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Setting the stage: Playwright finds inspiration in smartphone photographs

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We are kicking off a new Connect series featuring people in professions other than photography who incorporate mobile photography into their creative process. For the first feature of this new series, Misho Baranovic talks to New York playwright and screenwriter Sean Pomposello on how mobile photography helps him find characters and stories for the stage.

Most street photographers wander through cities on the hunt for what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment,” wanting to capture a complete scene, which is then printed, framed and admired on the wall. For Sean Pomposello, a playwright and screenwriter living in New York City, the act of taking the photograph is only the first step on his creative journey. For Pomposello, the “decisive moment” is more like a creative spark, from which he then develops the basis of characters and plotlines for his playscripts.

Shirtless in Washington Square, image by Sean Pomposello.

Pomposello has been a writer most of his life. He began crafting shorts and one-act plays, before submitting his work to festivals and writing full-length scripts for the stage. His plays have been staged in and around Broadway, including at Theater for the New City, Naked Angels, The Impact Theater, The Strand Theatre, and many more. He is a recognised screenwriter, former writer for U.S. cable network HBO, and Madison Avenue “ad guy.”

And he is also a keen amateur photographer. For a long time he shot mainly using analogue cameras and film—his dad found an old Leica M3 in the back of a New York cab, and Pomposello taught himself and his dad how to use it—and was reluctant to use his iPhone for photography. However, he soon began to notice the “intimacy” the mobile device encouraged between himself and his subjects, and says that using the iPhone has given him “a lot of latitude to capture someone absolutely at ease, in their own environment.”

Girl in Sunglasses, image by Sean Pomposello.

Pomposello’s background in film photography comes through in his iPhone street photographs, echoing the work of classic street photographers, including Vivian Maier or Joel Meyerowitz, who stalked the streets of New York during the 1950s and 60s. He credits the unobtrusiveness of the iPhone for the “authenticity” of his images. With the iPhone, he says, “I can get right on top of somebody and they’re at ease. I never liked somebody knowing that I had a camera in my hands.” He adds, “I don’t want to interrupt the life of the person I shoot … I want to keep it as authentic as I can.  It’s what I do in my writing, I want things to be as sincere as possible and the device gives me that opportunity.” 

The Pedestrian, image by Sean Pomposello.

Moreover, it happens that his iPhone is always with him on his daily commute, when he gathers inspiration from the streets for his playwriting. Asked how he incorporates photography into his writing process, Pomposello notes that the two are symbiotic: “Whether [photography] informs my writing or whether my writing informs it, there’s sort of relationship between the two that is very equal.”

“If I’m stuck when writing,” he said, “the act of photographing a subject will open things up for me a little bit and allow me some latitude to explore a little bit more.”

Pomposello uses his camera to photograph the city streets as “stimulus” or support for his writing. As a playwright, he says, his main interest is characters, and photography is an ideal way to document interesting people on the streets that may later inform characters in his stories. He uses photography, therefore, to capture ideas for setting, costuming, characterisation and mannerisms—in other words, an authentic sense of place and personality in his writing. 

Describing a typical day in his creative process, Pomposello says that walking through the avenues of Manhattan uncovers a “goldmine” of inspiration. He writes in the early morning before work, and then snaps photos as he paces the streets: “Even if I have a gig and it’s a 30-block walk from my station, I’ll always take my phone and be on foot, versus taking the subway. I pace different routes and ‘mine’ that one avenue for a while, and when I start running out of stories, I’ll move onto the next.”

Stretch, image by Sean Pomposello.

Most of Pomposello’s photographs are taken to the west of Manhattan, in the area called Hell’s Kitchen.  He explains that Hell’s Kitchen is one of the last parts of Manhattan that is yet to be thoroughly “gentrified”: “No one has really got in there and torn down buildings and built them up as skyscrapers.” He describes the inhabitants of Hell’s Kitchen as “longtime New Yorkers,” and says that the character of the area, one the last bastions of a bygone New York, has influenced his writing style.

“A lot of my writing, people read and say, it’s as though someone from a generation ago wrote it,” he said. “It’s the same thing with my photographs, maybe because I work in black and white, I happen to capture people that are stuck in an era a generation ago, or two generations ago.”

It’s the humidity, image by Sean Pomposello.
Stoop, image by Sean Pomposello.

Hell’s Kitchen, and one photograph in particular, sparked the development of one of Pomposello’s recent plays. Titled The Woodpusher, the play is set in Bryant Park and explores the world of “chess hustling.” Pomposello describes how the seed for this play was planted: “I had been an avid chess player for a number of years. So I started photographing the chess games inside Bryant Park, Washington Square, the Village … I took a photograph of a boy, a very, very bored looking boy in Washington Park, leaning on the chess board while everyone plays around him … And it struck me that it would be interesting if this boy was a prodigy of some sort and could actually play these hustlers who hustle the rest of for our dollars,” he says. “I don’t want to give away the ending.  But it all really began as the little seed of the drowsy boy on the chess table.”

 Tired of Chess, image by Sean Pomposello.

While writing the play, Pomposello returned again and again to the chess tables of Washington Square to take more photographs and aid the development of the characters in his stories. This process of observation through photography helped him get a sense for how the locals speak, their use of lingo, and the rhythm of their dialogue.

“I overheard some of them talking about this character ‘Baby Wipes’, or this character known as ‘Cream Two Sugars’.” Adapting these and other linguistic details from the streets in his writing, the play “begins to have a true, authentic feel.”

Blitz, image by Sean Pomposello.

In contrast to his writing, Pomposello points that for a long time he has mostly kept his photography to himself.  He has only recently started to use the photo-sharing site Flickr to share his street photographs with peers.  He explains the motivation behind this step:  “Essentially, I started doing a lot more street photography because I was writing about street subjects.  And in fact that’s a thread that works through my plays and it makes sense that there would be a common sweet spot between photography and my drama.”

Pomposello’s latest play, Barbicide, a story about a barber, the mob, coincidence and fate, played at the historic Player’s Theatre in New York City this past October. His play The Woodpusher will be performed by The Chronicle Playwright Coalition Lab in 2013, also in New York City.

You can more of Pomposello’s photography on his Flickr site.


Misho Baranovic@mishobaranovic, has worked as a photographer for many years and is prominent in the emerging practice of mobile photography. His street photography has been exhibited internationally and in 2011 he held his first solo exhibition, New Melbourne, in Melbourne, Australia. He is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group, and the author of iPhone Photography.

Comments

Total comments: 3
Nishi Drew

B&W works great with those smart phones, has that classic snapshot feel. Though, the digital smearing and over sharpening that causes hard outlined edges get's annoying... but good street shots regardless

1 upvote
ryanshoots

Interesting article. Thanks. Some good photos on the Flickr stream as well.

1 upvote
Mishobaranovic

Thanks Ryan, glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, Sean continues to shoot the lights out in New York.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 3
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