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Christine Chambers, 39, dies; Her photos empowered actors of color
The photographer and playwright Christine Jean Chambers in an undated self-portrait. Chambers, a photographer whose pictures of actors of color helped document the rise of a newly energized black theater movement that began to emerge in New York a decade ago, died on Dec. 4, 2019 in Manhattan. She was 39. Christine Jean Chambers via The New York Times.

by Katharine Q. Seelye

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Christine Chambers, a photographer whose pictures of actors of color helped document the rise of a newly energized black theater movement that began to emerge in New York a decade ago, died on Dec. 4 in Manhattan. She was 39.

Her sister, Essie Jane Chambers, said she died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital from complications of a lung infection. She had also had lupus, a chronic disease of the immune system, since she was 12.

In addition to being a photographer, Chambers was a playwright. The daughter of a white mother and black father, she frequently explored themes of race and identity. She was proud of being a woman of color, her sister said, but it was being biracial that provided the grist for her writing.

With a longtime involvement in the theater, she understood the intimate dynamics of the live stage and photographed hundreds of actors, often during performances. In doing so, she captured the spirit of a new generation of theater artists who wanted to tell their own stories in their own ways.

“She made us proud of who we were and where we came from, and that’s what we were trying to express onstage,” the playwright Kelley Girod, a close friend, said in an interview.

“She helped us see ourselves in the act of claiming ourselves,” said Girod, who is founder and executive producer of the Fire This Time Festival, which features the work of playwrights of color.

Chambers was commissioned to photograph theatrical productions at that festival and at other theatrical festivals and venues.

Over the last eight years, she documented more than 14 productions and other events at National Black Theater in Harlem, which exhibited her work. “She helped crystallize our brand,” Jonathan McCrory, the theater’s artistic director, said in an interview. “She gave visual amplification to innovative black storytelling.”

This fall, she undertook two projects for the Public Theater. She photographed the creative team, made up entirely of women of color, for its revival of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” And she captured the all-black, all-female cast of “Measure for Measure,” produced by the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit, which traveled with the play to the city’s five boroughs.

Her work appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, as well as in playbills.

Chambers began taking pictures as a child. By the time she was in graduate school at Columbia University, she was taking professional head shots of friends there and at Juilliard. She followed them through the black theaters and theater festivals that have become pipelines to television, film and Broadway for artists of color as their careers — and hers — took off.

Among those she photographed were actresses Amber Gray (“Hadestown”), Samira Wiley (“Orange Is the New Black”), Teyonah Parris (Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”), Amelia Workman (“Fefu and Her Friends”) and April Matthis (“Toni Stone”), as well as singer Martha Redbone and Jon Batiste, the bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

“She had a particular way of working with her subjects, especially with us, people of color,” her sister said. “It was nurturing and empowering. People trusted her and loved the way she made them look and feel.”

In helping her subjects to center themselves, Chambers would tell them: “Close your eyes. Breathe in. Exhale. Look at me.”

McCrory of National Black Theater said the hallmark of a Chambers photograph was her ability to elevate tangible elements — the person’s eyes, the release of tension in the face, the use of lighting to showcase physical attributes — onto an intangible plane. “She invited her subjects to lean into their discomfort,” he said, “and they would find it to be a loving space.”

In addition to her portraits, Chambers liked to take pictures outdoors. One of her most notable street scenes was of dancer Jayniece Carter doing an exuberant grand jeté leap across a Manhattan street amid the hustle and bustle of traffic.

Her photographs were all the more remarkable because in recent years her illness took so much out of her. “Her hands and joints were stiff from arthritis,” her sister said. “Even just holding the camera was an effort.”

She freely discussed on social media what it was like to live with lupus. She developed a large online following and bonded with others with chronic diseases. As she wrote on Instagram in May, “Just because we (ppl w/autoimmune) have invisible illnesses does not mean we need to make ourselves invisible.”

Christine Jean Chambers was born on Sept. 8, 1980, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her father, John Walker Chambers, taught sociology, first at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and then at Greenfield Community College. He later became a social worker. Her mother, Molly (Pratt) Chambers, was a therapist and social worker.

In addition to her sister, Chambers is survived by her parents and her brother, John Chambers.

At Wilbraham and Monson Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, she was a member of the Academy Repertory Company and Academy Players and appeared in productions of plays as varied as “Cabaret” and “The Trojan Women.” She graduated in 1999.

She received her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia in 2004 and studied for her master’s of fine arts in playwriting at Columbia.

Over the last decade, she wrote several plays that explored what it meant to be biracial.

“So much of her identity was about living in this in-between world, where she wasn’t black and wasn’t white,” Girod said. “That space in between was important to her; it’s the space that defined who she was.”

Her plays, staged at small theaters in New York, include “Half Brothers,” about a man who becomes executor of his father’s estate and meets his two half brothers for the first time, and “The Eternal Return,” about a black couple examining their failed relationship.

In her play “One Quarter,” a multiethnic woman, Sarah, considers what her relationship might have been like with a daughter she lost when she had a miscarriage. With a half-black mother and a white father, that daughter would have been one-quarter black.

“What if no one sees her?” Sarah asks, worried that her daughter’s blackness would be diminished. “What if she looks at me and can’t see herself?”

She concludes, “What if my daughter comes into this world and I still feel alone in it?”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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