Being in a relationship with a photographer can be dangerously contagious. You see the magical creations that come from the photographer’s imagination, through the eye and the lens, and you say, “I want to do that too! Hand over your camera!” And the photographer might allow, “OK, you can try my camera, but just this once, then you have to get your own!”
Not so with Bebe Neuwirth and her husband, photographer Chris Calkins. The Princeton native is well-known as a Tony and Emmy award-winning actress and dancer. To television audiences she is simply known a Lilith from “Cheers.” And she plays a ballet and tap teacher in this month’s movie remake of “Fame.” (She is also featured in a fashion spread in the September issue of More magazine, in which she comments on turning 50: “I think we get more conscious as we get older.”)
But Neuwirth also has an innate interest and gift for visual arts. As her relationship with Calkins, her second husband, deepened, she watched him in the zen-like process of seeing and creating, and became interested in what was going on behind the lens. “Whenever we’d go out, he’d always have a camera with him,” says Neuwirth, speaking alongside Calkins in a phone interview from their home in Manhattan. “He’d shoot something, then I’d take the camera and shoot, so we just started taking pictures together. It’s really a question of seeing with a certain kind of eye.
“It was interesting as we were dating — seeing what his eye saw and vice versa — because we got to learn who we both were,” she continues. “I would think ‘what does he see when he sees that sunset,’ or ‘what is he seeing in the Lower East Side?’ That’s where the idea for a joint show evolved.”
A collaborative exhibit of photography by Neuwirth and Calkins opens with a reception on Thursday, September 17, at the Cranbury Station Art Gallery on Palmer Square in Princeton. Titled “One Camera, Four Eyes: Photographs by Chris Calkins and Bebe Neuwirth,” the exhibit runs through Saturday, October 17. The more than two dozen digital photographs in the exhibit are limited edition, mostly color prints, custom-framed by gallery owner Kathleen Maguire Morolda. “We hope they’ll give viewers a glimpse of who we are,” Calkins says. “We’ve really been looking forward to it.”
Neuwirth jokes that their collaborative photography sessions are a little like the pick-up basketball game “horse,” where competitors take one rapid fire shot at the hoop after another. However, Calkins emphasizes that their creative efforts are not competitive, that the feeling is much more loving. “It’s a real emotional exchange,” he says. “Occasionally we can’t tell who took which picture. It’s interesting: this all began as a kind of dance with my wife, and now it’s turned into a show.”
This is Neuwirth’s first official foray into the visual arts, although she has a gift for pottery and has sold a number of her works at auction, particularly to benefit equine rescue. “But as a formal show, this is the first, and we’re so happy to be doing it at Kathie’s (Morolda’s) gallery,” Neuwirth says. “She’s a longtime friend, and she shows my mother’s work there.” Neuwirth’s mother is artist and Princeton resident Sydney Anne Neuwirth, recognized, among other media, for her work in watercolors and pen and ink. “She’s created a tremendous body of work, and she really paints from the soul,” Calkins says of his mother-in-law. (Neuwirth’s father is noted mathematician Lee Neuwirth.)
Neuwirth was born New Year’s Eve, 1958, and grew up in Princeton, where she began taking dancing lessons as a child. Attending the Chapin School and later, as a student at Princeton High School, she began to appear in community and regional ballet and theatrical productions, such as Princeton Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” She studied dance at the Juilliard School and made her professional debut in 1980 as Sheila in the touring company of “A Chorus Line.”
Her career really took off from there, and just a couple years later Neuwirth appeared in two Broadway productions, Bob Fosse’s “Dancin’” and “Little Me.” In 1986 she starred in another Fosse musical, “Sweet Charity,” which earned her a Tony award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
That year Neuwirth first appeared on the hit TV comedy “Cheers,” where she played Dr. Lilith Sternin, girlfriend to Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer). Lilith was a fixture on “Cheers,” and Neuwirth earned two Emmy awards for her portrayal of the character. Later she would pop up occasionally on “Frasier,” the show’s spin-off, but Neuwirth was concentrating more on her film career at that time. She’s had supporting roles in many films including “Say Anything,” “Bugsy,” “Green Card,” “Jumanji” and “Summer of Sam.”
It was on Broadway, however, where Neuwirth found a role she could really sink her teeth (and legs) into. She played the ambitious killer-showgirl Velma Kelly in the 1996 revival of “Chicago,” a role that earned Neuwirth another Tony, as well as a Drama Desk Award. In 2009, Neuwirth toured a one-woman cabaret show titled “Bebe Neuwirth: Stories with Piano.” Accompanied by pianist Scott Cady, the show featured songs by Kurt Weill, Tom Waits, and Lennon and McCartney. In 2010 she will appear on Broadway with Nathan Lane in a musical version of “The Addams Family.” (She’ll play Morticia to Lane’s Gomez.)
Neuwirth is a vice-president of the Actor’s Fund in New York and founder of the Dancer’s Resource, a branch of the Actor’s Fund that helps dancers in need of assistance. “I’ve always done other things besides performing, such as pottery and drawing,” Neuwirth says. “I think I have a visual as well as performing sense and it all comes together with this photography project. As far as influences, I’m drawn to the Japanese aesthetic known as ‘wabi sabi,’” she says.” It’s difficult to define, but a clumsy translation might be ‘the beauty of decay,’ for example, a rusted metal gate or a rotting leaf in a puddle. My parents had an interest and appreciation for the simplicity of the Japanese aesthetic, and I was brought up with that.”
Calkins names a variety of influences, including legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon and portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, famous for his iconic image of Winston Churchill. Calkins also includes his father, Carroll Calkins, as a major influence. In World War II, the elder Calkins headed a photography platoon noted for its aerial images of France. After the war, he would become an editor for Sunset Magazine, as well as House Beautiful.
“He was an editor with the eye of a photographer,” says Calkins, who grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and then New York. “My father taught me to look in order to see. There’s a spiritual aspect to seeing, a conscious awareness to creating.”
At first working as a model, Calkins found more stimulation assisting commercial photographer Peter Vaith in New York in the late 1960s. “I was with Wilhemina men’s modeling, but also acting and driving a cab,” he says. “None of this was as interesting to me as was photography, though. I left New York, but photography remained as a hobby.”
Calkins has a large portfolio of work, much of which can be seen in his book “Point of View.” He is also a renowned vintner for the award-winning Destino Wines, located in California’s Napa Valley. Although he sold the winery, Calkins still goes out west for the harvest. “The guys kept me on as a winemaker, so I get the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’ll be going back next month to make the wine.”
Calkins currently runs the Calkins Group, a wine and coffee consulting business based in Napa Valley and New York City.
In May, Calkins and Neuwirth were married, in a combination Buddhist/civil ceremony presided over, in part, by Neuwirth’s friend, actor Peter Coyote. Now that they are a married couple, you wonder if they might spring for a second camera, so they can each have one? “I think we would feel separated if we had two cameras, like we were on two different adventures,” Neuwirth says. “It’s very intimate this way. I don’t think we’ll ever own two cameras.”
Art Exhibit, Cranbury Station Gallery, 28 Palmer Square, Princeton. Thursday, September 17, 6 to 8 p.m. Opening reception for “One Camera, Four Eyes,” an exhibit of photographs by Bebe Neuwirth, a Princeton native and award winning dancer, singer, and actress, and her husband, Chris Calkins, the son of Carroll Calkins. Through Saturday, October 17. 609-921-0434.