Boards that signify the world – Salzburg Festival Robert Mertens and Heidi Simon share their images behind the Salzburg Festival

Shortly before Christmas 2014, Mrs. Rehn-Kaufmann asked us whether we were interested in photographing Salzburg Festival backstage and inside their studios. Six months later, we find ourselves at the Grosses Festspielhaus (Main Festival Hall) in Salzburg and experience our first tour of areas which hardly anyone outside the festival ever gets to see. The stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus being 100 meters wide and 25 meters long is among the largest stages in the world. It is extremely hot for Salzburg and no daylight reaches the galleries which offer a view straight down to the stage – yet the sun is almost sensible as it beats down on the roof. 

After the first insight into what we can expect from this exhibition project, we opted for a very special image concept. We will be two photographers using two, and only two cameras (a Leica MP and a Leica Q) with two focal lengths only (Summilux 28 and 35 mm) – and most importantly: We will combine each image of two photos to show the viewer a new, broader perspective on the subject.

We have been experimenting with the concept of image pairs for some time and we are thrilled that we now have an opportunity to put our ideas into a concrete project again. The goal is to photograph each subject a second time with an alternative perspective. The difficulty: Both images are supposed to work well together in the final presentation and at the same time expand the visual message to the viewer. This results in a change of perspective that allow a complex and intensive insight into what is happening. The combined images tell their own story –  a story that goes far beyond the individual image itself.

In the coming days, we are exposing several thousand images of which we will ultimately pick out 48 image pairs. All of that for an exhibition in the foyer of the Grosses Festspielhaus during the season in the summer of 2016. Many thousands of visitors will be given a look behind the scenes of the stages and workshops of Salzburg Festival. 

Shooting during the numerous rehearsals and preparations, the rush, the stress and the dynamics can be felt firsthand. Hardly anyone has time for us, everything has to be done quickly because the festival begins in just a few weeks. We take pictures in many different studios – from the scene painter’s loft to the carpentry shop, the model making to the locksmith’s shop. And of course, behind the three stages of the Grosses Festspielhaus, the House for Mozart and at “Felsenreitschule” (literally “rock riding school”) as well. Some of the subjects will only be photographic subjects for a short moment – and they arise spontaneously out of the situation. Deliberately, nothing is staged for the photos, but we photograph during the everyday routine and only with the available light.

It soon becomes clear to us that we want to accurately visualize this dynamic bustle in our images. We opt for the deliberate use of abstract blur and motion blur –  and avoid having recognizable faces of the employees in the pictures as quickly turned out that hardly anyone wants to be identified on the exhibited photos.

In the two weeks that we photograph we see wonderful scenes. At Felsenreitschule, the movable roof opens up for a few minutes and we slowly and carefully make our way to the wall of rock at the end of the catwalk because we were promised a fantastic view from there. Indeed: You can see the fortress high above Salzburg from here – but a few moments later, the roof closes again because the lighting rehearsal for “Mack the Knife” is about to begin and the stage needs to be dark again.

In general, the lack of light often is one of the biggest challenges … on the other hand, it enables us to accomplish our concept of motion blur ideally.

In addition to the motion blur, we opted for a graphical and partly abstract imagery. Many of the photos are kept in dynamic black and white, and additional structures will be put on many of the pictures to visualize the atmosphere backstage even more intensely.

Only one pair of images shows a situation during an opera night. It’s the final bow of all actors on the red carpet after the performance of the opera “Fidelio” with Jonas Kaufmann. What happens next has to be seen live to fully grasp the situation: seconds after the final curtain draws, the stage is dismantled completely … walls move … new elements get lifted out of the stage floor and the chandelier is pushed aside with a huge chassis.

The enormous speed of the scenes, the precision of each action, the professional way of working despite the greatest time pressure – all of that greatly impressed us. Making the dynamics of it perceptible and showing the people who work backstage with some of the big names in opera and theater before, during and after the show is what these pictures are supposed to show.

To find out more about Robert Mertens and Heidi Simon, please visit their official website.

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