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Steven Berkoff

One of his generations most underrated multifaceted talents, Steven Berkoff was born in the East End of London in 1937. Into the heart of a traditional Jewish community.

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Stephen Berkoff archive

... A foundation that has inspired and informed him all his life. Actor, playwright and director, Berkoff has retained his sense of alienation and used it as a positive dynamic that has lead to the creation of some of the most uncompromising theatrical experiences of the last 50 years.

Unsurprisingly, some of his earliest work adapted texts by Franz Kafka. Famously unnerving and nightmarish, Kafka was ideal material for Berkoff's enormously powerful live performances. Although totally dedicated to the smaller, independent theatre production, Berkoff’s ability to create sinister and fear-inducing characters has made him popular with Hollywood, and he has appeared in many high profile and cult cinema works, for example Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). He has noted that his commercial successes are merely used to fund his own intense and radical drama. Despite eschewing the Establishment, his particular genius has been repeatedly recognised. In 1998, his solo play Shakespeare's Villains, was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment; the play Kvetch won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Comedy (1991) and Steven won the first Total Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award (1997) amongst many other accolades.


6. What is the first photographic image you can remember and why?

The first photographic image I can remember is the wedding photograph of my parents sitting on the sideboard. It had that typical nineteenth century look of statuesque splendour as they posed on a small dais.

12. You conjure pictures out of words, but how important is the art of photography to you?

Very important.

18. You have a great interest in the art of painting, does this extend to photography as a fine art form (and do you collect photographs in the same way)?

No, not a bit. Painting for me is the most fundamental art of the creator. The photograph is the work of the subject, which the photographer is lucky to capture if he has a good eye.

24. A photographic image can be read on a number of levels (documentary, domestic, voyeuristic, historic, nostalgic etc.) What gives a photograph particular value to you? (of course there are multiple answers possible here but is there a particular type of image you consistently respond to?)

A photograph gives a sense of the past and the suffering or delight of the subject, and captures this for all time.

30. As an actor being the subject of a still image is all too familiar. Do you actually like being photographed (is there a circumstance where you would refuse) ?

I’m sublimely indifferent, if it serves a function I am all for it. Otherwise we have too many ‘pics’ of tedious and valueless celebrities.

36. Has the development of the instant moving picture (video, DIY cinema, camera-phone) superseded the fixed point, still image and made it redundant?

No. The fixed image is the most powerful image there can be since it captures a split second in the infinity of time.

42. In cinema – as with photography – black & white has an almost mythical status. Yet HD colour quality today is so extraordinary. Do you have any perspective on this ? Is it merely nostalgia?

Not a bit. There is no comparison to black and white. It has a sharpness and an intensity in the two shades that is vitiated in the complexity of colour.

48. What photographers do you admire and are there any contemporary snappers included in your list?

I admire many different photographers, particularly Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus. And of course theatrical photographers like Nobby Clarke and creative’s like Dan Welldon.

54. Do you own a camera and do you take photographs yourself? (if no please explain why not)

Yes I own 6 cameras. Mostly film cameras, Canon EOS3000 and a Nikon N65 for example, and also 2 touristy digitals.

60. If we could take you by time machine to any given moment in the past to create a photograph. What, where and when would you choose.

Probably 1895 at the trial of Oscar Wilde. Or the performances of the nineteenth century actor Edmund Kean.


60 SECONDS with Mike von Joel


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