By Annette Hinkle
Sometimes, the best way to shine a light on a groundbreaking project is to approach it through a historic lens. It’s certainly a philosophy that fine art photographer Josh Lehrer has embraced in his work in recent years in a very literal sense.
Back in 2007, Lehrer, a part-time Sagaponack resident, dedicated himself to an intensive photography project in which he documented “In the Heights,” a musical by a then-unknown composer, actor, singer, rapper, producer and playwright named Lin-Manuel Miranda. At the time, the production was heading for Broadway, so Lehrer, who had sat in on an early reading of the script, offered to photograph the team as it prepared for its debut at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
“I thought it was beautiful, tender and smart, and I loved the idea of blending Broadway with hip-hop,” Lehrer said of the musical. “I asked if I could photo-document the process. I got to know everyone and I stayed and stayed and stayed. I became a fly on the wall. They got so used to having me around, I was part of the wallpaper. I got a shit-ton of pictures that weren’t posed or planned and were spontaneous and great.”
Fast-forward six years to the summer of 2013. That’s when Lehrer was invited to Vassar College to see a workshop of the first act of Miranda’s newest musical — a contemporary retelling of the story of the Founding Fathers through the figure of Alexander Hamilton.
“They were at music stands and had scripts in their hand and it was, like, mind-blowingly amazing,” Lehrer recalled. “I said to Lin, ‘You’ve made a promise here that will be a tough one to deliver on.’
“He said, ‘I know.’”
But deliver on it he did, and today, Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical” is one of the most successful shows in Broadway history with productions not just in New York, but around the world and, most recently, available on Disney+.
Back in 2015, when “Hamilton” was newly hatched and just finding its feet at the Public Theater in Lower Manhattan, Miranda asked Lehrer to photograph the project, just as he had for “In the Heights.” Though Lehrer was then too busy to dedicate the time he would have needed to take on the project, he came up with another idea instead — to document the cast of “Hamilton” using a vintage 1840s Petzval lens that dates back to the earliest days of photography itself.
The results of his efforts are now on full display in “Hamilton: Portraits of the Revolution,” a newly released hardcover book published by Rizzoli New York. On Friday, July 24, at 6 p.m., Keyes Art Gallery of Sag Harbor will host an evening with Lehrer to celebrate the publication of the book, which includes more than 100 portraits of cast members from various “Hamilton” productions from around the country and abroad, including Miranda (Alexander Hamilton), Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Daveed Diggs (Lafayette), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Schuyler Hamilton), and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler). The book also includes personal commentary by Lehrer about the show’s cultural and personal impact and contributions by Miranda and the show’s original director, Thomas Kail, as well as portraits of some of the historical figures who served as the inspiration for the stage characters.
Like the subject material of the play itself, Lehrer’s photographs evoke an earlier era and have an antique and historical feel to them. As Lehrer wrote in his essay for the book, “Everyone knew that something special was happening with ‘Hamilton.’ It forces audiences to see the nation’s development and the world from an unexpected, even subversive, perspective. I wanted to use a camera that could somehow reflect that unique perspective.”
In fact, Lehrer shot the project with a 1944 Speed Graflex, the same sort of camera used by the photojournalist Weegee when he documented New York in the mid-20th century.
“I got that camera because what I wanted was the lens,” Lehrer explained. “I had taken several antique lens classes because that’s the kind of dork I am.”
Those classes were taught by Geoffrey Berliner of the New York City-based Penumbra Foundation, a nonprofit photography organization, and Berliner appreciated the fact that Lehrer was one of the few photographers interested in using the Petzval lens to shoot something other than Civil War reenactments. Notably, in 2008, Lehrer used the lens to create “Becoming Visible,” a photography project in which he documented homeless transgender teens.
“Geoffrey was so excited that I wanted to use the lens and apply it to a contemporary subject,” Lehrer said. “There’s nothing more contemporary than transgender homeless teens, so Geoffrey, in his generosity, gave me that lens.”
It was that same lens — affixed to the Speed Graflex camera — which Lehrer also used to shoot the cast members of “Hamilton.” Given the historic nature of both the camera and the play’s subject matter, it seemed a most logical choice. After all, as Miranda himself points out in his foreword for Lehrer’s book, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s widow, was still alive when the Petzval lens was invented.
But Lehrer explained that, despite its historic legacy, it’s a difficult lens to use. Not only is the Petzval very slow, it also requires an incredible amount of light. That meant that during the first photo sessions with the cast at the Public Theater back in 2015, right before the show went to Broadway, the actors had to stand very still under incredibly hot lights.
“Sometimes I had to say, ‘Step to the side, your wig is smoking,’” recalled Lehrer. “I was getting 1/30th of a second exposure time with massive amounts of light. Nobody works that slowly anymore. I had to throw a black cloth over my head and use a magnifying glass to focus and they had to stand very still.”
“The setup would take forever and I was done in two frames. Once I got them developed and printed, I thought this is so cool,” said Lehrer, who printed the photos using the contemporary silver gelatin method. “There’s no way to make a picture with this camera and not have it look like a very antique photo. This lens has extreme focus fall off — if the eyes are in focus the ears are out of focus — so they had to be so still.
“But this result on photo paper using silver gelatin and the antique look is spectacular.”
Lehrer found that the technique also worked beautifully with the subjects, and he makes special note of the work of “Hamilton’s” costume designer Paul Tazewell who created meticulously detailed outfits for the cast. Just as early portrait photography was often how people would preserve evidence of their prized possessions or finest clothing, so, too, Lehrer found that the Petzval lens captured the intricate beauty of Tazewell’s designs.
“One of his costumes is on stage for, like, a minute, but it’s so detailed and tremendously gorgeous,” Lehrer said. “The handmade lace, the cuffs and ruffles. It’s clear when you see it that with that kind of attention to detail, they asked me to bring my A game to the project.”
Of course, “Hamilton” became an immediate sensation when it went to Broadway in 2015, and some of the shots that Lehrer took of the original “Hamilton” cast members were picked up by Rizzoli for use as a 2016 wall calendar. It turned out to be the best-selling calendar of all time for the publisher, so he was asked to make another one the following year, and another the year after that.
“What made it fun for me, after the success of that first calendar the actors really wanted to participate and they wanted their participation in that show to be memorialized in some way,” said Lehrer, who became very creative in finding poses for the cast members — sometimes even having fellow actors leaping in a blur in the background. “It became a rite of passage to be shot by me in this way. It meant you’re really in the cast.”
In addition to calendars, the “Hamilton” photographs were featured in two exhibitions — one at the Public Theater in Manhattan, where they sold out immediately, and another at the Diane Rosenstein Gallery in Los Angeles to coincide with a production of the musical there. When Rizzoli proposed Lehrer create a book of “Hamilton” photos, he began visiting various cities to shoot additional actors in touring companies and productions outside New York — no easy feat. Also not easy, shooting on film, as Lehrer does, using historic equipment.
“Since the advent of digital photography, this process has become outrageously expensive — the film, the developing, the printing, the chemicals,” Lehrer said. “When I started, it was 50 cents for a 4-inch-by-5-inch piece of film — the same sheet today is $5 and Ilford and Kodak are the only two companies making it.”
While some might wonder why Lehrer doesn’t change his methods and digitally instead, the fact of the matter is, for Lehrer, it’s about quality.
“I know looking at images side by side, film is still better. It has more of a textural quality and a greater range of tone between black and white. It feels more authentic,” he said. “I was insistent I keep using film. It’s crazy and time consuming — it takes eight to 10 days to get it back. No commercial client will wait that long. They want it right now.”
But as Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Founding Fathers themselves realized in the creation of this country, sometimes you have to be in it for the long haul.
Keyes Art Gallery is at 45 Main Street in Sag Harbor. The celebration for Josh Lehrer’s “Hamilton: Portraits of the Revolution,” begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 24. In addition to the book signing, a selection of framed, signed portraits from the book will available for sale. All COVID-19 safety protocols will be in effect. For more information, visit juliekeyesart.com.