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A photographer has spent a working lifetime with stars as they re-invent themselves for their stage performance. Stephanie Ferguson reports.

Knightley is one of the latest in the pantheon of famous actors – including ten knights and five dames – to be captured in their dressing rooms by photographer Simon Annand.

“It was the first time she’d ever let a photographer into her dressing room or trailer,” confides Annand, whose work goes on show in Scarborough next week. “She’s very disciplined, very focused and there were loads of expensive cosmetics on her table top.”

In The Half: Photographs of Actors Preparing for the Stage, Annand catches that very private 30 minutes before the curtain goes up. It’s almost reverential: the quiet moment when actors concentrate and transform, generally without the inquisitive lens of a camera. Annand seems to blend in and not disturb and because of his special approach has been allowed into the inner sanctums to record the great and the good for almost 30 years.

“I’m not predatory. I write to people and then turn up,” he says. “It’s a bit like jazz music in the way it develops. I don’t do any research before I meet them and have no preconceptions.”

He has amassed a huge collection of portraits, the most striking in monochrome, first seen in The Dressing Room, which won the best exhibition 2005 at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. His book, The Half, featuring more than 300 highly distinctive portraits followed in 2008.

According to Dame Judi Dench, Annand is an individualist with an eye for the unusual. “He is one of the most amazing photographers I have had the pleasure of working with in the theatre,” she said. His portrait of her, newly widowed, shows her at the mirror surrounded by cards, her smiling face partially concealed by a picture of Julius Caesar.

“She was in dressing room nine at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where so many famous actors had looked into that mirror. John Gielgud used to have a flat there in the war. Her husband, Michael Williams, had recently passed away and all the cards indicated the huge support for her. She was doing the James Bond film by day and the play The Royal Family, a 1920s bit of froth at night. Someone like her has so much capacity to make you feel at ease.”

Originally from Reading, Annand was a gardener who swapped digging for the dark room. Self-taught, he says he stole away to a cupboard and learned the essentials of printing. He used to work in the bar at The Lyric, Hammersmith, and says he was intrigued by what was going on in the rest of the theatre. His dressing room portraits began in 1982 with Griff Rhys Jones starring in Charley’s Aunt.

“I took a picture illegally up the fly tower. Griff had to put his head through a window and was very ebullient. Then I thought ‘let’s see what he’s like in the dressing room’. It wasn’t exactly melancholy, but I captured the difference in atmosphere.” Bitten by the bug, he wrote to Jonathan Miller at the Old Vic asking for work and ended up as resident photographer for two years.

“My work is very specific, about a particular situation with a great deal of focus. There’s an intimacy, a closeness and vulnerability. Cate Blanchett let me see that.” He’s not into the usual cliché of artists applying make-up. He looks for the unexpected and captures the essence of his subjects. He always takes pictures by appointment and is rarely turned down. In fact half of theatre land is queuing up to be in his next book.

“My preferred way is to almost know the picture before I take it. I don’t go in and take a lot. I have to be open to the rhythm of the actor and have to earn the right to take their picture. I try to show people as workers, not the finished glamorous product.” He knows that actors dislike that stereotyped “luvvies” tag and he aims to show them warts, deep thoughts and all.

Sessions can range from just two minutes to two hours. He hasn’t met any resistance so far, although comedian Spike Milligan was camera-shy. “I was determined to see him in Chichester. I was taking my seventh shot when he found an excuse to run out of the room. He thought the camera took part of his soul, but I managed to get something out of it.”

Then there was Sir Anthony Hopkins, who changed his mind at the last minute back in 1986. “It was before he did all his Shakespeare and became who he is now and he decided he didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to promote live performance and so I wrote to him and explained. He agreed then and he talked to me for two hours.”

Because celebrities are so used to flashbulbs and paparazzi they often want to shun the lens or, instead, cosy up to it. Annand is always looking for that special picture, the unexpected, and sometimes it can prove a challenge. “I took 72 shots of one actor and didn’t get a decent picture because he was posing too much. The key thing for me is not the subject and camera but the subject and themselves.”

Sometimes people can be too nice and accommodating and he still doesn’t get the great shot, the revelation. He thought he had failed with Max von Sydow but suddenly struck gold. “As I was going out of the door he was already up and taking off his shirt and looking at himself in a hand mirror. I took the shot one-handed.”

Annand’s wife, Caroline, who’s French, is an actress and a useful critic. She’s in the book, of course. “I thought I had messed it up completely with Charlotte Rampling,” he adds. “I had 23 shots I wasn’t happy with. When I showed them to my wife she said I had caught her as a woman rather than a legend, so it worked in the end.”

Annand’s portraits speak thousands of words. Daniel Day-Lewis prepares next to a poster of Lenin, his dressing table sparse, neat, precisely ordered as he reflects in the glass. James Bond actor Daniel Craig is all rippling muscle, but looks pensive, fatigued. He was playing Ted Hughes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the film Sylvia by day, then appearing nightly at the Royal Court. His portrait was taken after about 20 minutes of quietness.

The exhibition includes the male star of the moment, Oscar-winning Colin Firth, in his slender early years. “It was evident he was something a bit above the others. I took a more snappy picture than usual with him in Hussar’s uniform.” Theatre history is also recorded from Eric Porter preparing to play King Lear in 1987 to John Gielgud’s final stage performance at the Apollo a year later.

These days there is plenty of young blood to go at and Anna Friel, Jude Law, Carey Mulligan, Laurence Fox have all been captured at the half. “I’ve just done Keira Knightley and Gemma Arterton and I did Kate Winslet the other day.” Knightley, whom he photographed years ago with her mother, looks distant in her curlers, an image he has also used for Gillian Anderson. Next up is Derek Jacobi. He would have loved to have pictured the late Alec Guinness. “But he was too private.”

Annand ran the gauntlet of hundreds of fans to spend time with Daniel Radcliffe when he was preparing for Equus. “There were 200-odd people wanting autographs and he had to get into the theatre down a tunnel. He was being looked after by his father and we talked about cricket. That’s his passion.” Radcliffe, far from Harry Potter, sits on his dressing table, hands clasped, deep in thought, a bronze horse and rider behind him.

As well as portraits, Annand takes production shots for companies from the National Theatre and RSC to Glyndebourne. He has also worked for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Sheffield. Crucible, and has just taken pictures for the new work by Tim Firth, writer of Calendar Girls.

Having been a smash hit at the V&A last year, The Half comes to Yorkshire before New York. In Scarborough the exhibition will be a game of two halves: the iconic black and white prints are on show at the Art Gallery while the colour stills are at the theatre.

What next? The new book, still a couple of years in the making, will include actors from musicals and panto. But who would he really like to get in his viewfinder? “Bob Dylan” he says without hesitation. Well he wouldn’t catch him in his curlers.

* The Half: Photographs of Actors Preparing for the Stage, Scarborough Art Gallery and Stephen Joseph Theatre, Saturday April 9 to Sunday, June 26.