The Revival of Camelot Session
My only instructions from the publicist for the 1980 Richard Burton shoot were: Mr. Burton will arrive at 1:00 pm and expects to be finished by 3:00 pm. He is appearing in the revival of Camelot. Get a sword. Get a crown. Be creative.
I had never been to the block-long Western Costume Warehouse on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. Each of the twelve floors was organized by period and theme. I headed for the medieval floor. There were rows of dummies in full armor, swords of every length and shape, and strange weapons of ancient warfare that conjured visions of bloody Arthurian battles. I felt brave and heroic just standing there. I chose a chain maille shirt, three swords of various sizes, a shiny helmet and an open crown.
Several prospective Broadway backers of the American revival tour of Lerner and Lowes Camelot were in town to meet Richard Burton. It was their first opportunity to see the legendary talent and I felt honored that they would choose my studio to meet the Tony Award winner. Burtons representative was more than cordial to the distinguished theatre impresarios. It was 1:00 pm and everyone and everything was ready.
At 3:00 pm, while the representative was in the midst of another excuse for Burtons tardiness, we heard a tremendous pounding at the front door. There stood the obviously angry Welshman. His blue eyes were popping from his beet-red face. He directed his power of concentration to the producers. You bastards, he yelled, had the audacity not to hire a car for me.
The quarter-acre size studio shook. His instant supremacy over the situation created embarrassment and fear among the ranks. I wasnt sure if Burtons tirade was legitimate or was done for effect. When I saw his fingers curled into claws, I thought I should take control. I extended my hand to introduce myself and calm the situation.
I drew him into the dressing room while he muttered, This is no way to begin a relationship. They really should have sent a car. He began applying his own make-up as I tried to establish a rapport.
You just get ready behind the camera, he told me. Tell me where my mark is and when to begin.
His transformation into Arthur The Warrior began when he stepped into the chain maille shirt. With his chin set, he strode to the center of the studio. He was Arthur, the unrelenting. There was no retreat. He asked Are you ready, Harry? I glanced at the dumbstruck dignitaries.
Ready Mr. Burton.
He held his sword erect, and turning his face upward as if to address the first balcony, he slowly and convincingly began reciting his kingly mission.
And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings and an earthquake.
We were speechless at the performance. I shot fast to capture the energy of this recitation of Revelations 8:5. Even though I was out of film, I continued to activate the flash mechanism until this performance was finished. The walls were still ringing with his voice.
Frank Rich in the New York Times wrote, Burton doesnt merely command the stage, he seems to own it by divine right.
I knew what he meant.
Technical Notes: I used a Hasselblad EL with a 70mm. Film back with TriX B&W film. This enables the photographer to shoot about 65 shots without having to reload. I used a 150mm. Lens creates very little facial distortion. This length of lens is the opposite of a wide angle lens and brings in the subject close without invading his intimate zone . I kept the Camera on a studio stand to free me from being behind the view finder and I became a audience of one for Mr. Burton
Lighting was with Ascor strobes with a special polished on my Key lite to achieve that theatrical stage lighting look. That lighting brought out Mr. Burtons bone structure and creates a Heroic presence that was appropriate for the role.
I kept the background dark and ominous, which also enhanced the subject and helped achieve that medieval, dramatic mood.
© 2004 Harry Langdon and Sheryl Turner.
All Rights Reserved