Career Spotlight: An Interview with New York Times Photographer, Richard Termine

Attending the University of Connecticut to receive a Fine Arts degree in Puppetry, Richard Termine began working with Sesame Street in 1980. Designer of Placido the Flamingo, Sesame Street‘s aviary tenor, Termine’s creation became renowned as an “influential early introduction to opera” (Muppet Wiki). Termine was honored for his contributions to Sesame Street with an Emmy awarded in 1986.

Shortly after, Termine became a board member for the Jim Henson Foundation, a charitable organization promoting puppetry throughout the United States. As a photographer for the Sesame Street Magazine, and currently, The New York Times, Termine specializes in capturing the arts. Whether it be musicals on Broadway, theater, or concerts, the talented photojournalist publishes evocative pieces, imbued with the emotion, music and strength of many moments in a single frame.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Termine, and in the process gained invaluable insight to his career. My first question was “how did you know Puppetry was the major you wanted to pursue?” His answer brought me to his early childhood interest “in playing with puppets and dolls.” Later, when he was twelve he witnessed his first marionette production, Rigoletto, at an elementary school assembly. Identifying the experience as his “a-ha moment,” Termine recalls “it was like a light went off and I was so moved by it both dramatically and visually.” Hungry for more information, Termine immediately borrowed books from the library and began “to make and create [his] own puppets.” 

Termine’s fascination with constructing “all different kinds” of puppets reached yet another turning point in high school when his mother met a graduate from University of Connecticut who majored in puppetry—one of the few college programs offered in the United States at that time. As a Junior in high school, Termine visited the campus, watching University of Connecticut’s performance of the marionette opera “The Love for Three Oranges.” It was on this occasion when Termine was first introduced to Frank Ballard, founder of the puppetry program at the university. That summer, Termine had his first experience puppeteering at the university’s summer production of the opera in 1970, hosted at a festival for Puppeteers of America. 

Interest piqued, Termine submitted an application to the University of Connecticut his senior year, admitting “I didn’t have the grades to get in.” Beginning his educational journey at a state university in New Haven, Termine stayed there for one semester before transferring to a branch of University of Connecticut. By sophomore year, Termine was on the University of Connecticut’s main campus. Yet, at this time Termine had not yet committed to puppetry as a major, instead he explored the arts. Crediting his parents for their unwavering support, Termine reflects “my parents were really wonderful at exposing me to the arts, taking me to New York and to original theater productions in Connecticut.” 

After completing his undergraduate degree, Termine continued on to his masters, receiving an MFA in puppetry. Termine then held his first production of “Death of Doctor Faustus” as his final project. Costumes, casting, lighting—Termine organized every detail for his production and held it in a mobius theater, holding multiple levels of viewers in the audience. His first experience directing a production, Termine reminisced “it was wonderful!”

At this point, Termine emphatically assures “I need to tell you a story.” When Termine’s beloved mentor, Ballard, was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Termine frequently visited him from Ballard’s convalescent home. During one of his final visits Termine said “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about how I was first gripped by puppetry.” Recollecting the childhood encounter with the production of Rigoletto, assenting “it just turned my life around,” Ballard replied with disbelief: “I was the advisor of that production.” “So here was this mentor, this father figure to me through my entire college career” Termine continues “it inspires me even to this day that even in my youth, his hand was there shaping me and leading me toward this art form.” 

However, Termine’s career did not begin on Sesame Street, which had taken off shortly after he graduated from college. Rather, it began in the classroom, only this time as a professor to aspiring students. Remarking “I felt I didn’t have the professional experience, that I’d gone right out of college into teaching” Termine’s time teaching was short-lived, and after a few years he reached out to peer and close friend Jan Rosenthal who was a designer for Sesame Street. At this time, Termine confesses to being “a purist in the sense of puppetry,” with a chuckle, he remembered naively thinking, “I’m going to be doing puppet theater, I’m not going to be doing TV and Muppets!” Termine quickly ate his words when he interviewed for The Muppets Workshop and was offered a two month position as a stitcher. After leaving his teaching career and working with the team he was laid off when the project was completed. “Slowly within a year, I was back in the workshop working week to week in the arts department” one day the department head for Sesame Street approached Termine, inquiring “would you like to join us in the workshop for Sesame Street?” “That,” Termine said, “is how I ended up getting into the workshop as a builder/designer.”

In his seven years working in Sesame Street’s workshop, Termine designed the show’s beloved Placido Flamingo. When asked where he derived the inspiration for creating Placido as a puppet, Termine began, “you would get a script, and in the script the character was written, and then from there you would do sketches and research.” Termine also noted the aspect of designing Placido not only to fit his written role, but also to compliment the actor who voiced and articulated him on-set. “In that case, the performer Richard Hunt who was performing was very much an extremely talented actor,” reflected Termine, “he loved opera, so I think that was the inspiration for that character.” 

“The director would have us go on the set of the production and follow through in terms of  the rigging, and to see how the puppets worked, how successful it was and what we could learn by seeing it in performance,” remembers Termine, identifying a pivotal shift in his career; “we had a camera there.” One day, during Termine’s routine he noticed an on-set photographer. “I thought, ‘ah, freelance!’” From there, Termine began taking classes in photography, saying “they gave me the flexibility at the Henson Workshop to start doing some summer work [in the] off-season.” Eventually, Termine transitioned his career into performance photography, taking  a leap of faith, and “said I’m going to take this chance and I am going to go work freelance,” adding, “Sesame Street became one of my first clients.” 

Termine first noticed photojournalists from the New York Times capturing Sesame Street when he was on-set as a freelance photographer. After an interview, Termine became a photographer for the New York Times himself. However, Termine notices some differences assignment-wise, due to the economic hardship impacting the arts and journalism. Saying “because it was for the Arts Desk I started to do music, dance—this was at the height of when the Times was at a less financially conservative point. Then, I was getting as many as three and four assignments a week!” In  contrast, Termine says “I’ve worked just three or four jobs a year for them more recently.” Additionally, Termine recalls a time “when I would be shooting and the Times would pay me and Carnegie would pay me!” In more current times, Termine states “the Times will run it and there’s no payment involved, you’re servicing them, and you’re glad to be servicing them for the exposure.” Termine concludes, “it is a very different time.”

When it comes to students and individuals pursuing a career in the arts, Termine imparts the importance of “working with people, making that personal connection with the artists as well.” In reflection, Termine determined networking, taking those interviews is what elevated his career. Part of that factors it to compensation, advising “it’s not always for financial [compensation], it’s being sensitive and supporting the arts as well.” When it comes to fees, Termine says “it’s a scale, what Carnegie Hall pays me is very different from an off-broadway theater pays me.” For example, when it comes to his American Puppetry photography exhibit, which has toured in France, Montreal and Chicago thus far, Termine discusses some of the sacrifices when it comes to comprehensively capturing the puppet theaters available. “I’m not always doing it for money, I’m doing it because I want to include it in the exhibit,” that being said, Terimine admits “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m doing this for free, it varies.”

In photographing these productions “I had to move with the performers and I was transformed. The energy of the performance, the energy of the performers is transformative. It was a dance for me. I was not tired, I was energized!” With a laugh, Termine says “I have to tell you, I am 70 years old, and I’m still working and I love it. This morning I had to leave the house at seven in the morning, it’s an hour commute and I’m on set nine hours a day.” Termine admits, “it’s a long day,” but with the positivity of the actors he deems it ultimately “a gift.” Encouraging readers to “find what you’re passionate about, find what you love in this world,” Termine says “being able to work with that is a gift,” and once you have that, the success “will come.” 

Termine recommends “being available, being open to options and doors that open in your life,” saying, “I never knew in high school, or college even, that I was going to be a photographer.” Termine credits being “open to what is possible” instead of labeling what he would do in his life and alongside the support of his parents to the success he discovered in his current career path.