This week sees the launch of Comedy Snapshot, a book of 440 photographs of UK comedians – mostly backstage – by fellow comic Steve Best.
He is launching it on Tuesday with an exhibition of photos at the Nancy Victor Gallery in London’s West End.
The exhibition then continues 2nd-7th April, with Steve in the gallery every day. “I’ll just be chatting to people who come in,” he tells me. I think cups of tea may also have been mentioned. Perhaps I misheard that bit, but it’s worth a try.
“I’ve been taking the photographs for seven or eight years,” he told me in the gallery last week, while he was preparing the exhibition. “I took a load on 35mm, then digital came in, then camera phones. So I had a load of photos. I was talking to Bob Mills about a year ago and he said: Why don’t you do a book? That’s a great coffee table book. So, about 8-9 months ago, I started writing to the comedians I’d photographed and most of them – maybe 98% – said What a great idea. It’s a snapshot of the UK comedy circuit and the people who made the circuit.”
“Why 440 photos?” I asked.
“Well,” explained Steve, “someone said Why don’t you do 250 comedians? Hold some back, then publish another 250? But I thought This has been such a long project, just get it out there and, if something happens with it, I’ll either reprint for Christmas and add some more people in or do a second book.”
“Are you going to sell individual prints of the comedians?” I asked.
“No,” said Steve, “We were thinking of doing that in the gallery, but they’d be very expensive to print and I’d have to have another word with the comedians, because then you would be using them.”
“Was it difficult to get them all to agree to appear in the book?” I asked.
“No,” replied Steve instantly, “I was really amazed. People like Jo Brand, Harry Hill, Lee Mack were all up for it. Sarah Millican was great. I took my photo of her in 2008 and, in the meantime, she had become a TV star. It was only in June 2013 that I went back to all these people and asked each of them to give me a one-liner joke, to tell me three or four facts about themselves that had nothing to do with their comedy careers and to tell me when they started in comedy.”
“What were you before you were a comedian?” I asked.
“I’ve never been anything else.”
“You never wanted to be a photographer?” I asked.
“No. Actually, I did do some photography very early on for a company, but even then I was doing comedy as well.”
“So you’ve always been purely a comedian?” I asked.
“When I was young, I used to juggle before school. I would do an hour of juggling.”
“I think I’ve seen you juggle,” I said.
“I’ve never juggled on stage,” said Steve.
“Ah,” I said.
“I did study the guitar,” Steve said. “I did eight hours a day on the guitar for about three years. I do get obsessive about things and I do get obsessive about the quality – I will put the hours in. I’m a bit lazy otherwise. Doing this book was full-on. I’ve never had a full-time job. Doing stand-up, you do 20 minutes a night.”
Steve not only took all the photos and collected and collated all the written information, he also designed the book – no small task.
“Why is it not in alphabetical order?” I asked.
“Because,” explained Steve, “I’ve put pictures which look good on the page together. It’s a design thing. I think it’s a book you pick up and flick through and read it and put it down and take it on the train. That’s why I’ve done it this size: so you can just take it in your bag.”
“In the modern digital world,” I asked, “does it cost more to do a full-page photograph rather than a page full of text?”
“It’s expensive to print,” said Steve, “because I’m not doing a massive run. If they were colour photos, it would cost even more to produce.”
“£9.99,” I said, “is good for 440 photos of comedians.”
“And there must have been another forty comedians whose photos I have but who didn’t answer the questions I sent them.”
“Comedians as a breed,” I said, “are perhaps not always the most organised of people.”
“It took me ages to get an answer back from some people via Facebook or e-mail,” said Steve. “It was only about four weeks ago I said: I’ve got to sign this off and get it to the printers.
“Then I started Tweeting and Facebooking and getting news about the book out there so people know it is going to exist and one comedian apologised to me about a week ago. He said: I’m sorry I didn’t answer you. I’m really sorry. Is it too late? And I told him: You’re already in the book. You DID answer me. He had just forgotten!”
“I guess,” I said, “that people were more relaxed with you taking photos of them backstage. A professional photographer who had never met them before would not be able to get the same pictures you have, because you’re a fellow comedian and you’re on the same wavelength as them.”
“Yes,” said Steve. “When you’re backstage, you’re not doing a posed studio shot. They’re quite relaxed with me. They open up, though I’m not really asking for anything personal. As far as the words go, I didn’t want the text to be a CV, so I asked for facts not to do with comedy. It’s maybe a quirky book.”
“You told me,” I pointed out, “that maybe 98% of the people you approached were OK with the idea of the book. That still leaves 2%.”
“I think there was a problem at the beginning,” said Steve. “It wasn’t until I had some ‘names’ on board that they all thought: Oh, OK, this is not just a stupid project.
“Micky Flanagan was the first person who responded with a Yes. When I took his picture, he wasn’t famous. And Alistair McGowan. I took a picture of him in the Chuckle Club: he was famous then, but was trying out stuff. He said Yes.
“Then, when I then approached other people, I could say: Look, I’ve got Alistair McGowan and Mickey Flanagan and loads of circuit comedians. Then I got Harry Hill, Andy Parsons and others. In the end, I had loads of big names and everyone was fine.”
“But some said No?” I asked.
“One,” said Steve, “told me Why would I want to be associated with all those cunts? But he was perfectly amiable about it. Some people didn’t want to be in it very early on but I think once it was clear I was doing a snapshot of the circuit and the people who made the circuit what it is… then it was OK.
“And the circuit is not going to last as it is for much longer. Everybody’s talking about it, aren’t they? It’s all going different ways and it’s very much television and touring and big stuff – or small. There’s nothing much in-between now. It’s very hard to make a living as a circuit comedian. The book is a snapshot in time of the circuit and the people who made it.”