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A theater with signs for the Tina Turner musical. It is dark and there is nobody at the theater.
Photograph: By Mark S. Kornbluth

This new photography exhibit chronicles the moment NYC’s theaters went dark

Theaters shut down amid the pandemic three years ago this week.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Three years ago this week, Broadway's theaters went dark amid the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic. Actors no longer graced Manhattan's iconic stages, theater-goers clutching playbills couldn't pack into seats and the excited hubbub of the Theater District fell silent. 

While the streets were empty, Mark S. Kornbluth got to work photographing the theaters in stunning detail. The photos document a moment that's hard to imagine now as theaters are back once again. His photos are now on view in a new exhibit called "DARK" at Cavalier Galleries in Chelsea.

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A long-time photographer, Kornbluth traded his 35 mm for a large-format digital camera and began making photos of as many theaters as possible when they shut down in 2020. He took dozens of images of each building, sculpting the final creation from individual frames.

"I love the way that the ambient light at night, billboards and streetlights became my studio lights, illuminating the grandeur that has always been, and remains unique to New York City," the artist said in a press release.

A theater with signs for "Chicago." It is dark and there is nobody outside.
Photograph: Mark S. Kornbluth

The gallery show documents dozens of New York City theater exteriors, including the Ambassador, Barrymore, Booth, Eugene O’Neill, Imperial, Lunt Fontaine, Lyric, Music Box, New Victory and Richard Rodgers. Broadway shows captured in the historical moment include The Book of Mormon, Hamilton, Hangmen, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Inheritance, Moulin RougeWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and TINA: The Tina Turner Musical.

Looking back on the images now, it's jarring to see some of the signage appearing in the photos with ironic and unsettling messages like: "I've never heard an audience with this mighty a roar" and "History is happening in Manhattan." 

I love the way that the ambient light at night, billboards and streetlights became my studio lights, illuminating the grandeur that has always been, and remains unique to New York City. 

While the images feel ominous, they also exude a hopefulness to return to life "as it was." Plus, they showcase the glorious design of Broadway's theaters with their arched windows, intricate cornices and glowing lights. 

"I started this series with the intention to dramatize the language and narrative in the signage, contrasted with the stillness of the mise-en-scène. Despite the sudden and lasting emptiness that the pandemic gave rise to, I discovered a delightful tension, a sense of Broadway waiting for the promise and renewal that art invariably brings," Kornbluth said in a statement. "I'm deeply curious about relationships between objects, how emotions are rooted in time and place, and how to create the power of a shared experience."

A theatre with signs for Hamilton. One sign reads "history is happening in Manhattan."
Photograph: Mark S. Kornbluth

The theater holds a special meaning for Kornbluth, as he spent a decade in the theatrical arts touring Broadway shows across the country and working in TV and film. In addition to his work as a photographer, he's also a screenwriter, stage manager, director and producer.

Kornbluth's photos document the state of suspended animation when one of the busiest places on earth went silent, when "unprecedented" became a common refrain. Though it's a tough moment to relive, the photos in "DARK" chronicle an important moment in time captured beautifully for the archives of our collective memory.

See DARK, a solo exhibit of Mark S. Kornbluth's photographs, at Cavalier Galleries in Chelsea (530 W 24th Street in Manhattan). It's on view through Saturday, April 15, 2023 on Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10am-6pm. 

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