Freelance and Business, Just For Fun, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons
It Ain't Funny Business, but…
Some of you know my story. Here’s the short form for those that don’t. Been a photographer since I was 14, wanted to be Steve McCurry. Who didn’t? Life zagged and I went to college, a theology school, after a summer on the Amazon River. Kept shooting as a hobby. 5 years later life zagged again and I became a comedian for 12 years. Still shooting as a hobby. Went to Haiti. Zag #3, retired from comedy and finally came back to my first passion. I learned a lot along the way, and many of those lessons have stood me in good stead. I loved that gig, got where I wanted to go, but this one’s more…me.
I can juggle flaming torches on a 6ft unicycle; my mother bought me my first unicycle for Christmas. The next year she bought me a straitjacket. Christmas around our place was a little weird for a few years there. I think they’re all pretty relieved to be buying me camera gear again. And while I doubt I’ll ever be called on to juggle or do a 2-hour stage show again, my diversion into show-biz, specifically comedy, taught me much that’s transferable. Here’s a few things professional comedy taught me about being a vocational photographer.
1. Show Biz is 10% show, 90% biz. Now I’m not sure about the math on this but it’s the same for photographers who shoot professionally. You need to hone those photography skills all the time. But you also need to hone the professional skills. When’s the last time you bought a book about trends in viral marketing or learned how to keep better financial records?
2. That’s Hack, Man! There are few insults in the comedy world that’ll strip a man of his pride like telling him his routine is hack. Cliche. Already Been Done. It pushes the best comics to make their routines as unique to them as humanly possible. Just because it’s original doesn’t necessarily make it funny, but it’s part of guarding your artistic integrity, and for a group of people who seem to be all funny all the time, the best of them can be very neurotic about this. The best comics don’t try to be someone else. Neither do the best photographers. Annie Liebovitz isn’t where she is today because she tried to be Cartier-Bresson.
3. The best comedy is tight, intentionally edited stuff. There’s not much room in comedy for extraneous bits. If you want to keep you LPM (laughs per minute) up you need to trim the fat. Set it up, get to the punchline, and then call back. Seinfeld is the king of the call-back. I’ve counted his LPM as high as 11, a good comedian will get 5-7. Comedians know how to get to the good stuff faster. Photographers need to hone their editing skills, both within the image – there’s a reason Capa said “if your photographs aren’t good enough you aren’t close enough” – and in their portfolios. Tighten it up, it makes for stronger communication.
4. Comedians understand what makes people laugh and they craft their routines accordingly. Do you know how people read your images? If not, how do you expect to lead their eye to what you consider important? Photographers must be visually literate. I preach this all the time, but the WHY is important, it informs the HOW. As in HOW you make an image depends on WHY you’re making it, where you want them to look, and what you want to say. Only visual literacy gets you there.
5. Performers understand what it takes to create and leverage celebrity. Their careers survive on the strength of their fan base, which of course is only partly dependent on the strength of their talent. Photographers who understand marketing, branding, positioning, and how to honestly leverage these things within their intended market, have a better chance of making it, than a photographer with the same talent who does not. Uncomfortable with the word “celebrity”? Don’t think you need it. What if you use “word of mouth” instead? Seems pretty important now, doesn’t it.
6. Comedians – the very best ones – know from whence they came. They know the heritage of their art. They can tell you who did the first bit about airplane food, where Cosby paid his dues, and when Vaudeville died. They know that to understand the present and future of their craft they need to understand the historical trajectory of the craft, where’s it been, where’s it going. Not all of them do, but the best ones seem to.
7. They take their craft very seriously. Ever been to a convention of comedians? You’d think it would be all laughter all the time. And it is. Sort of. But sit in on a conversation with six comics discussing the craft and you’ll think you just dropped in on a planning session with the mafia. They get very serious, and very articulate in between the fart gags. They know that the more seriously they take their craft offstage, the better it will be on stage when the house lights dim.
My time in comedy taught me much more than this. I don’t do comedy anymore, but when I am shooting in Africa, surrounded by 300 villagers laughing at me wiggling my butt or butchering the swahili word for “smile” I’m right back where I started. Ain’t no business like show business, but the similarities, to me, are striking.
Have a great weekend , y’all.