“The Cartier-Bresson of theatre photographers” is how he was defined by Terry Hands, the famous theatre director who for thirteen years directed the Royal Shakespeare Company.
And to think that Ivan Kyncl became a photographer almost by chance. He arrived in London at 27 years of age from what was then Czechoslovakia with just a camera in his bag and without knowing a world of English. From there he went a long way.
The son of the Czech dissident journalist Karel Kyncl, arrested when the Soviet tanks invaded Prague in 1968, Ivan was not able to attend university. He therefore enrolled in a photography course which allowed him to earn a living shooting commercial photographs.
Beaten and arrested by the Communist secret police on various occasions, Kyncl was nonetheless able to immortalize that terrible period (and to smuggle his shots out of Czechoslovakia ) , photographing the lives of the members of Charter 77 and the main players of the “Velvet Revolution” which led to the destruction of the Czech Communist regime and the election in 1989 of Václav Havel as president of the new Czech Republic.
Ivan was granted political asylum in Great Britain. And a chance encounter with Harold Pinter opened wide before him the doors of British theatres. It was 1984 and Harold hired him to take photos of “One for the road” being performed at London’s Lyric Hammersmith. It was the start of a fruitful collaboration…
From then on Ivan captured over 500 of the greatest theatrical performaces of the 20th century with his camera, collaborating with the most important theatres of the United Kingdom – the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, the Barbican Centre and The Almeida – and alongside directors such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tom Stoppard. Known for his experimental approach to theatrical photography to which he was able to confer amazing dynamism, he was an assiduous worker: he would take photographs at evening performances, develop them during the night and have them ready by morning.
Today, 15 years from his death, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is dedicating a retrospective to him, “Ivan Kyncl: In the Minute”: 60 black and white photos portraying a piece of the history of theatre and its great protagonists including, of course, Harold Pinter.