Art-Book Editor Harriet Whelchel Chooses the Fine Art Work of Rivka Shifman Katvan

May 1, 2013

By Harriet Whelchel

© Rivka S. Katvan

Actors Jennifer Carpenter and Laura Linney from Broadway production of <em>The Crucible, </em>2002.

Rivka Shifman Katvan’s photographs have been widely celebrated throughout New York’s theatrical and artistic communities. She was for many years the only fine-art photographer allowed to shoot backstage on Broadway and during the Tony Awards. Her work is regularly exhibited in New York at Gallery 138 and has also been shown at the International Center of Photography, the Museum of the City of New York and the Museum of Television and Radio. She has been featured in numerous publications and online blogs, including Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, The Guardian Weekend Magazine,, and

I first encountered Rivka’s work when I edited her book of photographs titled Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain (Abrams, 2001). I immediately fell in love with the images, which provide a glimpse into the theatrical world of backstage on (and off) Broadway, where countless actors transform themselves into other beings, not only with costumes and makeup but also by an emotional process that is virtually impossible to describe in words. Yet by becoming, as Rivka puts it, “like a fly on the wall,” she managed to capture the quiet moments of that transformation as well as lively, often humorous scenes of backstage action before, during, and after the performances: Elizabeth Taylor prepares for her entrance as Regina in The Little Foxes; Alan Cumming has a quiet smoke in the garden he created outside his Cabaret dressing room; Gregory Hines greets family and friends after a performance of Coming Uptown; two chorus members from Barnum practice their juggling routine in an alleyway outside the theater. Natasha Richardson, Liam Neeson, Angela Lansbury, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, and Hugh Jackman are just a few of the many actors, both famous and not, caught by her lens.

Members of Actors’ Equity for Broadway Solidarity after 9/11/© Rivka S. Katvan

Rivka began taking backstage photographs in 1978 as her degree thesis for the School for Visual Arts, and she continues to exhibit and publish them widely. Yet, although she still photographs backstage occasionally, she has not let these well-known images define her narrowly as an artist. She carries her camera with her everywhere, capturing vignettes and moments that speak to her. Such vignettes include haunting views of Brooklyn Bridge in the fog, scenes of daily life in a tiny Catskills village and a working-class boxing gym, and inmates in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility rehearsing a prison production of Oedipus Rex. 

Working-class boxers at Brooklyn Gym/© Rivka S. Katvan

My favorites among her photographs include the series Reflections, moody images of store mannequins reflected in the windows they inhabit. The result is a surrealist quality reminiscent of Man Ray or René Magritte. Despite the amazing effects she achieves in these works, Rivka does not alter them digitally; rather, she uses only traditional photographic techniques such as dodging and burning. In the Coney Island series, she follows two men dressed as from another era as they wander among other, very contemporary, visitors to the famous amusement park, creating a lyrical sense of unreality. In the most recent series, Abstracts, seemingly random chips of paint are greatly magnified to create colorful “found” abstractions. 

Reflections/© Rivka S. Katvan

Abstract/© Rivka S. Katvan

As Katvan explains her artistic process, “My heart and my eyes are interchangeable. I refuse to be boxed in by subject matter when I am surrounded by such a variety of sites and internal ideas. I must respond to what speaks to me at any given moment in my life.” I look forward to seeing what comes next. See more of  Rivka Shifman Katvan’s work at

Harriet Whelchel has been an art-book editor for more than twenty-five years, first at Abrams, Inc., and most recently as senior editor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Currently a freelance editor, she has edited and managed projects for private clients and publishing companies, including Abrams, The Metropolitan Museum, and Rizzoli New York.