Gotham library gets Swope archive

Snaps of 800 theater productions go to NY performing arts

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has acquired the archive of Martha Swope, a pre-eminent photographer of Broadway shows and New York dance from the late 1950s to the mid-1990s.

The collection of contact sheets and negatives includes shots of about 800 theater productions, including “West Side Story,” “A Chorus Line,” “Sweeney Todd,” “42nd Street,” “Moon for the Misbegotten” (with Colleen Dewhurst), “Annie” (starring a young Sarah Jessica Parker) and “Of Mice and Men” (toplined by James Earl Jones).

Also included are Swope’s snaps of New York City Ballet output and major dance productions from choreographers and dancers such as Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She also shot for operas and for movie posters, including the iconic dance floor image for “Saturday Night Fever.”

The collection consists of 1,520,000 images on contact prints with corresponding negatives, 152,000 slides and 12,250 prints, along with about 75,000 digitally scanned images.

“It’s a period of 30 to 40 years that was very important and very productive in theater and dance,” said Swope of the work recorded in her archive.

The self-taught photographer will assist the library with labeling and captioning the material.

Swope, who retired in 1994, saw her work printed in publications including Life, Newsweek, the New York Times, People and many theater and dance outlets. Much of what she shot was used as press material for productions, with her shots often running in newspapers alongside reviews.

At the library, the collection will be physically preserved while a certain number of photos — including about 15 shots per major production — will be digitized.

Reps for the Library for the Performing Arts (LPA) anticipate the Swope archive will be used by scholars and students as well as designers and others working in the performing arts. LPA also will handle requests from newspapers, magazines, textbooks and other sources to publish the archival images.

“Martha’s work rounds out a perspective of theater and dance that someone can gain by looking at our collection,” said LPA exec director Jacqueline Z. Davis. “It’s very comprehensive.”Swope came to New York from Texas in the 1950s as a dancer, but turned to photography after Jerome Robbins — who was in one of her ballet classes as a warm-up to work on “West Side Story” — asked her to shoot photos of “West Side” rehearsals. Eventually she became the go-to photog for Gotham performing arts and for Broadway, working regularly with producers including David Merrick and Harold Prince.

According to Davis, it was Prince who alerted the LPA to the fact that Swope was looking for a place for her collection, following the archive’s eight-year stint with Time, Inc. The LPA and the photographer have been in talks about the donation since 2002.

In 2004 Swope was awarded a Tony Honor, the kudo given to those in the legit industry whose work is not eligible for the awards’ competitive categories. In 2007 she received a lifetime achievement award from the League of Professional Theater Women.

Swope, who gave away all her cameras when she retired, said her approach to her work was largely intuitive. “I can’t think analytically about it, because I just did it,” she said. “I reacted to what was in front of me.”