If you’ve seen photography for nearly any theater or opera production in Dallas, you’ve likely seen the work of photographer Karen Almond. The Arlington native has shot scores of production photos for theaters in Dallas. She cut her teeth on weddings and portraits before landing solidly with the performing arts.
Almond grew up in an artsy home with a dad who made sure his four children were as enamored with the arts as he was. That early appreciation became second nature to Almond. Now, she only shoots theater and opera, working in Dallas and all over the country.
She is the production photographer for The Dallas Opera, Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Children’s Theater. She has covered productions for LA Opera, San Diego Opera, Portland Opera, Kansas City Lyric Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Fort Worth Opera, San Antonio Opera, and Houston’s Alley Theatre. She also shoots for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she will return this season alongside her mentor Ken Howard.
How did you get your start as a photographer?
I had a father who had a great appreciation for classical music and art. He bought us a baby grand piano, and of the four kids, I was the one who got hooked on it. I took piano lessons well into college and bought season tickets to the Fort Worth Symphony as a college student. As a child, my favorite subject in school was always art class. My dad dabbled in oil painting and became friends with a very eccentric Dutch oil painter named Dirk Van Driest.
Wow. What was that about?
Van Driest was born in 1889 and lived in Taos, New Mexico. He would come and stay with my family for a couple of weeks at a time. Over the years, to show his appreciation for my parents’ hospitality, he would paint an oil portrait of one of us. We were allowed to watch him work, and as a result, we came to appreciate the smell of paint and turpentine as a childhood memory. My sister Andrea and brother Chase are both accomplished painters now. Van Driest lived to celebrate his 100th birthday and was a rich and colorful influence until my early 20s. This experience nurtured my curiosity and fascination with foreign languages and cultures and planted the seed for my love of travel and meeting new people.
Did you always have a knack for this? How did you discover your talent?
In high school, I became interested in photography and spent many hours in the darkroom on the yearbook staff. Photography was my major in college, with a minor in German. After a brief stint as a photojournalist at the local newspaper, I got a job as a photographer’s assistant at an ad agency for a couple of years. But my third passion, theology, took me on a detour from my interest in photography and music.
In my mid-20s, I went to grad school to study theology at Regent College on the UBC campus in Vancouver, B.C. There, I met students and professors from all over the world with a huge variety of backgrounds and cultures. It was an exciting and formative time for my own spiritual development, as I have always been a seeker. I made lasting friendships and traveled across Canada in those two years, but eventually returned to Texas.
My photography career began in earnest when I was hired by Gittings, a very reputable family-owned portrait studio established in 1928. After three years there as a photographer, at the age of 30, I started my own portrait and wedding photography business and got married. I loved the work and my clients, but after having a child, I phased out the weddings and concentrated on portraits. Everything rocked along until the digital revolution caught us all by surprise. Fortunately, I was already feeling restless to learn something new.
How did you transition to shooting performing arts?
My first experience with opera was shooting Hansel and Gretel with a film camera for The Dallas Opera in 1996 in collaboration with my friend Juli Brown, who planned to write a children’s book about opera. I was completely blown away by the drama and music and the staging. I found opera to be the mother of all entertainment.
Even though the book project never got off the ground, I was now an experienced opera photographer when I talked to the Dallas Opera a few years later about shooting their 2003-04 season. Based on the small set of Hansel and Gretel photos, they offered me the chance to shoot as a trade for season tickets. As I walked out the door, Suzanne Calvin, director of PR, said, “Oh and by the way ... you do shoot digital, don’t you?”
Having never picked up a digital camera, I prophesied and answered, “Yes, of course!” I quickly borrowed a digital Nikon camera from a friend and showed up that week to shoot Carmen. In retrospect, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was completely hooked by the experience and knew it was the beginning of my next adventure.
And now ... The Met.
I had the good sense and the good fortune to find the best photographer in this field, Ken Howard, to become my mentor. From the first email I sent him in 2007 to the critique sessions of my work over the phone from his office at The Metropolitan Opera, Ken has been generous and supportive and patient with my passion to constantly improve my work.
What is hard about this job?
The challenges of contract work are many, including the lack of health care benefits, ever-shrinking budgets for arts organizations and personnel changes within the companies that can easily affect who is hired back each season.
What trends do you notice in arts organizations from your photography?
One of the most important trends I see is socially relevant storytelling through the arts that are aimed at the next generation. I think the performing and visual arts have always entered the human psyche through a portal of the heart, which can actually affect cultural changes. Whether it is resurrecting an age-old tale of love and betrayal, or a more current theme of some sort of prejudice in modern society, the music and the acting and visual staging can move a person to consider their own life and the effects of attitudes and beliefs on culture and the individual in society.
And that is what makes art more important than ever in the complicated global times we live in. A great example of this is a small theater company called Cry Havoc Theater Co. that I shoot for. Mara Richards Bim's vision to give teenagers a chance to have a voice by writing, producing and performing their own original material is life-changing for these kids. Dallas Children's Theater consistently presents new original plays, such as Eat and Screen Play, both of which explore current challenges of the next generation, acted by their troupe, the Teen Players.
Trying to stay relevant is an especially big challenge for opera companies. With aging audiences, one of the most important trends continues to be drawing in younger audiences by exposing them to new works that they can appreciate and relate to. Exposure to opera early on in a child's life is one of the only ways this beautiful art form will continue to thrive.
Do you have a favorite shot or a favorite show you’ve shot?
I can easily say the Frankenstein currently at DTC is in my top five, along with the DTC's Medea in the basement of the Kalita and the Electra staged on the Winspear lawn last year.
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For opera, I would have to say the world premiere of Moby Dick in 2010. I was lucky enough to be involved in a book project about the writing of the opera, so I spent time watching [composer] Jake Heggie and [librettist] Gene Scheer give birth to the project. And now, eight years later, the opera is going strong. I also shot their world premiere of It's a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera in 2016. My friendship with both Jake and Gene has opened a whole new world to the creative process and given me even more reason to respect the incredible talent and vision required to produce a successful piece of art.
To that end, I love new productions and unusual shooting situations and gripping stories brought to life onstage. I am looking forward to the Dallas Opera's production of Sunken Garden, which includes 3-D projections. And I have no idea how that is going to translate into digital images with my still camera. But the constant challenges of production photography is what drives my passion for the work and ensures that I will never get bored.
How has this job changed your life?
As an artist working among other artists in the world of opera and theater, I feel like I have found my tribe. But when the curtain goes up and the music swells, I become completely engrossed in telling the story through the lens of my camera. There is nowhere else I would rather be than in the opera house surrounded by exquisite music played by professional musicians and sung by the best singers in the world, or in the theater experiencing brilliant acting and storytelling. How lucky am I?