Nobby Clark: The celebrity photographer has photographed what Northern Broadsides have been putting on the stage for 20 years. Nick Ahad reports on an exhibition of his work which is opening today.
Shakespeare’s words carry a value greater than those of others – and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then it stands to reason that a picture of Shakespeare’s words in action are something to behold. If the picture is taken by Nobby Clark, then it is deserving of an exhibition of its own.
Which is why one of the North’s great Shakespearean companies is exhibiting the work of the photographer at its home base. Nobby Clark has been the go-to guy for theatre photography for three decades.
It is possibly easier to list the newspapers he hasn’t worked for, the actors he hasn’t photographed and the directors who haven’t let him in to the sacred space of their rehearsal rooms than to list those who hanker after and have employed his photography skills.
The Observer, the Sunday Times, The Guardian, every major English theatre, opera and ballet company including the National and Royal Shakespeare Theatre companies and both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet have used his pictures. Directors who have worked with him include a triumvirate of knights, Sirs Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, and he has captured actors in his lens including Al Pacino, Michael Gambon Antony Hopkins and Julie Walters.
It turns out he has a secret that has allowed him such incredible access – he’s a Cockney wide boy with the gift of the gab who also knows when to keep his mouth shut. “The secret? I do everything wrong. The picture editor of the Sunday Times would tell me what he wanted me to get, I’d not listen, go on the job and bring back what I thought looked good. He’d complain that I hadn’t done what he told me, I’d admit that I didn’t listen, he wouldn’t use me for a couple of days, then it’d be all right again,” says Clark.
“When it comes to working with directors and actors in a rehearsal, I just stay out of the way, stay in the background. They are there trying to rehearse a production, they don’t want a photographer there clicking away like a madman.”
Staying out of the way, never drawing the focus of the rehearsal room is a philosophy he ignored once early in his career, to his own misfortune.
“In 1976 Albert Finney was at the National doing Tamburlaine and Peter Hall was directing. I was asked to go in at a dress rehearsal and take pictures. It was a long production, about four hours, so I got a load of shots, I was snapping everything. At the end Albert came out in his white dressing gown and Peter asked him everything was okay. He stood there and shouted ‘No, everything is not f****** well okay. All I’ve heard for the last four hours is ‘click’ ‘click’ ‘click’.”
It’s easy to imagine the reputedly fiery Finney tearing a strip off the photographer who had been snapping away during his rehearsal performance. Then Clark reveals the real reason for his great success – he takes very little very seriously. Even when staring down the barrel of an Albert Finney dressing-down, he didn’t take it to heart.
“It wasn’t me he was angry at, it was a lot of stress for him, he had a lot to think about and me being there was the thing he fixed on at the time. We’ve since become good friends because he knows – I suppose like everyone I work with – that I’m not there to get in their way or do a rubbish job,” he says.
The laid-back attitude has served Clark well and is the reason he has been asked back time and again to several different companies over the past three decades.
One such company is Northern Broadsides. The theatre troupe led by the inestimable Barrie Rutter is 20-years-old this year and it seemed entirely appropriate that a celebration had to include an exhibition of the work of Clark, who has been there from the very beginning.
His photographs of the inaugural Broadsides show, the 1992 Richard III at Salts Mill, feature a rough and ready production with a cast including Brian Glover. Clark couldn’t really have captured the essence of the company much more accurately and even from that first set of pictures, it is obvious to see why he has since recorded the rehearsal process and production of every Northern Broadside show. “Barrie says I’m an honorary Yorkshireman,” says Clark proudly.
It all began when he was in his early twenties, “trying to be a photographer, but managing to just be an idiot”.
Clark’s parents ran a pub in Pimlico, London. While working behind the bar he was toying with the idea of being a photographer and had managed to get a gig taking photographs of productions for the National Youth Theatre (NYT) where he first met Rutter.
Michael Croft, the mastermind behind NYT, sent for Clark.
“He refused to call me Nobby, he’d only call me Peter, which is my real name. He said ‘Peter, there’s no money in it, but do you want to take photographs for us?’,” says Clark.
“I had been dabbling in photography and done lots of other jobs – I was a messenger boy in Soho, sold cigarettes, worked at the bar, I wanted to be a film cameraman but that was impossible to break into. I went to photography college for about a week. When Michael gave me the job, with NYT in 1968, I jumped at it.”
The National Youth Theatre photographs got Clark noticed and also earned him a place on a photocall sheet – the callsheet theatres would send out for their productions.
“I was the new kid on the block and there were about four or five people on the photocall list, but I managed to get on to it. I did one photocall and from that I got about five pictures in Time Out. It was all I ever wanted to do, get my photographs in a newspaper,” he says.
The quality of Clark’s work, his eye for a picture, soon caught the attention of the newspapers he wanted to see his photographs in and the Observer started to take his work seriously.
“Once your work appears in newspapers, you get taken seriously and it opens doors for you, you get to go into places you couldn’t normally go.”
Once he gained access to those places the quality of his work was clear.
“It was the Sixties, it was all a bit rock’n’ roll. I’ve never really stopped being a teenager with that rock ‘n’ roll spirit, but it didn’t matter how hard you partied, you had to work just as hard and always turn up.
“The minute you miss a gig then your career’s over,” he says.
He didn’t miss a gig and, once in rehearsal room, didn’t miss a trick.
His photographs over the years have been impressive enough to see his work exhibited in the National Theatre and at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
And now they will be seen in Halifax.
“I’m not an arty farty photographer, I’m not a posh boy, which is why I’m a good fit for Barrie and Broadsides.
“All I ever wanted was to get my photographs in a newspaper,” he admits.
“But having an exhibition, yeah, that’s a nice feeling.”
Northern Broadsides 20 years – photography by Nobby Clark is at Dean Clough Mill’s Crossley Gallery from today to September 16.