Comedian Steve Best is going to publish his third book of photographs this summer. His two previous books – Comedy Snapshot in 2014 and Joker Face in 2017 – comprised photographs of comedians plus brief anecdotes/jokes.
The new book – Comedians – is a big departure.
STEVE: I’ve been meaning to do this book for bloody years. It’s not cheap – it’s £50 to buy. It’s an expensive book to create because it’s fine art. It’s a lot of money to raise. I was thinking of going the crowdfunding route via a publishing site that specialises in that, but they take a management fee and ask for all my contacts. So I thought: I might as well do it myself.
So I’ve kind of done crowdfunding on my website by asking people to pre-buy it. I’ve nearly broken even. If I could pre-sell another 100 or so then, when it comes out, we can do a good old PR/publicity thing with the comedians.
JOHN: You previously published the two smaller paperback books.
STEVE: They were very much of the snapshot portraits type. With this one, I’m trying to ‘sell’ it to the Art world as well as to comedy fans.
I think you’ve gotta put your stall out and say This is what it is, because I don’t want to confuse people.
JOHN: You’ve already had photographic exhibitions in arty places…
STEVE: Yeah. There’s still an exhibition of my photos at the Observatory Photography Gallery in London.
JOHN: Which lasts for how long?
STEVE: Indefinitely at the moment.
JOHN: And Joe Bor is making a documentary about you: Clowntographer.
STEVE: Yes. He wanted to do a film about photographers who take pictures of comedians.
JOHN: A limited area…
STEVE: There are a few, obviously. But, as we were setting it up, I said: “Why don’t you do it about me? I’m a comedian who’s a photographer who takes photographs of comedians. It’s a nicer narrative, a better story.”
So we interview Don Ward at the Comedy Store about the pictures on the wall and there are lots of live shoots. It’s more-or-less all filmed. Joe’s editing it now. We’re going to try and get it ready for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.
JOHN: Although it’s about British circuit comedians, I guess it will be of interest internationally. And, because both Joe and you are comics, you presumably got great backstage access.
STEVE: There are very few people who have had relaxed access backstage. Some of the most interesting photographs I’ve done are backstage.
The idea with this book is to position myself in the art/photography world so I could actually go to clients and say: “Look, I can document something else for you…” I’ve done a few corporate things. The way to get on in any profession in the arts is to keep developing.
The idea is to step up the game on the arty side of photography. No-one is really doing this. People like David Bailey and Annie Leibovitz have done backstage photo stuff on music, but no-one’s really done it with comedy.
JOHN: So are you a comedian with a sideline in photography or a photographer with a sideline in comedy?
STEVE: It has changed. I think I was a comedian with a sideline in photography. Now it’s very much reversed. But there’s always a risk in pigeonholing someone. I think you can be a performer AND be an artist. You don’t have to be a comedian only.
JOHN: What’s the difference between creating comedy and creating photographs?
STEVE: In the comedy world, you write your stuff and you try it out and it’s very immediate: it either works or it doesn’t work. In some of the other arts, you do it and there’s a delayed response from critics and the art public.
JOHN: In fine art – or even when writing comedy – you can pore over the details endlessly. But, in photography, sometimes it’s just a matter of luck, isn’t it? Capturing that one split second.
STEVE: You can teach someone how to write and perform comedy but whether they are really funny is another thing. In a way, it’s the same with photography. You can teach somebody the technical aspects of shutter speed and aperture but whether they have the eye for it is another matter.
JOHN: Surely there’s a limit to the number of ways you can photograph comedians standing at the microphone or doing their make-up in front of a mirror?
STEVE: Well, backstage, I’m always looking for the little bits and pieces that haven’t been done. And onstage I have found some very nice angles – shooting up into the light, from behind the curtains…
JOHN: Physical AND psychological angles? A normal photographer, won’t understand what the comedian is actually thinking. But you – because you are a performer…
STEVE: Well, I can know when the punchline is coming and I can anticipate stuff that might happen…
JOHN: And, with you, they will be more relaxed than with someone who’s just a photographer.
STEVE: Yes, they think of me as a comedian with a camera, rather than as a ‘Photographer’.
JOHN: How long have you been taking photographs of comedians?
STEVE: Comedy Snapshot came out in 2014, so I started maybe 5 or 6 years before that.
JOHN: And you began performing comedy…
STEVE: …28 years ago. I started very young. Haven’t really done anything else. At school, I became involved in magic and got to the final of Young Magician of the Year, then I started doing my ‘A’ Levels at school and then started doing theatre and kids’ parties and then went into the entertainment world. I learned how to juggle, how to unicycle, did lots of circusy stuff. Never did street performing.
JOHN: Does the misdirection inherently involved in magic link into being original in photography? The way people perceive images…?
STEVE: I think you can look into stuff too deeply, John…