Theatre is, necessarily, an ephemeral art that lives fully only in the moment of its performance. No two performances are ever exactly the same, nor are the way we might respond to them at different times and from different viewpoints. They are ultimately 'lost' the moment the final curtain comes down, living on only in the (unreliable) memories of those that saw them until those, too, eventually fade.

The history of the theatre, therefore, is pieced together from assorted fragments. Reviews, of course, might variously describe what it was like to be at the theatre on a particular night - Kenneth Tynan once said how a true critic's review is "better addressed to the future; to people 30 years hence who may wonder exactly what it felt like to be in a certain playhouse on a certain distant night". But if, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, there is another key way theatre is memorialised: in production photographs that provide a permanent visual record of the production.

Tactful but insistent

Like all art, however, it's a desperately imperfect one. Taken primarily for the exigencies of the press and publicity departments, such photographs are typically done 'on the hoof', in the pressurised conditions of the final dress rehearsals before a show opens, and at a time when the director and actors are more fully focused on actually getting their show on in the present rather than immortalised.

So the production photographer has to be a tactful but insistent presence in a frequently overheated environment, keeping his (or her) head(shots) while all around him people are losing theirs. There are, in fact, only a handful of photographers who accordingly make a living from this slightly bizarre profession, and one of the longest established and most respected is John Haynes. (Others include Zoe Dominic, now retired, Nobby Clark, Catherine Ashmore and Ivan Kyncl.)

While most of Haynes' work has always served an important practical purpose - to 'dress' the front-of-house and be distributed by the management for publication in the press when they don't despatch their own photographers to the 'set-up' photocalls that are also offered - it lives on not just in banks of transparencies in his filing cabinets, but also in the playscripts and academic tomes they frequently illustrate, too.

Obscure productions

Meeting the genial Haynes backstage at the National Theatre, he tells me a revealing story. "In my profession, I get stacks of academics forever ringing me up looking for pictures of some obscure production somewhere that I once photographed, and you try to avoid those calls! Of course, you do it if they get to you; and James Knowlson is one who managed to do so! He's actually an extremely persuasive, nice man, and I gave him some of my Beckett pictures for the International Beckett Journal that he published."

The pair's first encounter was in 1973; over the years, they stayed in touch, as Knowlson requested more pictures. "When he (Knowlson) published his biography of Beckett, he wanted a picture for the cover, and I gave that to him, too. Soon after, Reading University, where James is professor of French, asked me to become the fourth Annenberg Beckett Fellow, following in the footsteps of Jocelyn Herbert and Billie Whitelaw. It provided the funds to set up the first exhibition of my Beckett photographs."

Haynes - who was in-house photographer at the Royal Court from 1970 to 1994, during which time the theatre championed many of Beckett's works over here - had photographed Beckett directing several productions himself. Knowlson comments: "Although Beckett was a very private man and loathed having his own photographs taken, he still loved some of Haynes' more private photographs, particularly those of Billie Whitelaw and himself rehearsing."

Working with Beckett

Haynes himself remembers the experience of working with Beckett: "One felt that he didn't relish having a camera being poked at him, but he was very warm. I largely took photographs from the side at his rehearsals, not wanting to interrupt what he was doing."

Haynes completed his collection of photographing all of Beckett's plays in production by shooting the Dublin Beckett Festival that subsequently, in 1999, came to the Barbican, where he staged another exhibition of Beckett photographs in the Concourse Gallery to coincide with the theatrical season.

"James and I then talked about doing a book together and we started seeking out publishers, but we both knew that it had be photographically good otherwise there would be no point. Then, by pure fluke, a very nice editor from Cambridge University Press rang up, looking for a picture of course, and I wasn't at home but my wife Jane spoke to her. They chatted away about the theatre for a bit, and Jane told her that James and I had this book on the go and would they be interested! She said they would be very interested, and to send it in!"

The result is a new book, Images of Beckett, which has just been published by CUP, and a new exhibition based on it that is now being shown on the Olivier Theatre's cloakroom floor.

Taking the Stage

Images of Beckett is not, however, the first book to celebrate Haynes' unique contribution to providing a permanent record of the second half of the 20th-century London stage. In 1986, Thames and Hudson published Taking the Stage, subtitled '21 Years of the London Theatre', a title that marked his then 21st anniversary as a photographer.

Lindsay Anderson, the Royal Court director whose production of Home was Haynes' first official assignment as that theatre's in-house photographer, paid tribute to his work. "John's pictures were simple, responsive, unerring - the theatrical experience exactly," she says. "He had found his metier."

Looking back now, Haynes tells me, "I came out of the RAF and got myself a backstage job at the Palace Theatre, operating a follow-spot for a show that starred Benny Hill called Fine Fettle. But it wasn't really the kind of theatre I wanted to be involved in - the Royal Court was much more in my way of thinking. So I applied for a job as the second electrician there and I got it."

That wasn't his true calling, either - but what was? "I was going nowhere, then someone showed me a book of pictures by Cartier-Bresson, wonderful pictures of street scenes from all around Europe. It was amazing, and I thought I would like to do something like that. My father, a bus driver, bought me a Leica camera - it cost £145 then; they now cost £1,600 - and I took my first pictures at George Devine's theatre studio in 1966."

Theatrical revolution

The Royal Court, of course, was where the theatrical revolution had taken place some ten years before Haynes first worked there, a revolution in which the cobwebs of the 'old' West End were blown away - and that included production photography, too.

"Managements like HM Tennent would employ Angus McBean to shoot pictures for them and would put aside a whole afternoon for wonderful posed pictures," Haynes explains. But the Royal Court was a place for more documentary realism, onstage and off, and a photographer who wanted to catch life as it happened was a perfect fit.

Sometimes, Haynes says, "I will ask to see the play beforehand at a run-through, but I also quite like not to see a play first so I can be surprised by it." And it's exactly that mood that the best theatre photography captures: a sense of surprise as it catches the fleeting moment and memorialises it forever.

Images of Beckett, is published by Cambridge University Press (hardback, priced £25). The Images of Beckett photographic exhibition runs runs from 22 September to 8 November 2003 at the National Theatre. Open Mon-Sat 10am-11pm, free admission.