Leisure & Arts
Photographer to the Stars of Opera and Concert Stage
By Joanne Kaufmann
“Please lean forward,” says the photographer Christian Steiner to the pianist Ruth Laredo. “Nice, good,” enthuses Mr. Steiner. “Turn your face. Not quite as much. Now, tell me, where did you play the Brahms? And how is the Honolulu Symphony?”
“Shake your head. Chin up higher. Yes. Good. And is the Brahms a piece you’ve played often?”
Mr. Steiner fires off a volley of flashes and returns to a discussion of the D Minor Concerto. “What do you do with those trills?” he asks. Ms. Laredo obligingly demonstrates on the Bechstein in a corner of the 55 year-old photographer’s Central Park West living room. “Hmm,” says Mr.Steiner as he carefully observes the brisk finger work. “That’s not how I was taught.”
Mr. Steiner is not kidding. He was taught about classical music. That’s his real training and he almost turned pro, but then he stumbled into career as a photographer. Now he uses all of his skills photographing musicians. Because he understands what they do and the pressures they face, the great names of opera and the concert stage flock to his studio for publicity shots and album covers.
Alicia de Larrocha, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Itzhak Perlman, Andre Watts, Jessye Norman, Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, Mischa Dichter, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas and dozens of other star performers have posed for him. They talk about his incredible eye and his impeccable taste, his uncanny ability to make the most unprepossessing musicians look movie-star glamorous, to make the forbidding look friendly, the serious playful, the rigid relaxed.
“A lot of opera singers and classical musicians see themselves as grand and austere and larger than life,” says opera singer Joanna Simon. “In his photographs, Christian is able to reach the human being behind the façade.”
“A lot of the photos I’ve had taken I’ve looked terribly brooding and look like I have a bad disposition,” says Mr. Watts, the pianist.” Christian made me look rather engaging and approachable.”
Not for Mr. Steiner the clichéd image of violinist with instrument tucked under the chin, a pianist with elbow propped on the Steinway. He persuaded Callas, the great opera singer, and the flutist Eugenia Zuckerman to pose on a beanbag chair. He clicked her former husband, Pinchas Zuckerman, holding a violin in front of his face like a veil.
Much of Mr. Steiner’s success can be credited to his easy demeanor and his skill with a Hasselblad and a Cannon RT. But equally critical is his own musical background. Indeed, if not for an unfortunate experience early in his career, Mr. Steiner would surely be in front of the camera, not behind it.
The Berlin-born photographer comes from a long string of musicians. “My father was one of 12, and all were brought up to play an instrument, “he says. It was kind of medieval.” Mr. Steiner’s immediate forebears moved from city to German city playing concerts in railroad stations while the youngest passed the cup. His father, a former first violist at the Deutsche Opera, was born in a church tower, where the family lived rent-free in exchange for ringing the bells.
The musical tradition continued into the next generation. “I started when I was four on the cello, at 4 ½ on the violin, and I didn’t like that,” says Mr. Steiner, whose two elder brothers, a cellist and violist, are members of the Berlin Philharmonic. “So at the ripe old age of five I was taken to the piano and that stuck.”
After several years of conservatory training, Mr. Steiner picked off most of the German competitions, including one offering a scholarship for study in a foreign country. The celebrated Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau heard Mr. Steiner play and urged him to come to New York. It was during study there with Nadia Reisenberg that Mr. Steiner had “the wind taken out of my sails,” he says. “She was wrong for me but I was stubborn and thought I could prove myself even with her negativism, and I became almost paralyzed. She would say things like, ‘you’re really not as gifted as you think you are.’ I lost my confidence and the desire to play.”
Returning briefly to Germany, Mr. Steiner considered engineering and interior design, and then a friend suggested photography. At first he did fashion spreads, but when he began photographing musical artists – an early subject was Callas who, through Mr. Steiner’s lens, shed the diva mask and became a vulnerable, flirtatious mischievous girl.
“I realized that was a language I could speak,” he says. “That was I had rapport and therefore was getting results. I understood what were the difficulties of a singer. I understood about practicing and what goes into it for an instrumentalist. I could talk about performances I’d heard them in, and it got them to forget their faces.”
“Christian doesn’t make you feel like you’re posing,” says Ms. Laredo. “He has a conversation with you about music and puts you at ease. The camera just sort of eavesdrops.”
“A lot of musicians think it’s a total nuisance to be photographed,” acknowledges Mr. Steiner, who charges per session.
They think it’s demeaning. They would rather communicate through their music. But in today’s market the image is important.”
After his crisis of confidence, it was several years before Mr. Steiner himself once again communicated through music. But in 1969 and in 1970, through the offices of the pianist Earl Wild, he made piano recordings for RCA-Reader’s Digest, then stopped again for eight years. He was lured back to public performance by Ms. Simon, who persuaded Mr. Steiner to be her accompanist for a marathon concert at Manhattan’s Symphony Space.” She said it would be totally no pressure, no critics,” recalls Mr. Steiner. The day arrived, he walked in and saw “every pianist in the world” – Garry Graffman, Joseph Kalichstein, Stephanie Brown – all of whom had volunteered their services for the event, all of whom were Mr. Steiner’s clients.
Assuming he was there to take pictures, they were more than a bit surprised when he sat down at the piano. “All of a sudden it was like Carnegie Hall,” Mr. Steiner ruefully recalls. But the concert was a great success. So where subsequent performances with the National Symphony of Mexico with his cellist brother, Peter; at the Berlin Philharmonic, and with Ms. Norman at Tannery Pond Concerts, a chamber-music festival in the Berkshires that Mr. Steiner has headed for the past five years. In May, he will accompany soprano Carol Vaness at the opening concert of the Tannery season, an amalgam of Mozart, Chausson and Poulenc.
His clients tend to be amazed by his keyboard activities. Mr. Steiner recalls that after hearing him play piano for the first time, Mr. Watts said, “You’re this kind of pianist and you take photographs?” Mr. Steiner took no offense – he’s still taking bows. “I’m very happy I was able to combine the two. I really believe one feeds the other.”
Ms. Kaufman is a free- lance writer in New York.