Shooting comedians, someone's got to do it
Steve Ullathorne has been taking pictures of comedians for 15 years. We got him to pick 10 of his favourite shots
This article is from 2015.
Johnny Vegas / credit: Steve Ullathorne
Chances are if you’ve ever read anything about comedy at the Fringe, or glanced at one of the many posters adorning every street corner in Edinburgh, you’ll be familiar with the work of Steve Ullathorne.
Comedians, old and new, have been using Ullathorne’s portraits to promote their shows for 15 years and right now at the Fringe you can enjoy some recent work at his tenth Annual Photo Fest exhibition at the Gilded Balloon. It could all have gone quite differently if stuck to the other side of the lens, ‘Much to the relief of my agent, I stopped being an actor – it was a good move for everybody I think.’
Coming from a performance background has helped in role of shutterbug he was apparently born to play, there’s a shorthand and a sense of empathy that can make it that little bit easier for subjects. Beyond even that, Ullathorne has been mixing it up with comedians since the early 90s, skipping classes at drama school to hang out at the renowned Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club. ‘That was as a punter, but I used to run a comedy club with the brilliant Lizzie Roper and I met a lot of comedians at the time working with Ronnie Golden at Club Senseless.’
Shooting portraits, however, started through his friend Barry Cryer, for whom Ullathorne has also produced around 11 shows at the Fringe. ‘Occasionally at Barry Cryer’s shows I’ll shout things from the back like “Get off!”’ That’s as close as he’s gotten to performing at a Fringe show he explains.
‘The first people I shot for the Fringe were Barry, Neil Innes and John Dowie, which is quite a good threesome to start with. Once people think that’s what you do, you end up doing it. Some of the people I’ve shot have become really successful and that makes the pictures more successful. For example, one of Miranda Hart pulling a jumper on – which is actually a rip off of a 1950s Phil Stern picture of James Dean – it’s a shot that just keeps getting used and so gets my name out there. That’s why I still work with a lot of new comedians.’
What follows are ten of Ullathorne’s favourite shots in his own words.
Steve Ullathorne’s Annual Photo Fest, Gilded Balloon Teviot, until Sun 31 Aug, free.
Barry was one of the first people I photographed for the Festival for his first show with Ronnie Golden, and I’ve been working with them both ever since. He’s like a comedy jukebox, just put a pint in his hand and sit back and listen. It’s his 80th Birthday year and he’s still going to be up at the Festival doing shows with Ronnie, as well as being roasted by some great comics at a special one off gig and holding court in the Loft bar to all and sundry.
Bec is a gift for a photographer; she’s always got tons of ideas and does her preparation. We did loads of different moves with the pens, but looking back through the shoot, there are only 2 in this pose and this one ended up being the poster (and a poster that kept getting pinched as people wanted to take it home). My pre-shoot notes for this just say ‘Sharpie Wolverine’.
This one is an outtake, but it’s my favourite from the shoot. The bird was mesmerised by Felicity’s hair. Every time we got the shot lined up with Felicity looking serene, the bird slowly climbed up her arm and yanked her hair out. She was brilliant throughout; I was no help at all as I was terrified of that bird – look at the size of the damned thing, that is a beak for cracking nuts – I was going nowhere near it.
One of my pet hates are photos of comedians holding a microphone when it’s not a live shot and they are clearly posing in a studio. Who are they talking to? Why do they need a microphone to talk to a photographer?! So for this one I decided to embrace the microphone shot but do it my way and I needed a performer like Diane to pull it off. She didn’t appear at The Fringe last year, but go and see her show this year and you’ll find out why…
You never know what’s going to happen when Johnny is onstage. This was at the end of his act at a Gilded Balloon 25th Anniversary show when, rather than leave the stage, he challenged a member of the audience to get up and hit him with a chair. No idea why, don’t need to know, you just join Johnny for the ride and try and hold on.
Ever tried to get a dog to jump and bark on cue? All that this dog wanted to do was sleep. I was just doing a test shot of the dog when it yawned, I took the shot, showed it to Lucy on the back of the camera, photographed her looking the same way and then put it all together later, so this is actually a photo of Lucy jumping in the air while a dog sits on the floor yawning.
I’ve been doing Pete’s shots since 2007 when I gave him an extra arm. Since then I’ve sawn him in half so he could sit next to himself on a sofa, chopped his finger off, cut his leg off, set fire to him and in this one, let him play cards with himself. He uses magic. I use Photoshop.
This was shot in Dublin at an old warehouse in the middle of a pretty rough council estate, it was only when I got to the location I realised that even though I’d photographed the rubberbandits live, I’d never seen them without the bags on their heads, and had no idea what they actually looked like. So I waited for them to arrive standing on the street and smiling winningly at any young man who walked past wearing a tracksuit. Probably not the best idea I’ve had.
This is from the middle of a whole sequence of Stew looking moody and serious, but he can’t keep that up for too long and started giggling, I grabbed 5 shots, but I’d gone as well and this is the only one I managed to get in focus. This is my favourite from any of my shoots with Stewart. It’s a moment you can’t plan, just hope it happens.
I think Tommy is one of the best live comics there is – I’ve photographed him live twice now, and in both those shoots I’ve taken more shots than I can ever hope to use, but you get caught up with the performance, the stories and his rhythms and suddenly you find you’ve taken hundreds of shots without realising. You then get to edit the shots and relive the performance. I’ve got a good job.