Embrace uncertainty; Robert Catto on theatre, photography, creative careers

I often get asked by my creative clients, ‘how do I become an artist?’ The general implication is that people want a road map and a sense of certainty that their artistic efforts will pay off. The truth is no career path can guarantee this. The fact that the word ‘pivot’ was uttered many times in 2020 and lockdowns have happened in 2021 suggest that uncertainty is likely here to stay. But how one perceives uncertainty has an impact on their ability to sustain a creative career.

There is no ‘right’ pathway to a creative career. The creative industries are as non-traditional as the individuals who partake in them. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this through the interviews and articles I’ve published over the years featuring artists who have found success through their own ingenuity and perseverance.

Recently, I have interviewed professional photographer Robert Catto who specialises in the performing arts, live events, editorial, and commercial work. His diverse portfolio of work is informed by an equally diverse career. He shared his insights on what the world looks like through his lens, and meaningful advice for budding photographers and creatives.

Robert Catto | photo credit – Robert Catto

Creative choices

[…] when I look back at how I got to where I am now, the one through-line that carries on is always theatre. For me, that’s been the great love/obsession of my working life, and so everything I’ve done – since high school, basically – has been about finding my place in that community.”

Catto has worked in many jobs including acting, stage management, marketing, box office management, and lighting (often at the same time), and that ultimately led him to photography. He observes, “[…] most people wouldn’t think of [photography] as a theatrical discipline, but to me it’s the perfect mirror image of lighting design.”

While studying drama at university in Canada, he worked box office jobs, during which he observed a lot of arts imagery and noticed how patrons would react to such artwork, what [shows] sold tickets, and what didn’t. He felt the urge to return to creative work and, in 1999, found himself in New Zealand where he started attending auditions and booking work as an extra. His time on set afforded him the rare perspective of seeing how the camera’s placement on set affected the ultimate edit on film, as he explains;

“[…] while I was [in The Lord of the Rings] I spent as much time as I could watching the monitors, and seeing how they were turning these sets in warehouses in Wellington into incredible, seemingly vast images on film. And I realised that film only has to look good from one angle: where the camera is. Nothing else on the set matters, at that moment – which is a curious idea, coming from a theatre background! But I could see how you were able to reveal certain things, and hide vast amounts of other things, with lighting and camera placement. So I was learning about photography as an extra, too.”

Catto later found work with a lighting company which helped him get back to the practical side of production, familiar territory from his university studies. “When you’re lighting a show, you know where the audience is going to be and you’re working out where to throw light on the performers on stage; as a photographer, you’re gathering that same light, and choosing where the viewer will be, and what their attention will be focussed on. So they’re two sides of the same coin—or, the same side of two coins. (How obsessed with theatre am I? I’m quoting Tom Stoppard in an interview!)”

He began taking photography more seriously as a means of building a professional portfolio. Gradually, he booked more work as a photographer, and really enjoyed it, making his next creative choice an easy one. He recalls, “[…] in 2002 I set up my [photography] business, to make that my full-time career. It’s by no means a traditional way into the field!”

Career training

So much of the creative industries is about disrupting how things are done, and starting fresh. There is no correct way to do any of this, there’s only what works for each creative individual; and inventing your own unique means of expression, based on your own experience, can be even better than following the expected, traditional path.”

Many budding artists undertake formal education in their desired field, but one doesn’t necessarily require a compatible qualification to work in the creative industries. Consider that all of your lived experience, including the jobs you’ve worked in, may inform your work in a chosen creative discipline. Such was the case with Catto whose theatre studies complemented his work as a theatre photographer.

He advises, “[…] it’s just as important to understand your subject as it is to understand your own style, craft, & technique. So the fact that I studied theatre rather than photography has made me a better theatre photographer, once I got a grip on the technical side of photography – which is a very specific field to work in. Of course the technical side of photography is constantly evolving, too! But if I wanted to photograph fashion, I’d study fashion even more than I studied photography.”

Home Invasion with Chloe Bayliss, directed by Alex Berlage, at the Old 505 Theatre | photo credit – Robert Catto

As a creative entrepreneur, Catto highly recommends developing your business skills – an investment which has served him well. He emphasises, “[…] the best thing I did when I was starting out was just a general ‘how to run a small business’ week-long course, put together by the local Chamber of Commerce and the City Council. Never mind the photography side of things, knowing exactly what insurance, contracts, compliance, and tax issues to be prepared for was really important.

“Plus we spent time assessing the local market for our prospective businesses, working out specific targets to work towards, and defining what our own personal definitions of success would look like, so we could aim towards something concrete and take targeted steps along that path. THAT was a really good thing to do!”

Aside from the practicalities of running a business, Catto believes that one should draw from their own inspiration and prepare for change when forging a career in the creative industries. “You know what’s great about the arts? You can ask my advice today, based on my various experiences, and I can make whatever suggestions I think are good ones. But tomorrow, there could be a new, young, inexperienced photographer who comes along with a completely new, different approach to everything I’ve ever thought was ‘the way’ of doing things. And they’ll be perfectly right!”

Timothy Wardell and Ben Gerrard in Angels In America at The Old Fitz | photo credit – Robert Catto

Catto’s love of theatre may explain his openness to change. He loves theatre’s ability to constantly evolve, expand, test, and grow, compared to film and TV for example. He’s seen five productions of Angels in America in the last 25 years and remarks, “[…] each of them have had a different point of view on the same source text, and that’s normal in theatre – but once something is filmed, it’s really unusual for someone to come along with a different view of that story, and get a chance to make that.”

Listening to Catto’s perspective on change is refreshing, “We all change – the world only spins forward – which is exactly how it should be. As the last year has shown, there’s also room for a lot of other perspectives that haven’t been given much space on our stages, until very recently. We need that.”

A photographer’s perspective

[…] aesthetics and composition need to support the storytelling. If the design is very formal and architectural, I’ll probably photograph it differently than I would a more chaotic, unstructured show. The style of photography needs to support and reflect how the production is going to work, usually – and it also needs to speak to the specific audience that is going to be attracted to the show. There’s a lot to consider!”

When I asked Catto what informs his choices when capturing images, he simply replied ‘Instinct, really!’ He was referring to production photography, a fast paced environment where he has no control of, and is trying to stay on top of everything that’s happening on stage. He does, however, prepare via researching the work to gain a sense of what could happen. Familiarising himself with the story is one way he can begin to conceive the images he intends to capture.

“When I’m working on a show, I think of myself as a designer – often I’ll read the script beforehand to get a sense of the story, take my own notes about what visual metaphors or images are suggested there, but then also talk to the director and designers about where they’re planning to take that on stage. Because it’s not always going to be what it says on the page, right?”

Catto’s approach to production photography is like solving a puzzle. He asks himself ‘what it is about this production, in this place, at this time, that is new/different/unique/surprising/funny/dramatic in a different way to anything else that’s out there’ when attempting to represent the work before him.

“So, here’s the thing – theatre photography means different things at different times. Sometimes it’s a conceptual shoot a year ahead of the production, for a season brochure, before anyone’s cast; other times it’s a workshop/development showing that will sell the show to producing partners; then it can become a rehearsal room/work in progress shoot for social media, and eventually there’s production photography at the dress rehearsal, and there might be a red carpet on opening night.”

“But – to me, at least – my approach to all of these things is the same, in the sense that I’m trying to find visual ways to represent something essential, metaphoric, or thematic, about the work. A way of representing the heart of it, and supporting that meaning visually through lighting and framing and post-production, in a way that doesn’t over-tell the story. The last thing you want in an image is to reveal too much! It needs to intrigue, to entreat someone seeing it to want to find out more about what that image means – by seeing the show.”

Once at Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Cast: Stefanie Caccamo, Toby Francis, Jay Laga’aia, Victoria Falconer, Drew Livingston, Abe Mitchell, Rupert Reid, Alec Steedman, Tamlyn Henderson, Deirdre Khoo, Patrick Schnur, Jennifer Trijo | photo credit – Robert Catto

He describes photography as ‘graphic design, in an instant’ and muses, “I have to turn a three-dimensional space into a flat page that communicates something, while reacting to what’s in front of me – or staying just far enough ahead of what’s happening to be ready for a moment I don’t actually know is coming, but when it does I need to be standing in the right place, with the right camera & lens in my hands, and focussed on the right performer(s) to capture it.”

“I often compare production photography to a dance I’m doing with the performers on stage; in order to create meaning in an image, I’m often moving quickly around the auditorium to keep two people in the same frame, even if the distance between them on stage is vast, to catch a compelling reaction that might be framed over someone’s shoulder, or as I follow the light around the stage. That’s the best description I’ve found for it, really. By intermission, I’m usually at least as tired as the cast!”

Aside from ensuring your fit enough for the job, Catto’s advice for budding photographers or anyone wishing to capture better images is to ‘just keep doing it!’

“The great thing about photography now is that you get such instant feedback, both from the online community in terms of likes, but also just in being able to see what you got right away. Galen Rowell, a nature photographer whose books I read early on, said “if it looks good, shoot it; if it looks better, shoot it again.” That’s always been my approach, I use the camera like a sketchpad and work my way towards the final image. But sometimes the first one ends up being the best, you can’t always predict a subject!”

Challenges and mindsets

Uncertainty is the one thing you can be sure of, in any creative career. So, learn to embrace that!”

As a photographer for nearly two decades Catto has come to terms with the idea that people might stop booking him one day. “During the first phase of the pandemic, that seemed entirely possible – that things could be so different afterwards, the people who knew me might have left the industry, companies might have come and gone, and the work I used to get might have disappeared. Then we came back, theatres started to re-open, and I was busier than ever! So, maybe it’s not over for me yet. (Phew!)”

Fluctuations in bookings is common in the creative industries, whether seasonal or long-term, the past 18 months has shown us that. Instead of becoming crestfallen by the loss of work, Catto used it to propel him forward.

“There might be phases of our careers where we do other things, and we might come back to the arts from that, or we might not. And that’s fine, if you’re ready for it. It’s almost the only way my career could have arrived at where I am now – a box office job led to another one in Atlanta on the Olympics in 1996, which left me with no apartment or job in Toronto to go back to and enough money to travel, so I came here, which led to another job in New Zealand, which ended up being a 15-year stay and two other careers before I came back to Sydney in 2012.”

“I couldn’t possibly have planned all of that! It was a series of opportunities that each came up as a result of saying yes to the previous one, which led to the next one, and here I am. The uncertainty became the path.”

Geraldine Hakewill in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Darlinghurst Theatre Company | photo credit – Robert Catto

Naturally, uncertainty may bring anxiety and distress to creative people both established and emerging. Catto shared an inspiring article during our interview which offers a way forward when faced with uncertainty of employment.

“I found an interesting article recently that talked about how finding meaning in things, and building a narrative out of our experiences, actually helps in coping with that uncertainty. If you can look back at your life to this point and make sense of it, you feel better about the choices you’ve made along the way—which in turn helps you cope with making future choices, and feeling better about where you’re at in the world. It’s worth a read [here]!”

To quote Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory University, “If you land well after a difficult incident, you’re more likely to give it a redemptive arc. And if you give a difficult episode a redemptive arc, you’re more likely to land well. It’s not tautological; it’s transactional. They influence each other, like: ‘The better I cope, the more I can create positive meaning out of my experience’ and ‘The more I can create positive meaning out of my experience, the better I cope.’”

Perhaps this is a way forward for everyone working in the creative industries given the uncertain future we face. Armed with creativity, we can find meaning in this chaos and allow uncertainty to pave the path forward.

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