In the past few years, as comedy has once again boomed, a new generation of fans has begun viewing the craft as more than just entertainment. With more websites devoted to coverage, more critical engagement with the craft, and more artistic interest in the forms of stand-up, sketch and improv, the craft of comedy is being seen as something seriously artful. Around the United States, comedy photographers are snapping evocative and distinctive pictures of comedians. Each approaches it differently—a few are documenting the live scene, while others are crafting portraits in studios or on location. Some photos are destined for promotional material, some will adorn comedy club walls, some are just for fun. But the sum total is a visual representation of a booming comedy scene that views comedians as a highly unique and fascinating group of artists.
Even in the language-dependent craft of comedy, a great photo can capture a spirit that all the description and mimicry in the world will miss. “The best ones come from people who know comedy,” says Dan Dion, house photographer at The Fillmore in San Francisco who produced the coffee table comedy book ¡Satiristas! with Paul Provenza. “The more you know about the art form, the less likely you are to make a dishonest portrait.”
“I really try to come to people with an idea that’s them—that’s not just a funny thing, but funny or compelling if they do it,” says Mindy Tucker, a New York-based freelance comedy photographer. “And I’m not interested in every portrait being funny. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes it just needs to be a good portrait.”
It’s a far cry from the traditional mugging headshot or cheesy old-school portrait that is so often associated with comedians, says Phil Provencio, the house photographer at Carolines on Broadway in New York. “The other day, a show was clearing out and there were a bunch of drunk kids stumbling out. They all go on stage, and they’re like, ‘Hey, take a photo. Pretend you’re a comic.’ And not kidding, every single one of those people like posed the same way. [He poses in an old-school, Rodney Dangerfield-esque way—hand on chest, pointing, mouth open.] That’s what that is to them.”
Those photos became especially common during the last comedy boom of the 1980s. “It happens a lot with magazine photographers who get assigned to shoot comics,” Dion says. “They come to it with their sort of preconceptions of who that person is, and a lot of times it doesn’t really jibe with who they are. And then it goes to the editor, and the editor always picks the wackiest one. Invariably.”
Being deeply involved in comedy scene has inspired the photographers too. “I just love what they do so much and I want to be a part of it,” says Los Angeles-based photographer Robyn Von Swank. “I wanna work with them. I want to be a small part of their world. I really try to take what I get from seeing them perform.”
Comedians tend to at their best on sage, so conveying their true nature in a studio can be a challenge. “I prefer to shoot them at their homes or in their neighborhoods, so that they’re relaxed and not stiff,” says Brooklyn-based photographer Seth Olenick. “They’re just normal people and that’s their job, to go on stage and be funny. So you have to approach them in that way. It’s not like, you know, dance for me.”
“When they’re performing, they’re at center stage and they’re doing what they do,” Von Swank says. “But a lot of people, when they’re in front of a still camera, it’s different, because they’re not doing something. They’re being still. It’s a different arena.”
And comedy-goers appreciate seeing their favorite comedians in other outlets as well. Olenick’s comedy photo book, Funny Business recently raised more than $30,000 for the project on Kickstarter and will be available this fall. “The book had to happen,” he says. “I wanted to put this in the hands of the fans of comedy, and they came through, big time.”
As with most jobs in the comedy world, there is no direct path to becoming a comedy photographer. Some have advanced degrees in photography, others sidled into it. Liezl Estipona, an L.A.-based photographer who put out an e-book, Liezl Was Here: Adventures in Comedy Photography, in 2011, says she began going to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre with her camera in 2007. “I started taking pictures of shows and no one stopped me, so I just kept doing them.”
Capturing live comedy is always a challenge. Television shows never quite manage it, movies normally get it a bit wrong, and descriptions or reviews can only explain so much. But one good live photo can pinpoint a moment that will never exist again. “I love live photography, because it’s so much harder,” Provencio says. “You can’t control it. There are so many elements, every show’s different.”
Simply staying out of the way can be the first challenge. “I hate when I can hear the camera click during the show,” says Tucker, who documents the live scene in New York. “It’s the worst. So when I’m shooting a live show, pretty much very first thing that I’m trying to do is be as invisible and non-invasive as is humanly possible,” adding that her priorities are, in order, “the audience, the performers, and not fucking up the show.”
UK-based photographer Andy Hollingworth has been shooting comedians for decades, both on massive tours and in studio. When shooting live, he says, “the show somehow passes through me like a ghost and I rarely remember much about it. I’m just focused on the light and movement, the shapes and shows in that little box! I’m constantly looking for compositions, a way to interpret what’s being done in my own way, to make images that no one else could.”
Each photographer brings a distinct style to their pictures. Dion’s photos, shot almost exclusively on location, tend to be bright but intense, with a timeless quality. His photo of the late George Carlin was taken two weeks before his death. “Carlin said it was the picture he wanted to be remembered by,” Dion says. “It’s impossible for me to ever get a better compliment than that.”
Olenick’s hyper-real photos are a mix of goofy, personality-driven shots and strikingly understated portraits. He planned ahead for his Reggie Watts photo (see gallery) because, he says, “I always thought of Reggie as half man, half machine. If I’m gonna do something with him, it’s gotta be something robotic, in a way.”
While Von Swank’s promotional shots tend towards simple and clean, her personal collection features elaborate, occasionally insane shots, often harkening back to another era. A lover of horror movies, she shows a darker side of her favorite comedians. “Weird Al was my idol when I was eight years old,” she says. “A lot of comedians are like super dark people, and I kind of connect with that weird.”
Shooting comics on stages around New York City, Provencio’s shots are active and energetic, yet classic. Many of his shots, like the one he took of Judah Friedlander (see gallery), often capture audience members—reminders that live comedy is as much a conversation as a performance.
A highly sought-after comedy photographer in the UK, Hollingworth has shot many of the greats of British comedy. His live shots manage to feel both epic and intimate, while his portraiture is often simple but specific. “Recently I’ve been invited to come and go on tour with big artists without a brief—literally come and shoot when you want and what you want,” he says. “This makes for my most powerful and satisfying shots.” With this access, he often shoots on stage, getting up close to megastars like Eddie Izzard. “No Photoshopping, just a patient finger!” he says of the perfectly timed shot.
Estipona’s shots are often playful and approachable, and capture the relaxed sensibility of LA’s current alt comedy scene. “I try to find that one photo that will jog my memory and be able to convey what the comedy was about without having to explain it,” she says. She credits Paul F. Tompkins with much of her exposure. “Paul was probably the first one who really acknowledged me as a photographer,” she says. “He gave some credence to what I do and really respected me for what I did.”
Tucker’s Year in New York Comedy exhibit at The Creek and the Cave in Queens, features hundreds of photos of the city’s current players, both on and off stage. Her portrait of up-and-comer Leslie Goshko was inspired as they walked around her Brooklyn neighborhood. “There was a cigar store and the second that we saw that, we were like, that’s the shot,” she says. ‘Cute sweet little Leslie in her Juicy Couture smoking a cigar on the stoop.”