Published on March 19th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson3
Take a picture, it'll last longer.
One of my life’s secondary loves is photography, so when comedy is mixed with the still image, I get just a tad excited. The April issue of Vanity Fair, featuring comedy’s current & next big things shot as classic comedy icons, doesn’t disappoint. It’s reminiscent of another fantastic VF spread from one year ago, full of comedy’s leading ladies.
The shots are fun. For the most part you can tell you’re looking at photos of comedians, but you aren’t hit over the head with it. While watching Vanity Fair’s behind-the-scenes video on this latest spread, I was reminded of the not-so-distant past of comedy photography.
In 1991, I discovered the Rolling Stone Book of Comedy at my local library, featuring photos of comedians taken by Bonnie Schiffman. The foreward, written by Billy Crystal, in part lamented the tendency of photographers to direct comics by requesting “funny faces”. The faded headshot collection on the wall of your local comedy club supports these unfortunate lapses in judgment.
We don’t see much over-the-top forced goofiness anymore. A good photographer tries to capture the essence of the person they’re shooting. I think there’s a better understanding among the public overall that comedians are normal human beings (“sad clown” cliche notwithstanding), and that what someone does doesn’t define who they are.
Comedians are just as well-suited to being portrayed as intense or whimsical or sexy as any other type of artist is. Three examples that immediately come to mind, below, are Mark Seliger’s wonderfully low-key shot of Stephen Colbert, a serious People Magazine portrait of Jim Carrey that graced my dorm room wall in 1998 (be still, my young comedy geek heart!), and the dapper shots of Seth Meyers from a recent Esquire piece.
Most current attempts at wackiness are made in the spirit of portraying a comedian’s character (see any portrait of Lewis Black). I think it’s safe to say the “make a funny face” / “dance, monkey, dance” days are behind us, yes?
So let’s talk about another facet of capturing a comedian’s reality in a single frame.
I’ve done my share of performance photography. Comedy-wise, I was a photographer for last year’s Del Close Marathon, and the 2005 CBC Winnipeg Comedy Festival. But honestly? The set I’m proudest of doesn’t feature any big stars in over-capacity venues.
The photo featured at the top left of this blog’s new layout is a shot from a set of pictures I took back in 2005 of the monthly comedy night at a bar in Winnipeg called the Charley. I rarely missed a show there, because my friends were always on the bill, and it was a rare opportunity to hang out with each other. One night in 2005, I stuck a roll of Kodak T-MAX 3200 in the ol’ Minolta STsi, and snapped away.
Yep, the guys grumbled a few times, but I cannot express how happy I am that I have these shots. Despite the current grumbling about the odd unflattering angle, I think they’re pretty happy too. The Charley closed down last fall, and will be bulldozed any day now. These are the only photos we have that weren’t taken with a cheap cellphone camera.
So, in my best Jay Mohr voice, “your challenge, caah-mics” is to take a camera with you to that local talent night, the next scummy road gig, or anywhere comedy is happening. Capture your buddies running their notes at the last minute, or waiting in the wings to go on. Get candids – that means no posing, no looking into the camera. Don’t use flash, because it ruins the look (if you’re in low light, use film, or set your digital cam’s ISO to 1600 or higher). The day will come when you aren’t required – or motivated – to spend your evenings together in such unglamorous surroundings. You’ll want these.
If you really feel like geeking out – or if you scoffed when you read the word “film” in the last paragraph and need to be educated – check out Louis CK’s recent blog entries about his USO tour in the Middle East and his photographic documentation thereof.
I had a feeling it was too good to be true. The news that Ricky Gervais would guest star on the US version of The Office has been 100% refuted, via E! Online. We can all still hope, right?