I am either the perfect audience for this book or the worst.
Comedians, a new book by British comedian/photographer Steve Best, is a collection of on-stage and back-stage images of British comedians. This is where the problem or the promise sets in. I don’t know any of them.
“Comedians” by Steve Best
review by W. Scott Olsen
I live in the middle of North America (which is, of course, no excuse for provincialism), and unless the Rich Hall in this book is the Rich Hall who used to be on American television, there isn’t a single one of these performers I can call familiar. I cannot tell you about their routines, whether they are satiric, angry, goofy, or bemused. I cannot tell you if their performances are loud or quiet. I cannot tell you about their facial expressions or the tenor of their voice.
Looking at images of celebrities, we usually bring a lot of pre-knowledge to the viewing. Show me an image of John Stewart or Steven Colbert, and I have hours of experience of looking at them on television that inform how I see the image, and what I see in it.
So, what am I to make of a collection of images of performers about whom I have no prior knowledge?
What am I to think when a book about performers is, in a very real way, silent?
Well, it seems, just by themselves, the images speak volumes.
For me, Comedians is an engaging and thought-provoking collection. Of course, the book has very little to do with comedy. It has everything to do with the public act of performance, with the adrenaline and fear and angst and trepidation and confidence and overjoyedness of being on stage. These are images that reveal the soul of the performer, and it really doesn’t matter whether or not we know what they are performing.
It makes little difference whether the performer is doing a standup routine or singing an aria, they are all about to go in front of an audience and attempt something profound. Going on stage, and being on stage, are both moments of vulnerability that can turn from triumph to despair and back in an eye blink. That moment is what these images capture brilliantly.
Steve Best is a comedian, and a performer on the British circuit himself, so he has that experience and knowledge to bring to his photography. Finding a decisive moment is often the result of knowledge-filled anticipation, and it pays off in this book very well.
In a small bit of introductory text, Best writes, “I’m a comedian and a photographer. I have done nothing else. I have never had another job…I have always taken photographs. It was some 10 years ago that I started bringing my camera into comedy clubs and shooting my fellow comics… During that time, I started approaching the photographic documentation of the comedy circuit with much more of an artistic vision. This book, Comedians, is the culmination of the journey.”
Fellow comedian Harry Hill writes, “When I look at these photos, I’m right back there in the clubs, in the theatres, that happy vibrant scene, the camaraderie, the thrill and the fight—because it doesn’t matter how big or successful you are or how many people have bought tickets to see you, we are all, at the end of the day exactly the same thing—standup comics and on any night any one of the people in this book can die or be the best in the world. Only we know this and only Steve is able to nail it.”
The images in Comedians are all black and white and all portraits. Several of them are taken from the wings of some theater, through curtains to a spotlight performer on stage. Many of them are taken backstage, in dressing rooms and waiting rooms, and hallways. Several are taken outside, before or after a gig.
Every single one is captivating. These images are moments of revelation. Sometimes the images reveal vulnerability, and sometimes they reveal an earnest or fleeting moment of insight. Yes, I’m projecting here, but that’s also my point about the power of this book. Sometimes these performers look ecstatic. Sometimes they look old.
One of the real joys of this book comes from the fact that I don’t know these people, so I am allowed and asked to invent, to wonder who people are and what insights they are proposing to their audience. Comedy has a way of shredding the easy assumptions of our world, so I find myself turning the pages of this book very slowly, wishing in a way that does not include loss. Comedy can rip open the absurdities of society with hope, and there is something universal about that approach.
I realize Comedians is, for me, a very different book than it would be for anybody who knows these artists. For them, I imagine the book is a confirmation of what they already know. They will have access to a type of joy and remembrance that’s not possible for others.
In fact, Quentin Tyler, Founder and CEO of The Observatory Photography Gallery in London, writes, “And who knew that Jack Whitehall (page 160-161) might ever take anything seriously enough to show any nerves, or to feel the need to actually plan any of his material for that matter? But of course, he does, and of course, he has to—as Best reveals so perfectly to us. And so it is with Harry Hill (pages 210-211). Everything is there in the moments of stillness that Best portrays—the meticulous and hard-working people behind the comic personas we know and love.”
I have never seen or heard one of Steve Best’s routines, but I assume they are wonderful. Having seen this collection, I admire the technical quality of the image-making (taking pictures in a club setting is often one level of hell), and his talent with black and white composition with both light and people is apparent on every page. More importantly, beyond knowing how to photograph, he knows what to photograph. For me, the book is fantastically an act of creation. As an exercise in photographing performers, it is brilliant in the way it shows the performers at moments of honesty and hope.
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Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>