Photographer Michal “Misha” Daniel left his mark on the theater scene. His revealingly iconic images are embedded in the walls and in lightboxes at the Guthrie Theater. He photographed people ranging from stars to journeymen performers, capturing evocative stage pictures of shows at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Minnesota Opera and at New York’s Public Theatre, among other venues.
“Shooting live theater is a unique specialization, and you can count on one hand the really great theater photographers in this country,” said former Guthrie communications director Melodie Bahan, who worked with Daniel for 11 years. “Misha was one of the best.”
Daniel, 64, died of natural causes Sept. 25 in Prague, the city of his birth, where he had returned in 2015, his son, Stephen Daniel, reported.
He had a lifelong passion for live performance. He often told the story of how, as a child, he got so excited about going to see puppet theater that his parents would wait to tell him that they were going to the show until just before they left home.
That excitement was evident throughout a career that began in the 1980s at Jeune Lune, where he matched the troupe’s risk-taking invention and kinetic creativity with images of the same ilk. He then added the Guthrie, photographing shows from Shakespeare and “A Christmas Carol” to “Caroline, or Change.”
His approach to capturing images was to be totally in the moment, Daniel told the Star Tribune in 2008. “It’s like a dance. I try not to think ... just react.”
His work got him national notice. American Theatre, the industry magazine, included him in a shortlist of the top theater photographers in the nation, and he was hired by the Public Theatre, then under the leadership of legendary director George C. Wolfe.
“He came to the Public in a time period when the ambition, philosophy and soul of the theater was to be reflective of New York City, and he was perfect for that,” said Wolfe.
Daniel was never intrusive, Wolfe noted.
“Sometimes a photographer walks into a room and they announce themselves — they become the event,” Wolfe said. “Not Misha. His photographs captured, in a lovely way, the intimacy of the work. They weren’t voyeuristic and didn’t remove us from the event. Instead, they invited us in.”
Daniel was born April 1, 1956, to Oscar-winning filmmaker Frantisek Daniel and actor Sonja Schultzova. A Holocaust survivor, Schultzova died in 1959. His father later married actor Eva Koznarova.
Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, and the family fled to the United States a year later. Frantisek Daniel became the first dean of the American Film Institute.
Daniel learned photography while enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
“Misha saw pictures everywhere, and although he’s best known for his theater pictures, he was just as passionate about his street photography,” said filmmaker Keri Pickett, his partner of 28 years. “He liked to photograph the elderly, people who lived on the margins or might look a little crazy. He had this absolute passion for photography but with a compassionate eye.”
If he felt a keen kinship with vulnerable people, it was because of his background, Pickett said. A “significant part of his family was wiped out by the Holocaust, and after that, the family suffered under the communists,” she said.
Survivors include Pickett of Minneapolis, son Stephen Daniel of St. Paul, and brother Martin Daniel of Redlands, Calif. A small service was held in Prague.
“His wish was to be cremated with his ashes scattered in the Vltava River, which runs through Prague,” Stephen Daniel said. “That will happen when world events allow.”