David Allen’s ‘Ghost Light’ photos illuminate Bay Area actors

For his exhibit “Ghost Light,” performing arts photographer David Allen went old-school: He shot the 20 images of local professional actors in black and white (“for its timeless, ethereal quality,” he says) from a single light source, and all (except one) were not retouched.

The printed images, in a 44-inch by 80-inch format, are on display in the lobby of Z Space, each one “floating on the wall like a stage curtain,” as he described it.

The result is an extraordinarily evocative and revealing look at some of the Bay Area’s best actors, chosen from among the many he’s gotten to know over 25 years on the scene.

About 10 years ago, Allen — a photojournalist before he became the go-to photographer for actor headshots and publicity and production shots for just about every professional theater hereabouts — was wondering what he could do to give back to the theater community.

He was inspired by Irving Penn’s forced-perspective studio portraits of celebrities in the mid-20th century, whom the master photographer portrayed in unusual and evocative contexts.

Starting with actor Nora el Samahy, who was Allen’s impetus for embarking upon the project, he created — often in collaboration with the actors– mini-sets, or backgrounds, with minimal props, each clearly tailored to illuminate key personal qualities.

So, for example, for the playful, indeed joyful, picture of theater couple Michael Gene Sullivan and Velina Brown, Allen wanted to emphasize Sullivan’s playwriting skills, so he is posed amid a rainfall of scripts. Brown sits cross-legged on the floor in the foreground, playing a guitar, her face upturned, her eyes ecstatically closed, laughing.

Comic solo performer Josh Kornbluth, looking startled, painted himself into a corner — literally.

Actor/chanteuse Maureen McVerry is a vision of sexy, old-fashioned glamor.

A wild-eyed Dan Hiatt seems suspended in mid-air.

Dan Hiatt is among the actors pictured in “Ghost Light.” (Courtesy David Allen)

Only one setup was completely spontaneous: James Carpenter and Julian Lopez-Morillas arrived at Allen’s studio simultaneously for back-to-back appointments. “I didn’t know they were best friends!” says Allen. He and the actors composed an eerily dynamic two-person portrait.

Next to each portrait is a placard bearing the actor’s response to a few questions posed by Allen. The late, beloved actor-clown Joan Mankin, curls exploding from her head as if electrified, bowler hat in hand, described herself: “Outgoing. Weird. Loving. Searching. Funny.”

And one of the project’s earliest subjects, the theater community’s much-missed and gentlest spirit, Barbara Oliver, stands quietly in a corner, hand on chin, pensive, seeming to gaze into eternity.

Ghost Light
Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: Before performances Wednesday-Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons or by appointment; closes March 21
Admission: Free
Contact: www.zspace.org
Note: An artists’ reception is at 7 p.m. March 6.

Jean Schiffman

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