by Kristen Schweizer
February 27, 2023
“The stage manager called ‘places,’ one of the actors looked over his shoulder, and I snapped a picture. In it, I saw the quick and quiet stillness and anticipation of leaving where you are and going somewhere else. When I saw that shot – so many years later – framed [at the late Ryan Ross’s memorial], it reminded me of the gravity of what I do because someone may call me next week or three years from now and ask me to throw a portrait I have taken into black and white because that person is no longer with us. And every time I shoot a production, I know my pictures may be all that is left of this show after it closes; my pictures and its stories.”
While you may not know his name yet, you’ve likely seen the work of Rich Soublet everywhere. Literally. His press image for La Jolla Playhouse’s 2022 production of As You Like It was featured on billboards and at bus stops throughout the city. His photographs run in San Diego newspapers, and his headshots are featured in playbills nationwide. Over the past decade, Soublet has solidified himself as one of San Diego’s premier theatre industry photographers.
“When an actor expresses themselves in a show, you see just a little bit, but when they come in for headshots, they have a tremendous power to show everything…if they want.” Soublet mused over an iced drink at Parabola Coffee, one of his favorite neighborhood spots.
“A casting director may only look at a standard headshot for a second – half a second – and a decision will be made. My job is to make an actor look interesting; a headshot portrait is an invitation to ask to see more. But it also has to truly look like her on her very best day, because, ultimately, the girl in the picture has to be the girl who walks into the audition room.”
Over coffee, Soublet spoke earnestly, but he kept it light during his session with performer Jada Alston Owens. Owens recently earned her Master’s in acting from the University of California, San Diego. She came to Soublet seeking “portraits to capstone my four years in San Diego” before moving north to make her Oregan Shakespeare Festival debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet for the 2023 season.
The two had discussed her goals for the shoot before her arrival, so he teased her wardrobe choices, “Girl, you said you wanted black and white shots, and then you bring me all this amazing color?”
While waiting for Owens to dress, Soublet adjusted equipment and reflectors in his high-ceiling studio. He stood on her mark, checking test shots on a large monitor while answering my questions regarding camera height and lighting logic. “The mechanical half of my job is second nature now, it’s the other half I am thinkin’ about right now, the…” The wave of his hand was worth a thousand words. The other half of Soublet’s work is the ether, the art part.
Soublet describes himself as an expression coach and a photographer. His specific, simple instructions – lift your chin like you’re better than me and let your left arm hang like it’s dead – and his own contagious laughter both disarms and empowers his subjects.
After the first dozen shots of Owens, Soublet stopped and turned the monitor toward her, “Look at you.”
Her face lit up, and she maintained this glowing confidence when he lifted up the camera again.
“It’s important to show them their raw images during the shoot, so they see what we are doing together.” Soublet later explained. “My work strengthened when I started inviting the person into the process. Bringing them in shifted my perspective of how I work and why. To help a casting director see them, truly see them, I have to see them first.”
Soublet can speak to the casting process because he spent years onstage and off. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in theatre arts from San Diego State University in 2005, he experienced numerous parts of the San Diego scene – including as a founding member of Triad Productions, hanging lights as a technician, and in the ticketing offices of Broadway San Diego. Graduating college during a major recession led him to parlay his photography hobby into work as a portrait studio assistant, a second shooter, and an image editor before eventually breaking off on his own.
“I’ve been doing this a while, but I’m never going to be done learning or trying new things,” Soublet emphasized his student mentality, even as he has become an industry mentor with HeadshotCrew and is hired for major projections such as The Old Globe’s Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas! Purposeful, intentional work is a cornerstone of Soublet’s art. He quoted landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, “There are always two people in every picture, the photographer and the viewer. So I want to understand the play to ensure that what I see doesn’t hinder, but actually enhances the director’s vision.”
Theatrical photography is typically done during a final dress rehearsal. Often, a photographer is brought in once to capture images for archival purposes, designer portfolios, and marketing materials.
“I work under the pressure of having one chance to get the poster picture. I used to shoot weddings so I can do that, but theatre is possibly the most collaborative art form, so in a perfect world, I would not just be a hired gun. I’d be part of the whole process.”
“How cool would it be to be part of an entire play process? I get why it is not done that way; my time is expensive, and everyone is on a budget, but imagine how good it would be if I got to shoot the whole cast’s headshots at the first rehearsal, so the website and program are cohesive; if I got to hear it at the table read, got to shoot the behind-the-scenes stuff, so the social media is high-quality… then when I shoot the show, I’d know it so well. We get the best stuff when I can be deliberate.”
Soublet makes admirable, deliberate choices in film and life. Since 2020, Soublet has partaken in difficult, necessary industry conversations. He was featured in the local theatre podcast We Are Listening and invited to The Old Globe for a breaking bread round table with Black artists.
“[Old Globe leadership] asked us to go around the circle to share our [experience as black artists.] As I listened to everyone speak, I wished more people could hear this conversation, because, obviously, every artist’s answer was totally different.”
This was a catalyst for his Black Presence Project, a collection of portraits highlighting the individuality of black Americans. He includes quotes from his subjects, but his images also capture what goes unsaid.
“Headshots should be updated at least every two years. I’m not just saying that to generate clients, I say that because we change and grow as people. And everyone needs a fresh headshot after 2020 because we ain’t those people anymore, amIright?” Soublet’s grin is as bright as his camera flash. “I shoot theatre because I love stories. I want my pictures to tell a story. I want your picture to say: ‘this is who I am right now.’”
Rich Soublet’s magnificent work elevates and memorializes San Diego’s theatre arts scene. To stand before his camera is to be part of his incredible archive of our city’s dramatic citizens and their ephemeral work.