*This piece was originally posted August 28, 2013
For me, a photographer’s job is equal parts documentarian and storyteller, capturing the essence of a particular moment or creating one within their frame. Despite my roots shooting live music, for the majority of my career I have focused on the latter. When I was getting started in photography, I would often stage elaborate studio shoots, but more recently, I have enjoyed stripping away the exaggerated props and sets I used to rely on, to shoot portraits that connect the viewer to the subject in a more intimate way. Working in a studio, you can plan your moves, control and manipulate the lighting to explore your creative vision, and pose and direct your subjects. This is where I am most comfortable, and the opposite of what I was doing at the .
Marc Maron, Brendon Walsh and Matt Braunger all performed at the Festival, and I had the opportunity to follow and photograph them over the course of three days, on and off stage. Throughout this series, I had to embrace the unpredictable – lighting was often terrible, moments were fleeting and my subjects were on the move. My goal was to provide a rare and intimate glimpse into their lives as they navigated their hectic festival schedules during the evenings, and endured long hours of downtime during the day.
Knowing that I couldn’t control any aspect of what we were doing was uncomfortable, but as we entered each new setting I would make a plan of attack. In the dark comedy venues, I would scan the room for any sign of light. When I found it, I focused in on that area and waited for my subject to either walk through the light or stand in or around it. I would then take as many shots as I could. If that didn’t work, I would flat out ask them to step into an area that was better lit. Outside of the club setting I had the ability to shoot more freely as the lighting conditions often brightened up and I was much less limited. I began collecting moments and pulling the scenes I saw unfolding around me through my camera.
It was important to record each comic’s personality and experiences with truth and authenticity. Maron, Walsh and Braunger may share the same creative platform, but their comedic styles and personalities are all very unique. Even though I tried to keep myself out of the story, as a photographer you need to develop rapport with your subject. I just had to do it without calling attention to myself or pulling the comics out of the moment.
As I met each comedian, I found myself molding my personality to fit in with theirs, in an effort to capture and highlight who they were without being a distraction. What I found compelling was seeing where their personalities were tied to their on-stage style and where they were in contrast. I was able to catch up with all three comedians individually when they had some downtime. This allowed me to see them in a more day-to-day context, and while still a part of the festival experience, it was outside of the comedy club setting.
Before meeting Walsh, I had a picture of him in my mind based on his performances, his twitter feed, and a notable line in a group email discussing this collaboration, where he warned me that he was going to be drunk and abusive for the entire festival. I took that with a grain of salt until others on the chain chimed in with a similar and very specific warning: that he would very likely barf in my mouth. I hoped that was a joke.
I wasn’t sure how to prepare to meet someone who I had been warned might vomit in my mouth, so I just braced myself. When he arrived at the airport, I was surprised to shake hands with a pretty relaxed, pretty tired, pretty nice dude. I suppose it takes more than a quiet photographer to evoke his confrontational, prankster side, and the only time that came out throughout the festival was during his performances.
Matt Braunger, both in person and during his act, was very warm, likeable and relatable. Backstage he was relaxed and playful. He joked around with the other comedians and transitioned easily from backstage banter to his onstage performance. I found him easy to talk to and when we stopped for a drink between shows one night, it felt more like catching up with an old friend than getting to know someone I’d only met the day before. He made me feel like a part of the scene and not just the observer.
As a regular listener of Maron’s WTF podcast, I have easily spent hundreds of hours listening to him speak and conduct interviews, so I thought I knew what to expect and what he would be like. Meeting him was like living inside an episode I was listening to. The problem was that when Marc asked me a question I would wait for his guest to answer, until it dawned on me that I was the one that needed to respond. He didn’t seem to notice, or was too nice to call attention to my long pauses.
For most comedians performing at the festival, evenings were filled with multiple shows at different venues. As I followed the comics from one place to the next, I found the backstage antics increasingly fascinating. Each comedian prepared differently and their routine would vary each night, but this too seemed to depend on whom they were sharing the green room with. If they were performing with comedians they knew well already, it seemed much more lively than when I heard a lot of introductions being thrown around. Almost everyone carried a notebook and spent a little bit of time reviewing it before meeting their audience.
The green rooms themselves also played a noticeable roll in creating an atmosphere. The Yuk Yuk’s green room was very small and intimate, seating three or four with a few fold-up chairs, an office chair, and the best spot, a leather armchair. A room this small either brought its occupants together and got them to open up to each other, or made an awkward silence even more uncomfortable. There was no middle ground.
The room also acted as the booker’s office with a desk set up in one corner. As he ate dinner by the computer one night before a show, Walsh pointed out that the computer mouse lit up with alternating colors as it moved along the desktop. He told me that these “wacky” touches are common backstage at comedy clubs.
Backstage at the Comedy Mix, comfortable couches were arranged around a TV streaming a live feed of the performances, with only a curtain separating the room from the stage. The comics could watch each other perform without leaving the room, although some would sit off to the side of the stage anyway. The living room vibe sometimes made it feel like a gathering of friends at a house party, and I wondered if the audience through the curtain ever heard their banter.
Venue – confusingly, the name of a venue – had a long, narrow, blue backstage lounge. Seating was clustered at each end, splitting people into smaller groups as they prepared for the live WTF show. It looked as though it was a great space for Maron to do his pre-show prep. Marc sat at one end of the room to have a preliminary chat with each of his guests. This is where he took notes and asked the infamous question, “Are we OK?” Braunger seemed to be wondering that himself. He wanted clarification about a comment he heard Maron had made about him, and though they had a quick discussion about it in advance, Maron suggested they save the full conversation for the stage.
Margaret Cho was first up on the show that also included Braunger, Walsh, Andy Kindler and Carmen Lynch. Although I didn’t hear their one-on-one pre-show talk, Marc’s reaction made it increasingly obvious that he didn’t expect her in-depth analysis of his dick size. Since he is so revealing in his comedy and on the podcast, it’s surprising to find a topic that makes Marc uncomfortable, but Margaret managed to do it, and you can hear it all play out on the podcast.
At the end of any good live show, the energy from a strong performance hangs in the air, holding audience members in their seats. They are reluctant to leave even though they know the show is over. I felt the same way at the end of this fascinating project and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I enjoyed meeting these gifted performers, being a part of their world, and it seemed to end as suddenly as it began. But that is one of the beautiful things about being a photographer. We sample other worlds, observe them, participate in them in a small way, and then share our experiences through the lens of our personal perspective.
Get Lost With Marc Maron, Matt Braunger & Brendon Walsh Courtesy Of Leigh Righton
*All images copyright Leigh Righton 2013. Images may not be reproduced without author’s written consent.