Category Archives: Photographs

25 Years of Shooting Comedians and the recent new devaluation of artistic talent

Rich Hardcastle has photographed comedians for 25 years.

Now he has a Kickstarter campaign to publish a large-format coffee-table book of 110 extraordinary photos and text: 25 Years of Shooting Comedians. Ricky Gervais has written a foreword for it and says: “Rich has a way of making even a rainy day spent standing in a muddy field look glamorous and important.”

Fellow photographer Idil Sukan recently wrote on Facebook about Rich Hardcastle:

“His photos of comedians are completely amazing. His work was the only reason I thought there was hope for the industry instead of just wacky head scratching photos of needy boys wearing red shirts. His photos are beautiful and touching and always stand out, always.

“He, like all of us comedy photographers, has done so much work under such high pressure circumstances, not always been paid at full rates, been messed around by producers, but regardless, consistently, always produced incredible work that supported comedians, sold tickets, made fans happy. The comedy photography industry really only opened up because of him, because he was taking risks and doing things differently.”

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (Photograph: Rich Hardcastle)

Some comedians are in the National Portrait Gallery because of Rich Hardcastle – Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Phill Jupitus et al.

“25 years as a photographer,” I said to Rich when we met. “Ever since you were at Edinburgh College of Art. So you had decided back then you wanted to be a professional photographer?”

“Well, I wanted to photograph rock stars and celebrities. I wanted to do Terry O’Neill type shots: beautifully-framed shots showing the real person behind the facade. This was back in the day when celebrity meant something.”

“But you didn’t,” I asked, “want to be an ad agency photographer shooting pack shots and well-lit plates of food?”

“No. though I’d love to be in advertising now, because of the money…”

“Of course,” I said.

“Though there is not,” he added, “as much as there used to be.”

“There isn’t?” I asked.

“No. There’s no real money in photography. In terms of me in comedy, I think I’m the Ramones. I’ve influenced loads of people. I started something, but I haven’t made any money from it and I don’t even have the revenue from T-shirt sales.”

“So why, 25 years ago,” I asked, “did you start shooting comedians and not rock stars?”

“They were there, they were easy to get to and I liked comedy. I love the comedy industry. They’ve been very good to me and a lot of my success has been through things that happened in the comedy industry.”

“Why a book now?” I asked.

Director Terry Gilliam, as photographed by Rich Hardcastle

“25 years. I was there for 25 years, documenting that world opening up. I want it to be a big, beautiful, important book. It’s a snapshot of a generation of British comedy.”

“Surely anyone,” I prompted, “can photograph comedians? You just get them to open their mouths and wave their hands about in a zany way.”

“But I wanted to photograph them like rock stars,” explained Rich. “To try to make them look cool.”

“So what did you decide to do instead of wacky comedy shots?”

“Photograph them like I would a musician or a movie star. Nice, cool portraits of people who happen to be comedians.”

“There must have been,” I suggested, “no money in photographing people who were, at that time, relative nonentities.”

“I was an art student when I started (in the early 1990s); then I started photographing other things – editorial stuff like GQ; but I kept photographing comedians – maybe 90% was not commissioned. I did it because I was interested. No, there was not really any money in it.”

“There’s little money in anything creative now,” I said. “It started with music being free, then books, then videos. People expect all the creative stuff to be free or dirt cheap.”

Greg Davies (Photo by Rich Hardcastle)

“I used to do posters for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,”  said Rich. “The greatest thing was when people would steal the posters because they were such lovely images. It changed around the time digital cameras took off and people were using almost snapshot photos of themselves. Russell Howard had a poster which was just him standing in a Vietnamese street market or sitting on a wall or something, obviously when he was on tour.

“Things changed around then. It looked like a bit of a movement, but it wasn’t. It was just someone’s tour manager taking a photo and thinking: Oh, we don’t have to pay a photographer to do this and you can take like 3,000 on one card – so one of ‘em’s going to be good. Phil Nichols said to me: The problem is what you do is now considered ‘Art’ and people now baulk at the idea of having to pay someone to come up with a concept and shoot it.”

I suggested: “Maybe all creative things are undervalued now. Everyone thinks they can write novels because they can type on their computer and self-publish a paperback book. And anyone can take a free photograph now because they have a smartphone.”

“This is the thing,” said Rich, “you can take 6,000 photos on your phone and print one up that might look good. But I can do it with one shot.”

“Everyone thinks they can be an artist,” I said.

“Yes,” Rich agreed. “The creative arts have been de-valued.”

“To create a music album,” I said, “you used to have to rent Abbey Road Studios for a month and pay George Martin to produce it. Now I can record something for free on GarageBand on my iPhone and upload it onto iTunes for people to hear worldwide.”

“In a way, though,” said Rich, “it’s quite nice because bands are finding the only way they can make money is to play live, which is what they are supposed to do and sort-of great. Rather than a manufactured pop band who have never actually played live selling out the O2…”

“But then,” I said, “anyone can write a novel, self-publish it and call themselves a novelist…”

“…And that devalues the word ‘novelist’,” agreed Rich. “Brooklyn Beckham is a ‘photographer’ and has a book out and a show.”

“Have you seen it and do you want to be quoted?” I asked.

Rich Hardcastle (Photo by Sarah M Lee)

“I actually feel a bit sorry for him,” said Rich, “because, if he’s serious about wanting to be a photographer and he actually develops any talent over the years, then that’s fucked him. That book and that whole launch has fucked his career because people are going to think he’s a joke and real, creative people are not going to want to be associated with him. Which is a real shame.

“It’s like the Australian actor Guy Pearce. It has taken a long, long time for people to forget he was in Neighbours. Now it’s ‘Guy Pearce, Hollywood actor’ whereas, at the start of his career, it was ‘that guy who used to be in Neighbours’.”

Malcolm Hardee,” I told Rich, “used to say that any normal person who practises juggling for 10 hours a day, every day, for 3 years, can become a very good juggler. Because it’s a skill not a talent, but…”

“That’s what I hate about jugglers,” said Rich. “I think: You’re doing the same thing that every other juggler does. Yes, you are standing on a chair and the things you’re juggling are on fire, but you are still just juggling.”

“But,” I continued, “Malcolm said, without talent, you could practise forever and never became a great comedian because performing comedy has a large element of talent involved; it’s not just a skill… It’s the same with photography, I think. To be a great photographer, you need talent not just skill. It’s an art.”

“Yes,” said Rich. “You can take 3,000 photos on a camera and call yourself a photographer, but you are not. You’re just like a monkey taking 6,000 photos and one of them could be a good composition by accident.”

Stewart Lee, photographed by Rich Hardcastle

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Steve Best – Comedy Snapshots of jokey big-time publishing in the 21st century

Back in March 2014, I wrote a blog about comedian Steve Best’s book Comedy Snapshot – a collection of his photos of comedians. Now he is planning a second book titled Comedy Snapshots (See what he did there?)

“The first book acted like a calling card,” he tells me. “It was a good success in the comedy community. Foyles and lots of independent bookshops took it, but not nationwide.”

“There were a lot of comics in it,” I said. “You must have almost run out of comedians by now.”

I would not dare use my own photo – A selfie by Steve.

I would not dare use my own photo – A selfie by Steve.

“Well,” he told me, “the first book had 426 comedians. I’m just below 500 comedians for the new book. I’ve got Jimmy Carr, John Bishop, Julian Clary, Alan Davies, Stewart Lee, Al Murray, Alexei Sayle, Rich Hall, Rob Newman and people like that.”

“And you are crowdfunding it?” I asked.

“Yes. Unbound is a crowdfunding publisher – the main guy used to work for Waterstones – and I went and saw the guy and he offered me a two-book deal.

“Unbound have really good links and a relationship with Penguin/Random House. So you produce the book, Penguin have an option to publish it as well and whoever has pledged money gets an exclusive copy slightly different to the one Penguin might create. There are different pledges where you get an e-book, a signed book or whatever.”

“Sounds like you’re on a roll,” I said.

“And I’ve now got some links with galleries,” Steve told me, “so it’s become a much bigger project.”

“I suppose,” I said, “it’s a specialist book and…”

“It’s not really a specialist book,” Steve corrected me. “Penguin look on it as a joke book as far as marketing is concerned. It’s a joke book with a few facts and the photographs. Everyone has given me a one-liner joke. That’s how Penguin perceive it, though I didn’t quite want to go down that route.”

“I had forgotten the jokes,” I said. “I remember the quirky facts and stories.”

“Some of the bigger comedians,” Steve told me, “got a bit tetchy about it, thinking I was going to be using their material but, once I explained what the whole thing was, then they said: That’s great.”

“Is there going to be a third book?” I asked.

On sale from this week

The first book: a successful calling card needing distribution

“Yes, Unbound have an option on the next book – it’s a two-book deal. The third one is the book I really, really want to do. It would come out in the summer of 2017, ready for the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. So I would do a gallery show in Edinburgh – an exhibition and stand-up, which no-one has done – as a photographer-comedian. After that the plan would be, rather than tour arts centres and theatres with a comedy show, I would tour galleries. The idea of touring galleries as a stand-up really appeals to me. You can sell the prints, you can sell the books and do the stand-up.”

“The third book,” I asked. “Would that be the same format?”

“No,” said Steve. “A coffee-table format. Because I’m being sponsored-ish by Fuji – they’ve given me a top-of-the-range camera – my pictures in this new book and the third one will look that much better.”

“So,” I asked, “they liked your first book so much they decided to throw cameras at you?”

“They sent me a top-of-the-range camera and a couple of lenses. I have two bodies and about six different lenses. There is also a possibility I may be going to Mount Everest. There’s a Guinness world record attempt in April for the highest comedy show in the world – at Base Camp, Everest. I might be going out as a photographer-cum-stand-up. In that case, Fuji would supply me with even more stuff. The problem might be it clashes with this new book. I have to design and get this new book out and it clashes. If Penguin really do take it on, I want to get the book out for Christmas.”

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Comic Steve Best takes 440 snapshots of the collapsing (?) UK comedy circuit

On sale from this week

It’s a snapshot of the people who made the UK comedy circuit

This week sees the launch of Comedy Snapshota 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.

Steve Best at the Nancy Victor Gallery last week

Steve Best with his book at the Nancy Victor Gallery

“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.”

Sixteen of the 440 comedians featured in Steve’s book

Sixteen of the 440 photographs featured in Steve’s book

“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.”

Portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

A portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

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.”

A selfie taken by Steve Best for the book

A ‘selfie’ snapshot close-up taken by Steve Best for the book

“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.

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

“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.”

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