Home From the Cover Photography Students Light Up the Curran Theatre

Photography Students Light Up the Curran Theatre

by John Cho

The School of Photography’s Location Lighting class booked the city’s Curran Theatre for a day-long field trip and indoor photo shoots 

By Kyle Roe

Every year, Academy of Art University’s School of Photography (PH) organizes a host of unique field trips in fascinating locations throughout the Bay Area, but few are as highly anticipated as the Curran Theatre shoot for PH 250: Location Lighting. The historic, beautifully designed space is only a five-minute walk from PH’s Academy building and is situated in the culturally rich area surrounding Union Square.

“There’s not a bad area in this building, even the bathrooms, people are shooting in the bathrooms right now,” said John Vano, the class’ instructor, and PH acting associate director. “Every corner of this area at this venue has something to offer, and the students love it. It has a great reputation.”

The Curran’s interior is covered in intricate designs that offer an endless variety of stylish backgrounds. While there are some recent additions to the wall designs, especially in the basement levels, most are frozen in time from when the theatre was built in 1922.

Photo by Bob Toy.
Photo by Bob Toy.
Photo by Bob Toy.

Though the theatre’s schedule is usually filled with a continuous stream of plays, like “Dear Evan Hansen” as well as the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” production, Vano tries to reserve the entire theatre for a class photo shoot at least once a semester.

“I love this place, simply because, as you can see, the colors. It’s a very vintage, very classic, iconic theater in San Francisco,” Vano expressed.

Students spread out across the theatre’s four levels to set up their shoots. Some set up shop in the seats, on the stage, in private balconies, in random hallways connecting the assorted areas, and, yes, in the bathrooms.

Aside from windows lining the front of the building, there is very little sunlight to work with. This makes location lighting skills all the more essential for capturing workable photos.

“What I try to do in this class is introduce all these different challenges – natural light versus the ambient,” Vano said. “This is all ambient indoor lighting, so it’s even more important that they have their lighting skills down because they can’t tie into the ambient outdoor light.”


Photo by Bob Toy.

For third-year PH student Ariana Bell, who is interested in fashion photography, photo shoot-centered field trips offer a chance to hone her craft and learn how to navigate professional on-location photography.

“When I used to do photo shoots before I even started going to school, I didn’t really have the equipment, I didn’t really have the eye for it,” Bell recalled. “Now, going on location, I think more about the composition, how everything’s looking, everything that’s playing a factor into it.”

While at the Curran, students are given the freedom to choose the subjects, costumes, and themes for their individual shoots.

“They get to kind of decide what the premise, the idea, concept, the narrative of their shoot [is],” Vano said. “I’ve got some people doing environmental portraiture, I’ve got some people doing fashion, I have a person who’s doing a still-life here. Everybody has their own theme. I definitely get involved with what they’re doing thematically, but there’s a bit of openness of what they can shoot.”

Photo by Bob Toy.
Photo by Bob Toy.

A lot of that openness has to do with the focus of the class. “Again, it’s more about the lighting than it is about the theme, per se,” Vano elaborated. “The end product is to go into a relatively dark situation, as you can see, but yet beautiful, and create this kind of ambiance, this mood, with the use of artificial light that we provide at school.”

Mackenzie Smith, who is also a third-year PH student focusing on fashion photography, was initially intimidated by the Curran, “because there are so many beautiful features, and you’re like, ‘How can I capture it all?’” She decided it was best to focus on “just being confident, and knowing what you like, and your shoot, and your style.”

According to Smith, “Being able to bring that into a new place is encouraging, and it’s helpful, because you have the first half of class and midterms, and you’re just experimenting, and the rest you’re able to enhance your own style instead of trying to do a million different things.”

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