The spotlight is back on the more than 45 local actors in “Retrospective I,” a photo exhibit by John Erickson on display in the lobby of the John Chalberg Theatre on the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College.

The featured actors appeared in 19 different productions staged by Brainerd Community Theatre over the past five years according to Director Patrick Spradlin, who talked to Erickson about the retired attorney’s project.

“Retrospective I” is a photo exhibit by John Erickson outside the John Chalberg Theatre on the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
“Retrospective I” is a photo exhibit by John Erickson outside the John Chalberg Theatre on the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“This is by no means an exhaustive chronicle of either all the productions we’ve staged or all of the actors who’ve appeared in the plays,” Spradlin stated in a news release. “But it is a fascinating look at a veritable army of actors who have made theatre happen at BCT.”

Another aspect of the photo exhibit is the opportunity for viewers to reminisce about past BCT productions, according to Spradlin.

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Erickson has attended read-throughs, rehearsals, dress rehearsals and performances of nearly every BCT production in the past five years. Spradlin and Erickson decided which photos made it onto the walls of the BCT theater lobby for public viewing.

“Each show has its own exhibition,” Spradlin stated. “John also shoots our publicity photos and actor headshots for the playbills.”

Nick Kory tackles the title role in Brainerd Community Theatre's production of "Young Frankenstein" in this picture by John Erickson in Erickson's photo exhibit "Retrospective I" on display at the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College.
Contributed / John Erickson, Art Matters Studio and Gallery
Nick Kory tackles the title role in Brainerd Community Theatre's production of "Young Frankenstein" in this picture by John Erickson in Erickson's photo exhibit "Retrospective I" on display at the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College. Contributed / John Erickson, Art Matters Studio and Gallery

It was while reviewing some of the past photos that have been displayed that Spradlin and Erickson arrived at the idea of the photo exhibit because they saw so much potential in pulling together the “best of the best” and making them part of a standalone exhibition.

“We wanted to pay special tribute to these remarkable individuals who bring such passion to the theater. They deserve it,” Spradlin stated in the news release.

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The actors featured in “Retrospective I” come from all over the immediate area: Brainerd and Baxter, Little Falls, Pequot Lakes, Nisswa, East Gull Lake, Staples, Motley, Emily, Crosby and Deerwood.

Erickson detailed what he saw as the appeal this exhibit holds for not only the actors in it but also the public in general.

A student walks by a photo exhibit by John Erickson, who shoots Brainerd Community Theatre's publicity photos and actor headshots for the playbills.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
A student walks by a photo exhibit by John Erickson, who shoots Brainerd Community Theatre's publicity photos and actor headshots for the playbills. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“These images are what we hope are the ‘best of the best,’ the end of a long line of edits, the survivors of the cutting room, which we hope will evoke the viewer’s wonder in the skills of these actors producing their art and its cultural and aesthetic effects on us, their audiences, just as actors have done for thousands of years,” Erickson stated in the news release.

Spradlin spoke recently with Erickson about the project and about the photographer’s vision and his approach to photographing actors at the very moment of their creative process.

Spradlin: You’ve taken photos of sports events, you’ve shot landscapes and still life. What’s your approach to photographing actors?

Erickson: This very much depends on the actor and the actor’s experience, including experience being photographed, whether in rehearsal or performance. More care must be taken to be less intrusive when less experienced actors are involved, but generally speaking, regardless of the actor, it is important that both I and the camera pointed at the stage be somewhat familiar to the actor so that I become more background than an obvious presence.

Spradlin: What about your actual photographic technique?

Erickson: While I will change lenses on occasion, I prefer to use a telephoto lens for all but formal portraits, or highly crafted, posed images, or images of, for example, a “costume parade” where the actor is so engaged with the costumer that all else, such as the presence of a photographer, is lost upon the actor. The telephoto helps me to disappear into the darkness. And I never use flash.

Spradlin: What challenges do you face when photographing actors in their element?

Erickson: It varies with the stage of the production, there being much more freedom of movement for me, vis-a-vis the actors, earlier on in a production’s life span. I should not photograph a play performed to a live audience. Standing up and clicking a camera, even from a distance, is not to be done. The next best thing are full-run dress rehearsals, and to photograph them well, it is preferable that I have a sense of the play and how it is being acted so as to anticipate critical moments and to position myself so as creatively to find that in my “brush,” the camera, from a creatively helpful perspective. Timing, it is rightly said, is everything. Lighting is so important. Harsh white lights, which are so helpful to a photographer, are not favored by actors or directors.

Spradlin: Many of the photos in the exhibit, perhaps the majority of them, seem to have a lot of shadow, darkness, negative space. Is that part of your approach, or something that just happens?

Erickson: The absence of light also is very important, on stage and elsewhere. The absence of light is something I treasure. So long as there is some slight light, somewhere, shadow – and “shades” of shadow – is my friend. We live in less than bright light much of our lives and, like our emotions, our lives are spent in between literal and figurative light and darkness. Shadow, the absence of light, so often serves to emphasize what is in the light, and in the emotions of the play.

“Retrospective I” is on display until Dec. 1 during the college’s business hours. The exhibit is free and open to the public. (Those within the college facilities are required to wear face coverings.)

The plays represented in the photo exhibit are:

  • “All My Sons.”

  • “Art.”

  • “Bill W. and Dr. Bob.”

  • “Boeing Boeing.”

  • “Church Basement Ladies.”

  • “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).”

  • “The Elephant Man.”

  • “A Few Good Men.”

  • “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.”

  • “Mamma Mia!”

  • “The Odd Couple.”

  • “Rumors.”

  • “Scotland Road.”

  • “Sh-Boom! (Life Could Be a Dream!)

  • “Talking With.”

  • “The Woman in Black.”

  • “Xanadu.”

  • “Young Frankenstein.”