The Original Circle in the Square Photographers: An Interview with Justin and Barbara Kerr
Recently, the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the Library for the Performing Arts has digitized nearly 1500 photographs from its Circle in the Square Papers. These images provide a one-of-a-kind record of nearly all of the hundreds of productions mounted on the Circle’s round stage during its five-decade history. Founded in 1951 by producer Theodore Mann, director Jose Quintero, and others, the Circle in the Square became one of the key theaters in the Off-Broadway movement, which showcased newer talent and edgier fare than one could find in the Broadway houses uptown.
While securing permission to reproduce these photographs, I made a delightful discovery: that Justin and Barbara Kerr, who photographed the very first Circle in the Square production in 1951, still run a small photography studio in the Flatiron District. Married in 1950, the Kerrs have lived and worked together ever since.
The Kerrs photographed eight of the Circle in the Square’s earliest productions at its original 7 Sheridan Square location, including the historic revival of Summer and Smoke that first garnered critical attention for Circle and made a star of Geraldine Page. Eventually they moved into other areas of specialty, and by the 1970s were making a living out of what started as a hobby: photographing Pre-Columbian art and antiquities. Justin invented what he called a “rollout camera,” to capture the surfaces of vases and other cylindrical objects in two dimensions.
Recently, I asked the Kerrs to share their memories of the Circle in the Square and other aspects of their early years as photographers.
How did you get started as a photographer?
Justin: I had come back from the Army, and I put in a couple of semesters of NYU, uptown.
Barbara: He was a pre-med student.
Justin: There were a couple of photography schools at that point. One of them was called the School of Modern Photography, which was located on 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue. I enrolled there. I still had some GI Bill left, and that essentially paid for that. So that got me into photography.
Barbara: His father said, “You can’t just be a bum. You’ve got to go somewhere and go to school.” That was good advice.
Justin: We started a business over a pawn shop on 3rd Avenue near 59th Street. One day, who was it walked in? Buddy somebody.
Barbara: It was an actor, who said, can we take a picture?
Justin: A portrait. We had one of these little signs downstairs. And it turned out to be quite successful. And he showed it to some of his friends, and another actor arrived. So all of a sudden we were doing portraits. Trying to do some other things, but we really had no experience.
How did you happen to connect with Circle in the Square?
Barbara: We lived on Avenue C and 2nd Street. So we’d walk over and we’d be in the Village. We were always wandering around looking in store windows and whatever, and we saw the theatre.
Justin: If I remember correctly, we were wandering around Sheridan Square, and Circle in the Square had just started. And they didn’t have any photographs hanging outside. So we went in said we were photographers, and we’d like to make photographs of your productions. And we won’t charge anything. Because everything was kind of loose and easy in those days. And they said, “Fine, fine.” So we started to make pictures of their productions. And a number of the actors then came up to the studio, and we made portraits of them. That was for money. Not a lot of money, but some money!
How did you create the photographs of the play? Were they candid or staged?
Justin: When I was in photography school, one of the lecturers they brought in was Philippe Halsman. Philippe Halsman was one of the really super, super photographers. He did 200 Life covers. He talked about doing stage photography and that it was necessary to rearrange the actors in order to make photographs. Seeing them on stage was one thing —you could stand in the back and just shoot the whole stage.
Barbara: And you get a big black space with one actor here and one actor over there.
Justin: When we started to do the pictures at Circle in the Square, we were rearranging the staging. A number of the actors objected and said, “We don’t do it that way.”
Barbara: But we do!
Justin: We would say, “We don’t care if you do it that way.”
Barbara: But we’d always go to rehearsals first, and if we saw something that was possible to photograph that way, we’d do it. But if not, he would just rearrange the staging. You get a dramatic photograph when you bunch everybody up in the middle of the picture, instead of two little figures at the ends.
What did you think of Ted Mann?
Barbara: He was not an easy person to befriend. He was, I thought, a very closed-off person with just the theater as his interest. I didn’t find him very approachable.
Justin: I think we were closer to the actors. Even Jose Quintero was—well, the women, the girls, in the cast treated Jose like was some kind of a deity.
Barbara: I swear they’d wash his feet if he asked them to.
Justin: I remember somebody knitting—oh, he was knitting. He was a strange guy. Even the whole concept of this gang living in this co-op….
Barbara: Oh, yeah, they were living there. Probably illegally. But it was sort of a co-op, and as I understood it, any money that came in from the box office was sort of shared among the cast. Because they couldn’t pay them a salary or anything. So it was pretty tight living.
Justin: Then when Geraldine Page came on the scene, it was a revelation. The theater was sort of three-sided, and there was a pole in the middle of the stage which they couldn’t do anything about, you just had to live with it. I used to tell people that in Summer and Smoke, when she looks down into the river or whatever that scene was, people in the audience were leaning over to look at that river as well. That’s how she was able to carry it over. It was just marvelous.
Barbara, didn’t your father have an unusual influence on your photography? What was his profession?
Barbara: He was a movie projectionist. He showed movies in a theater, and he wanted Justin to go to their classes, take the exam, and he would get him into the union. He said, in case all else fails, you’ll have something to fall back on. Well, neither of us much felt like falling back on anything. My mother said, “Go to college, get a degree. You can always teach art.” Mmm, no. So anyway, Justin didn’t do the classes. When it came to taking the exam, he said, “I don’t want to do it. I don’t want something to fall back on.”
But my father used to bring us movie stills. When a movie closed, they took down all the stills, and he’d bring us bunches of them. We would study them for the lighting and the retouching. And I think we learned a lot. Hollywood lighting has always been incredible. Everybody looked so flawless.
Justin: We had literally hundreds of stills. Look at the back light, look at the hair light. Even some of the cheapest movies, there’s always this cucoloris of venetian blinds, shadow on the background. All of a sudden you’re in a room. Cheap way of making a set!
Why did you move on from the Circle after such a short time?
Justin: At some point in time, they made a connection with a publicity man named James L. Tuck. We became very, very friendly with Tuck himself, and he invited me to go on a trip to Colombia to cover [an] event. It was something to do with showing the freedom of the press in Colombia. Of course, when we got down there the presses were covered with tarps because everybody was in jail. It was a ridiculous situation. But it gave us another aspect of photography, which was publicity—the shaking of the hands and so on. I would get a call from some publicity man: Come to some nightclub and make a picture of two celebrities and so forth.
In those days, for five dollars or ten dollars, I would go anywhere to make a picture. I had one assignment, in the winter, every Sunday night, I would be standing on Pier 1 down at the Battery. Bitter cold. It was four by five cameras in those days, a big box of stuff. A fishing boat would come by and pick me up, put me on the deck, and I would make a photograph of the person that caught the biggest codfish of the week. And for that we got five bucks.
Barbara: That was a big part of our income, that five dollars.
Justin: At the end of the fishing season, we were also invited to the dinner, when they gave the award. That was part of the deal. So there was all kinds of things. Barbara found a space on 46th Street, just off Times Square. It was across the street from one of the top, top, top theatrical photographers, James J. Kriegsmann Studio. And we couldn’t really compete with James J. Kriegsmann.
Barbara: We enjoyed it because those were all our friends now, the theater people.
Justin: We played charades every Friday night. Everybody was a wannabe. But at the time, New York was the center of television commercials, and they were live. So all of these young people needed photographs, going around from agents to agents, handing out these composites of four pictures on a page.
Barbara: Sad, mad, glad, and angry.
Justin: Every once in a while somebody would get a walk-on. “My goodness, I have two lines! It’s great!” And then they could join AFTRA or SAG, and they were on their way. And it was great fun. Everybody was very, very young.
Barbara: And broke.
Justin: We realized that we weren’t getting anywhere financially, so we started to look for other things. Some advertising, and a lot of editorial work for mostly teenage magazines. Ingenue, Teen, and American Girl.
Barbara: We fell into that category in a way because we were a couple, and models were always very young. It was sort of a safer milieu to have a husband and wife, and a woman available. Also, I did all the hair and makeup.
They figured the two of you weren’t perverts.
Barbara: Right, exactly. Because photographers had a really bad reputation, and these kids, they don’t know. They’d walk around the city and go see anybody that looked at them. So we sort of became specialists in that area. Ingenue, every month, we did a makeover. They would bring in some poor benighted kid with pimples or something, and by the time I did her makeup—I did theatrical makeup, so it was good for photography; she couldn’t go out in the street like that—but by the time we did the makeup and the hair, she was like a different person. And I gave her a nice outfit to wear. And she was strutting, she became something else. Which was really nice to see.
Justin: Teen magazine, we did thirty-six national covers in a row. There were so many photographers around town who wanted to break into Teen, and they just couldn’t. We had it absolutely locked up, because Barbara was so important to doing those spreads with them, working with the kids and so on.
Barbara: We did a lot of department store catalogs and stuff like that afterwards. I became a stylist, he was the photographer. Between us we worked very, very hard.
Justin: And it’s now thirty-eight years that we decided that we were going to try to make a living strictly from photographing antiquities, with essentially art galleries as our clients. That’s when we moved here, with the idea that we would cut down on overheard.
Barbara: My fantasy was to live in back of the store, so here we are. We got exactly what I wanted. When I was in school, we would say, “When we get out, we should open a shop and do our own designs.” We were all design students; I went to Pratt. I thought, “Ah, not me, I want to get a job. I want my weekends free. I want to know there’s a paycheck at the end of it. Not interested.” So, what was the first thing we did when I got out of school? We started a business. After that I never had a job again. Since 1950, I’ve never had a job.