre and Almeida, Glyndebourne and The Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Image sequences give a sense of what the theatre-goers were looking at: whole-stage dynamic perspectives from unexpected angles. Kyncl actively used the photographic space of the theatre from balcony to backstage, in the audience, on the stage among actors, in the orchestra pit with the musicians and even in the stage lighting box behind the spotlights. As a result, the photographs convey spectacular scenic effects, striking set designs, blurred movements, dramatic shadows and expressive heightened emotions.
Some extraordinary pictures presented at the exhibition portray famous actors, including Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Antony Sher. These are not celebrity headshots and viewers might not spot the celebrity at first sight. For instance, a woman sitting in a large bare room lighting a cigarette, her face partially obscured by voluminous hair, is Cate Blanchett in the role of Susan Traherne in Plenty (Almeida Theatre, 1999).
The exhibition lets Ivan Kyncl’s photographic record speak for itself, presenting the pictures as spontaneous, intuitive and improvisational works of art. Yet the labelling could have provided the wider historical context for viewers unfamiliar with recent British theatre (1980s–2000s). For example, The Possessed, adapted from Dostoyevsky’s novel, was staged at the Almeida by the founder of the Moscow Taganka Theatre Yuri Lyubimov, who had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship while working in London in 1984. Hopefully, the V&A will produce an annotated catalogue of the photographer’s vast photographic legacy. Leaving a lasting impression, the exhibition is a powerful documentary and explores many facets of the artistry of Ivan Kyncl, the tireless chronicler of the British stage.