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BWW Feature: ATLANTA DARK THEATER PROJECT as seen through the lens of Michael Boatright

In the midst of the pandemic, Michael Boatright's work highlights Atlanta's empty theater spaces.

BWW Feature: ATLANTA DARK THEATER PROJECT as seen through the lens of Michael BoatrightPhotographer Michael Boatright captured the stark reality of the effects the pandemic has had on Atlanta's theaters. While area theaters have been able to become more creative with their content to survive, most houses remain dark. To see Michael's work on this project, click https://www.michaelboatright.com/special-projects/dark-houses-atlanta/

Tell me about your background and what led you to become a photographer?

Storytelling is my passion. Throughout my life, I have constantly sought to explore innovative ways of telling the human story by utilizing traditional and emerging digital visual, audio and print technologies and creating commercial techniques that allow magic to flourish. Most recently, I have been telling the story of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Atlanta performing arts community through my Dark Houses Atlanta Project, making and publishing photographs of 33 of Atlanta's dark theaters.

My relationship with photography began at age 12, when my dad, a professional photographer for many years, taught me camera and darkroom techniques. In the early 1990's, working for IBM, I began experimenting with and developing techniques in digital multimedia storytelling, using emerging A/V hardware and software and Internet technologies. With IBM I led multimedia projects for the 1994 Lillehammer and 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Disney's Epcot Center, the World Golf Hall of Fame, the Masters Tournament (engineering the first live scoring application for a professional golf tournament) and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Since 2000, I have worked on digital media projects for the British Broadcasting Company and AT&T, opening my own photography studio in 2014.

Theater, Dance and Music are my passion. My professional portfolio includes work for DramaTech Theater, Theatrical Outfit, Out of Hand Theater, the Sideways Contemporary Dance Company, Gwinnett Ballet, Bodies In Motion Dance Company and professional work for many Atlanta musicians and groups. My Fine Art Projects include landscape photography on four continents and abstract impressions of real-life subjects. Corporate clients include the J. Walter Thompson Agency, Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Institute of Technology and many Atlanta small businesses.

From 35 years in corporate technology management, I learned the value that professional certification brings to my customers, who can expect from me a solid baseline of experience, creativity and technical expertise in creating the images important to their needs, as I have received the Certified Professional Photographer title by the Professional Photographers of America (founded in 1858, it is the oldest photography trade group and only certifying body for professional photography).

Based in the Metro Atlanta Area, I specialize in People, Commercial and Fine Art Photography and my studio is located in the TULA Arts Center in Atlanta's Buckhead Arts District. I serve as Ethics Chair on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Professional Photographers Association and as President of the SE Photographic Society (2 years), as a board member (8 years) and am sought-after as a competition judge by Atlanta area photography groups.

How did you get involved in photographing theater?

I have been involved in the theater almost my entire life. My mother acted in community theater and I was a member of Drama Club growing up (my last acting performance with lines was in the role of Lane the butler in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Jonesboro Sr. High School in 1976).

I began photographing theatre and dance when my daughter started acting in pre-kindergarten and through high school (photographing most of her 119 productions!) and into her college years (she studied theatrical costume design at NYU Tisch). I shot for the Sideways Contemporary Dance Company in Roswell for seven seasons and am in my seventh season with DramaTech Theatre Company (the oldest continuously running theatre company in the southeast, now in their 73th season).

My wife and I have been patrons of Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta for over 20 years, and I have worked on a variety of photographic projects for them.

Recently, I started doing stills and videography for the Bodies In Motion dance project.

How did you develop the idea for The Dark Theater Project and how has it impacted the Atlanta Arts Community?

Many of my professional peers have been working on projects to keep their skills honed during the pandemic, but I was most inspired by a friend of mine who photographed nurses, doctors, EMTs, and other frontline workers in Valdosta.

I honor the creative space in my studio by meditating every day when I come in to do work and the thought of doing this project came to me in a meditation at the beginning of July to "Go photograph the ghost lights--the dark houses." The message was a clear as the sound of a Tibetan bell.

The goal of this project has been make photographs of Atlanta stages that have gone dark-in the state that they were left when lockdowns forced the houses to close-in order to bring awareness that because theater is a live art-form, performers, stagehands and craftspeople basically cannot work and they and their companies/communities/houses need help as well. While theater has survived many plagues, social unrest and economic crises in its 2,500 years, it will need community help to survive all three at the same time.

Visualizing the need to those not directly impacted by theaters being closed has helped make other efforts more effective, and in particular, some of the photographs from this project were used by the Save Georgia Stages Project-part of the national Save Our Stages movement-to produce a video appeal to congressional leaders for support of the Save Our Stages Act, which passed as part of the omnibus Covid Relief Bill in December, 2020.

How has this pandemic affected you as an artist.

The pandemic has all but shut down much of the professional photography industry. As a result, in order to stay in business, most professional photographers have had to make significant pivots, since many of the ways in which we used to do business were significantly impacted by lockdowns, safety and economic concerns. Most of us have take the pause in our industry to learn new skills or explore new ways of telling stories.

As an artist, however, I feel like I have flourished ant that this has been one of my most prolific periods. I didn't expect it starting out, but my Dark Houses project represents one of my largest bodies of work, and some of my best photography. Through that project, I made a number of other artistic connections that I'm not sure ever would have happened were it not for the pandemic. In particular, through it, I became involved with the DanceATL "A.M. Collaborative" project, and have been collaborating with Atlanta Ballet Dancer Keith Reeves and his Bodies In Motion project, which has taken my storytelling to a whole new level. Through that collaboration, I have been working on producing a documentary photo/video story on Bodies In Motion's outdoor dance performance--one of the first performances of any kind in the world of Covid--last fall. This piece will be released next month through this DanceATL collaboration.

What creative ways have you found to overcome the obstacles presented by the pandemic?

I have been fortunate that I have been able to work in-studio, albeit alone, safely throughout the pandemic. This has allowed me to spend extended time working on several projects, the two most important being the Dark Houses and DanceATL A.M. Collaborative projects. In addition, I have continued to work with DramaTech theater, helping with some technical production as they piviot to primarily on-line performances (sadly, my production archive photography has been limited to doing screen grabs, although, I came to realize that that, too, was an important part of telling the theater story during this crazy time).

Early in the spring, I did a series of Covid-safe, socially distanced "porch portraits" for my neighbors, as just a way of keeping up my skills. One of my elderly neighbors passed away just after Christmas, and I was grateful that I had gotten the opportunity to photograph the couple back in May, before his health deteriorated.

I've also been exploring some really cool video projects using video rotoscoping, taking a video piece and reimagining and recreating it as a moving painting, for example, a video of ocean waves, as they might have been painted as a moving picture by Van Gogh.

What do you have planned for the future?

I am still mulling as to where to take the Dark Houses of Atlanta project moving forward. Even though the Save Out Stages Act set aside $15B for theaters, that money hasn't yet started flowing, and even then, it's not safe to put actors in front of large audiences (needed to sustain theaters, actors, stagehands and craftspeople), so the story is going to need to keep being told, at least for a while. Plus, this has been an historical moment in Atlanta theater (and in fact, possibly one of the largest photographic survey of Atlanta theaters ever), so I hope to be able to document this in a way that will outlive the on-line work, through print and other storytelling.

For my business, I have been exploring alternate processes (primarily, print and digital imaging and video) as they say in marketing, it's not about being better, it's about being different!


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