Tough Crowd – the new photo exhibition by Dave Brown, is currently wowing art-lovers at The Strand Gallery in central London.
TVO caught up with the man behind the lens to talk about putting together a series of comedian portraits with a difference…
“It’s not all panel shows, fat cheques & giggles. Comedians are tough. They have to be.”
So says Dave Brown, one fifth of The Mighty Boosh, graphic designer by trade and photographer whenever time has allowed. Over the years, he has documented the madcap adventures of the quintet he is a vital part of, recently hosting an exhibition of his favourite shots culled from a decade of Boosh history. Tough Crowd, in aid of Afrikids, however, is an entirely different beast.
“It came from trying to think of a different angle to shoot comedians,” he explains to TVO in the midst of final preparations for the exhibition at The Strand Gallery. “It’s not that I’ve got a hatred of the way comedians are portrayed in photography, or their posters and stuff, because some of that is great. Photographers like Andy Hollingworth are excellent at it.”
“It’s just the usual persona you see comedians giving out on their panel shows, on stage or in the papers…” he trails off. “Well, they’re mostly always chirpy and cheery. I think a lot of people get the idea that it’s an amazingly glamorous life: that it’s an easy way we make a living, earning loads of money and having a great laugh at the same time. Truth is, it’s not easy… for most people in the industry anyway. It’s a extremely difficult world to occupy. I know loads of comedians, they have to be seriously thick skinned to make it and to stay there. To be a comedian you have to be resilient.”
If this honesty seems startling, take note: this exhibition contains a veritable who’s-who of British comedy, with mainstream behemoths like Jimmy Carr, Lenny Henry, Chris Addison and Harry Hill rubbing shoulders with a whole host of TVO regulars, from Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, though to Barunka O’Shaughnessy and Kim Noble. The collection’s subjects are varied, and those subjects were quick to find inspiration from their past.
“It’s interesting as to how easy it is for them all to go to that place in their mind,” opines Dave, “which I guess is reflective of how hard it is. I didn’t really have to give them a lot of direction. I just asked most of them to think of those early gigs or the tv exec who laughed in their face, the agent who dropped them, that awful review, the evil abuse. Think of that gig you had to do in the arse end of nowhere, where you’ve had to sit on a freezing cold train for four hours to do fifteen minutes of new material to four old ladies, then the promoter ballsed up and didn’t pay you. You can just say these things, and you immediately see in their eyes, they’ve just gone there. Some people a little bit too fast!”
For his subjects – from veterans like Bob Mortimer and Julia Davies, to relative newcomers like Joey Page and Arnab Chanda – it seems the most enjoyable part of the shoot was not having to constantly smile. Dave is quick to agree: “You kind of get sick of photographers going: ‘What about this? Let’s try a look. Gimme a look! Thumbs up, relax that jaw, big smile, oooh, Cheeky! Whuhey!’ All that kind of crap. Whereas with this, it was the opposite and I think they enjoyed the novelty. It does feel more natural not to smile, let alone hold one for a while. I think there’s a certain power to looking moody”
“My only concern with this angle, though ” he continues, “was whether people would want to buy the results? Do people really want to have miserable faces on their walls? I had to find the balance – and I think I’ve managed to capture a certain amount of beauty and power in the melancholy. I find them really engaging and thought provoking, without being miserable and desolate.”
Prints of every shot in the exhibition are available to buy – with 100 limited edition prints available in A3 size for just £50, or A2 for £75 – a veritable bargain in the days when other photographers quite readily charge in the top end of triple figures for such fine portraiture. Brown explains this was an intentional decision, to make the prints affordable to fans, as well as art collectors, which also has the added bonus of increasingly the likelihood of selling more. This particular aspect is especially important, because the entire project is in aid of AfriKids – the (currently) UK based charity which funds stable projects in the third world.
Now an Ambassador for the charity, after several years of supporting their work – and a trip driving ambulances to Ghana, no less – Dave is quite rightly unapologetic in his love and admiration of their work.
“The way they look at aid is totally different,” he tells TVO. “It’s all about non-dependency. That’s something that’s always bothered me about certain charities and the way they distribute aid. It’s not about just throwing money at a problem without seriously looking into the issue. AfriKids listen and identify the problems and issues, they then empower the communities and individuals to make a difference for themselves. They help in many different ways, which can be anything from micro-finance training or small business loans to education or training people up in a trade. The end result is that the beneficiaries can contribute back into their own communities and projects. It’s actual sustainability, instead of just sustainability being used as a buzzword.”
A selection of Dave’s portraits of the people he met in Africa adorn one wall, to highlight the charity’s work to any unknowing visitors. The idea for Brown to undertake this exhibition was theirs, even if the concept was his, and he is keen to point out the amazing amount of support they and their associates have given him on the project – including a number of corporate sponsors. However, the actual organisation of the shoots, editing the results, getting artist approval and arranging the printing, framing is almost entirely the work of one man, and he’s been designing the brochure and posters into the bargain. Not that Dave, ever the perfectionist, would have it any other way, of course.
“It’s been really full on, but it’s been great,” he tells us. “You do kind of forget that it’s so time consuming, because there’s so much you need to do. I didn’t have much time to get this together, I had to take some time off in the summer and then it just ended up that I had about 2 months to fill a gallery. I did take some of the early ones back in May, and just kept thinking I had ages. Getting hold of comedians is hard, because they’re very busy people as you know, and they’re always on the move. Trying to get to people through their agents isn’t easy too, so I’m lucky that I could draw upon those I know well.”
When the people Dave knows include Richard Ayoade, Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Tom Meeten, Dan Clark and Rich Fulcher, you can’t really fault the results as a fan of new-wave comedy. Look further into the collection, and you find Dolly Wells, Neil Cole, Kevin Eldon, Sarah Kendall, Phill Juptius, Bill Bailey… the list goes on and on. To bag so many great names, with such fascinating faces is an impressive achievement.
“It kind of built it’s own momentum,” Dave reveals. “As it was getting further on and I was taking more shots, they began to look great as a set, and people were seeing them through my emails or through meetings and the word was spreading. Agents and subjects themselves would say: ‘Oh, you know who’d be up for this and great to shoot!’ It’s just snowballed, and in the last month I’ve shot a hell of a lot of people. At times, I’ve been doing three people a day.”
Such a large body of work over such a short space of time is bound to share a common vibe, which understandably helped the end results. “I’ve got a way that I wanted to shoot everyone,” Brown states, “and you’ll see with the actual exhibition that there’s a definite look to them all. I wanted to be in close, and being quite awkward in places – invading people’s space and getting a little bit of that across. I also wanted to show some bleak environments and locations, all stumbled upon and improvised, which helps bring them together. I’m really happy with them as a set.”
Not that it was always easy getting hold of people, for long enough to get results. “With some of them it’s been literally just trying to squeeze them in,” he explains. “Pre gig, post gig, on the way to somewhere, anything. We’ve had five minutes, and I’ve got no lights, no assistant and no idea in my head what I’m going to take in terms of location, I’ll probably have a quick recce within walking distance before I meet but that’s it. It’s all been really quite spontaneous and unplanned.”
“But I’m really pleased with them,” he reiterates. “And obviously to get them all framed and unified really makes a difference. I’ve got some huge A0 prints that look brilliant at the end of a room, because it’s great to see some pieces up big. There’s one of Tony Law with his magnificent tash at the end of the gallery… that man has a powerful look!”
TVO wonders if knowing the subject better has helped or hindered the process. Dave appears to be divided on the matter. “With people like Noel and Julian, who I know well,” he suggests, “I’ve been able to spend some time with them getting it right. But it’s difficult actually shooting people you know, but haven’t seen for a while, like Lee Mack, for example. I’ve known Lee since living with him in Edinburgh back when we did Auto Boosh, we’ve kept in touch over the years, but I haven’t seen him for ages. I went to meet him at a publisher’s, when he was signing copies of his book, just because that was a window that he had… but after spending half hour talking, and catching up, he was told his car had arrived and he had to leave in five minutes to go to do The One Show and I hadn’t taken a single shot! Just when I thought I was going to have to arrange a re-shoot we grabbed a dozen shots in the toilet just before he had the quickest wet shave I’ve ever witnessed!” He laughs, adding wrly: “Glamour, huh? But that’s turned out to be many people’s favourite shot, so who knows?”
“Everyone’s been amazingly helpful,” Brown continues. “Those who’ve managed to fit me in have been really keen and up for it, though there’s still some people that I’m annoyed I haven’t been able to get. I’m not giving up!”
Oh, really? TVO is certainly intrigued. “Well, some people are too busy or away but some have been a little, shall we say, aloof,” Brown states, sardonically. “Like Paul Foot for instance. I saw him in Edinburgh an he said he’d do it, but we don’t seem to be able to make it happen. Maybe he doesn’t like the idea of being moody for me… though I did some shots for him with Noel as a favour for his Edinburgh show a few years ago, so technically he owes me!” Perhaps a public call for assistance will suffice? “The offer’s there, Paul…” he states “Whenever you’re ready, Foot, stop body swerving me and get on your frown for Brown!”
It seems that there’s life in the idea, yet. “I’m going to carry it on,” Dave states. “They’d make a great book. A miserable, melancholy coffee table book for psychiatrist’s waiting rooms! People seem really intrigued by the idea of seeing comedians in a different light. They are moody shots, but I like to think they are beautifully composed, lit and cropped to make the subject look epic and strong. I’d love to tour the exhibition, and get it going out there, you know. All of this has been done on a severe budget, because it’s for charity, but we’ve had great help from so many people, and people have been really complementary about it, so it’d be good to keep it alive after this.”