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Stealing the show

Michael Ward has been photographing performers for 37 years. But his best shots have all been taken by accident, he tells Sarah Hemming
the flyer advertising Michael Ward's exhibition of photographs at the National Theatre is a beautiful example of his work. It is a photograph taken at a charity gala in 1984. On stage is Frankie Howerd, in mid "oo- er", while to his right, in a halo of light, is the unmistakable, august silhouette of John Gielgud. The whole thing is subtly lit and beautifully composed - you would expect it to have taken hours of loving preparation... Not a bit of it, says Ward, it was one snap taken on the spur of the moment. "All the best photographs are taken by accident," he says.

Ward should know. He has been photographing show people for 37 years, first for the Evening Standard and later for the Sunday Times. He now has over 5,500 assignments under his belt but still describes himself as an "amateur photographer" and insists that much of good photography has to do with luck. "You are looking for something," he says. "But you often don't know what it is, or whether you've captured it, until you see the print. It's a gamble."

In two of his favourite prints in the exhibition, he feels he did catch that something: a portrait of Gielgud, sitting in a vicar's smock in a country churchyard, cigarette in hand and a mischievous glint in his eye - "I like the way he is looking at me. You can see a magic in his face"- and an early photo of The Beatles taken at The Cavern. Lennon is in the foreground, bent over his guitar, with McCartney, slightly blurred in the background - both intent on their music. "There's something I've caught between them," says Ward. "You can see that McCartney is really listening to Lennon."

Even after several decades in the business, Ward feels he cannot guarantee a result. "It can be hard work to get people to relax. And sometimes you just know it isn't going to happen, no matter how hard you work."

And, ironically, inspiration sometimes strikes in the most adverse conditions. The exhibition includes a striking photo of the hand of Fats Domino, resplendent with a massive diamond ring in the shape of a piano. "It was taken at the Albert Hall," recalls Ward. "And I was lying on the floor. I was told I had 10 minutes and I was not to move a muscle. I thought the only picture to get is of this one hand as big as possible. Just as the ten minutes were up I managed to get a bit of his smiling mouth in the corner. So you can see he's so pleased, he's really going to town."

But Ward didn't know until he got into the darkroom whether his 10 minutes had been fruitful or a waste of time. "That's one reason why I keep going. It's the joy when you see you've got a really good picture. Even if it was by accident."

National Theatre Foyer, South Bank, SE1; 6 Mar-15 Apr