Photographer Mindy Tucker has been shooting comedians for nearly a decade. In that time, Tucker has captured a massive photographic record of performers, shows, and parties in venues all over New York. Her “Year in Comedy” series features people from across the spectrum of experience, ranging from comics who are just starting out to big household names. Tucker took some time to talk about where she’s been, where she’s going, and to reflect on the thrilling moments she’s witnessed behind the lens on the New York comedy scene.
How did you get started photographing comedians?
I got started photographing comedians because my friend Carol [Hartsell] was running a show at a place called Rififi and she asked me to do a favor for her and just shoot a couple of photos for her to put on her blog. This was in 2006 and she just needed some stuff to advertise. So that’s how it started.
What do you love most about your work?
We’re getting really close to a decade of far and wide-ranging comedy coverage so it’s really not about one photo, it’s about a continuing series of photos. So it’s really exciting to see people grow and change and you know, it’s been long enough that you see people come into the archive and they’re out every night, they’re working so hard. So you see them a lot over time. They’re just out so much. And then something happens – they go to LA or they get a show or they’re out touring so much that you don’t see them in the archive for a minute – and then they appear at a festival or I go on set and see them, so there is a lot of storytelling over time that’s happening in the archive, and that’s really interesting.
How do you decide who to capture?
It’s an opt-in process. So I don’t go to a show unless I’ve been invited to that show. I do my best to cover people who ask for coverage. In some cases, there might be a lineup where there are five people and I’ve already covered three of them in the last week. If there’s another show that’s asking for coverage, I might have to say no to get to a show where there are more people that I haven’t covered because I’m trying to, as much as possible, represent the wide range of things that are happening in comedy. So I sometimes have to pick and choose that way.
You must witness some interesting things on and off stage. Is there any experience that really sticks out to you as a memorable moment?
I’ve been doing this for so long that I’d almost have to pick a year. There was a Whiplash where someone got engaged. There was a Whiplash that was the roast of Pete Holmes where T.J. Miller, John Mulaney, and Kumail Nanjiani were all on stage roasting Pete. But that’s crazy to think about now as Crashing is on. It’s like oh my gosh, there they are. It’s really fun.
What’s the long-term game plan? How do you envision yourself evolving this project you’ve started?
I try not to think about it too much right now. You know, July 31st, 2018 is what I sort of think of as the official decade of coverage. Because on July 31st, 2008, that was the last night that Rififi was open. That was a big moment in New York comedy. I forget how many comedians were there on stage, but it was over 20, it was a marathon of a show. Shortly after that show, Whiplash started and there was another show at the time at Bowery Poetry Club and another show called Shoot the Messenger, and I was covering all of those shows and they all represented a different part of the comedy community. So that night kind of felt like the end of one thing and the beginning of a lot of other things.
I’ve done whatever I can in this ten years to cover comedy that I think is good and that is so new that other people don’t cover it yet. I try to nurture people who are at that stage in their career where they are good, but they’re not making it yet, but they’re doing the work, and you know that in a year they’ll be ready to go out and do great things. I’m trying to keep the archives going at minimum until that day. The way that all of this gets done is that I work as a portrait photographer. I do advertising and portrait work. I have my own studio. I did SXSW portraits on this painted backdrop that I did and shipped down to Austin. I’ve been playing a lot with the mixture of painting and photography. So the work is changing in my studio and portrait practice and I’m not going to change anything – I’m going to keep my coverage wide-ranging and fair and continuous until July 31st 2018, and then I’ll see how I feel.
In this decade, what would you say is the most challenging part of your work?
Constant exhaustion. I just shot a festival at The Bell House. We were shooting like 13 hours a day for Saturday and Sunday and also Friday night. I’m still working through the edit on that. When I first started, people didn’t really have an expectation of getting their photos the next day. But now people really do, so if I don’t get them out, I start getting e-mails. I think of it differently than other people. Time is not a renewable resource. You can go out, you can change careers, you can figure out a way to get money. But time – there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re either at the show, or you’re not. You can’t go back and fix it, unless you can invent a time machine.
So I’ll sometimes have weeks where – for example, I had Podfest, then I had portrait work this week, and then there is a show tonight that I cannot wait to see. Jordan Temple wrote a play called Hidden Fences, based on an award show snafu – so Jordan Temple has written a play and all these wonderful comedians are in it. And this is the third time they’ve done it. And I haven’t been able to make it. So I’m so excited to see it. But I will have barely turned in the Podfest edit before I get there. And that’s what pays for new cameras and stuff. It’s constant – the struggle. The way I think about it – I kind of don’t care when the photos come out. To me, let’s say a bunch of them pile up, the important thing is that you got them. Because that’s the thing you can’t go back and correct.
One of my favorite photographer stories is the photographer Garry Winogrand – when he passed away, he left an entire freezer of shot film that hadn’t even been developed yet. He left behind a mess for people. He had shot so much that he wasn’t done with his edit yet either. That’s how I want to go out. Just a ton of work and it will take an assistant like a year to figure out what the fuck I was up to. That’s how I plan to go out – with a ton of work and just let someone else figure it out.
Top photo by Marianne Ways; all other photos by Mindy Tucker. Check out more of Tucker’s work over at her website.