IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVE BEST
Steve Best is a comedian and a photographer, combining both these passions into a fascinating career. He is also a twin. "My twin brother is ten minutes older than me. Time, I'm told, for my mum to have a cup of tea in-between deliveries," says Steve. Growing up in Surrey in England, Steve now lives and works in London with his wife, son and daughter. Steve has been on the British comedy circuit since 1992 and in that time he has been lucky enough to work with and make friends with a lot of comedians. He is welcome in any green room, camera and all. "So me having a camera doesn’t make me a photographer to them, but just a comedian with a camera," Steve explains. He has an extraordinary talent to capture those rare moments that tell a compelling story with sensitivity, realism and humour.
This ten year project has been close to Steve's heart and he has previously published two books 'Comedy Snapshot' and 'Joker Face' with over 1000 comedian portraits. He is due to release his third book 'Comedians', a high end coffee table book, and Steve shares with The Pictorial List some of those selected shots, "I've been documenting my scene, the comedy scene, backstage and on stage, the highs and the lows, the camaraderie and the competition, the loneliness and the isolation, and the outright joy of being a stand-up comedian." TPL Editor, Karin Svadlenak-Gomez interviews Steve to find out more about his new book, himself, his comedy, and his photography.
“It takes a comedian to know a comedian and Steve just instinctively knows how to get the shot. The pictures that capture the joy, laughter and camaraderie of those off-stage moments and what it is to be part of the gang of clowns…."
ZOE LYONS (comedian)
Tell us a bit about yourself. Talk to us about your work and life. What made you decide to become a comedian?
I was born in Epsom, Surrey, England. I now live in London, close to Kings Cross and Russell Square, a member of the Bloomsbury set 😉
I was so good academically at school but really got obsessed with magic and general performing around the age of 13, and after that couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
I have been all around the world being silly, toured with Frank Skinner, been on TV a few times, and have never had an interview for a proper job or indeed had a 'proper' job. I’m visiting lecturer at Middlesex university teaching stand-up comedy on the drama course.
Top L: Julian Clary/Paul Thorne; Top R; David Baddiel; Bottom L: Harry Hill; Bottom R: Stewart Lee
What has it been like, being a comedian during the pandemic? What were the challenges - and were there any opportunities too?
It was very tough. Everything went overnight. For everyone in the entertainment industry. Some took to Zoom and social media platforms…but I didn’t quite catch on. I ended up walking around Hyde Park taking pictures of parakeets and swans! And taking out a bounce back loan :(
“No one takes photos of comedians like Steve. Why? Because he knows us, because he’s one of us. No one captures the atmosphere backstage like him because no one has the access - to us he’s just Steve, and he’s got his camera with him again, we stop trying to impress or be funny - no mean feat for a comic - and CLICK! he’s got us."
HARRY HILL (comedian)
When and how did you become interested in photography?
My mum was an artist, a pen and inker. Pretty early on when I started comedy I began to have an interest in photography. I did a darkroom course and hung out at the Battersea Art Centre in their darkrooms. I did a few jobs for my flatmate at the time who worked for Victim Support. I then carried a point and shoot with me when gigging, and the rest is history.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
It’s strange coming from the comedy world into photography as I am a doer rather than a studier…I’ve never really studied photography (or comedy) so I just did my own thing without being guided by seeing professional photographer’s work… Now I really do have a hugely broad catholic taste in art and photography.
Top L: Reginald D Hunter; Top R: Shappi Khorsandi; Bottom L: Jeremy Hardy; Bottom R: Dara O`Briain
In general, where do you find your inspiration and creativity?
That’s a tough one, as I don’t want to come across arty farty, but one’s life, nature, experiences dictate where your creativity and inspiration comes from. Like comedy, one can be taught the mechanics, how to write a joke, hold the microphone etc. but the funny bone, the timing, the funny…Can that be taught? Just like in photography, the basics, how the camera works, the mechanics, light etc. but the creativity and inspiration, it’s just who you are? If you hear a joke said in a certain way you can often tell what comedian said it, just as you see a photograph you can often tell who shot it…Wow! That did get arty farty.
Does being a comedian yourself open doors to photographing your peers?
Absolutely. No question. I’ve been lucky to be around, gig with and make friends with a lot of comedians, and so I am one of them. So me having a camera doesn’t make me a photographer to them, but just a comedian with a camera.
What is your favourite place to photograph other comedians? Onstage or off? And why?
Probably the Comedy Store in London. There is such a history to the place. And on top of that, it really is a great venue to shoot in, because it’s a purpose built comedy club, with great sight lines, weird and wonderful angles, great lighting, and the backstage area, although quite small for such a big club, is full of mirrors, which I love.
What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? If so, why?
I have been using the Fujifilm X-series cameras for most of my professional life, starting with the marvellous X-Pro1. I now have invested in the medium format GFX50s for my portrait shoots (with the 80mm F1.7 and F32-64 F4), which is just fantastic. In fact I have taken the GFX to live shoots too and although regarded more as a studio camera have worked out a way to get great live shots. I also now have a Leica Q for backstage and some front stage shots. This is a sublime camera and ideal for live work as it’s near silent in operation and great in low light.
Omid Djalili/Jack Dee
L: Jon Udry; R: Adam Buxton/Seann Walsh
You are publishing a big new photobook this year - congratulations! What can we expect to find in it? Where can people get it?
I already have two little books out with my shots of comedians and their jokes and facts, Comedy Snapshot (2014) and Joker Face (2017), but this next book, COMEDIANS is the big arty coffee table book. 240 pages with over 100 fine art photographs of my shots of comedians backstage and front of stage. Harry Hill has written the introduction. It’s going to be beautiful. You can pre-order now at www.stevebest.com (please) x.
*Editor's Note: If you would like to order a copy of the new photo book, you can order it directly on Steve's website. Show your support, please!
Are there any special projects that you would like to let everyone know about?
COMEDIANS the book… I’m designing, preparing, sorting it all out now. Hopefully launching in Spring/Summer this year. I’m also working with a charity, Game Therapy UK, who are helping with the book, and in return I am putting on a show at the Comedy Store for them on Monday 16th May. So far we have Al Murray, Shappi Khorsandi and Nick Helm. And hopefully adding some more big names. Gotta sell those tickets…
L: Jo Brand/Robin Ince; R: Mae Martin
What are some of your goals as an artist and photographer?
To get this new book out, and then to keep creating lovely work, wherever that takes me.
“When I am not on stage performing or out photographing, I (like to)…”
Shooting basketball hoops with my son, hanging out with the family, and having a pack of playing cards in my hand jazzing the sleights I’ve learnt over the years. Oh, and I play a mean flamenco guitar.