When I started focusing full-time on comedy, I could count the number of full-time comedy photographers on one hand. Mindy Tucker was there with me from the beginning. Seth Olenick set up interesting shots in New York City, while Robyn Von Swank did the same out in Los Angeles.
The digital comedy boom has also been a boon for photographers, and you can see it in the headshots and portraits and show shots that flood our Instagram and Facebook feeds.
Dan Dion is one of the OGs, if not the Oest of Gs, in the comedy photography game. The house photographer at both of San Francisco’s main comedy clubs, the Punch Line and Cobb’s Comedy Club, Dion’s portraits line the walls not only there, but also in the hallways of New York City’s Gotham Comedy Club, The Comedy Store in Sydney (Australia), the Curious Comedy Theater in Portland (Ore.), The Guilded Balloon in Edinburgh (Scotland), and The Comedy Store in Manchester (UK). Dion also has worked with Montreal’s Just For Laughs for 15 years and serves as JFL’s Gala portrait photog. Dion has booked shows at the late great San Francisco venue, The Purple Onion, produced shows for Audible, and recently began work as the comedy curator for Apple Music.
You’ve seen Dion’s portraits in magazines around the world, in the 2010 book, ¡Satiristas!, with Paul Provenza; he also put out a children’s book, Tuesday Tucks Me In, about a wounded veteran and his service dog.
In 2019, Dion has gone into his vaults to share classic shots each day on Instagram and Twitter, #365ComedianPortraits.
So I remember you did a similar thing in 2013. What prompted you to bring the social media project back this year?
“I had six more years of work, and I also wanted to dig into old shows and see what I might have missed. I’m not repeating any of the 2013 posts, which I felt were my best at the time, so it’s fun to go back and revisit shoots.”
What have you noticed about the business of comedy photography as comedy itself has boomed these past 14 years?
“Funny you bring up 14 years, because I went digital exactly 14 years ago. A huge difference in the digital age is that there’s no conservation of shooting, fewer waiting for moments.
When it comes to portraits, because there’s no cost, many shooters don’t know when to stop. Some photographers need a camera with a feature that tells them “Enough””
How have the new kids upped your game, or forced you to adapt and evolve?
“It’s a business challenge when there are other people willing to give your medium away for free. But that’s always been there, and it’s far worse with concert photography.
I like to follow anyone who shoots comics as a specialty, because you have to really love the art to do it that much. Can’t say I’ve been “forced” to do anything; I’ve always been a location photographer that lets portraits happen by setting them up, if that makes sense.”
What’s the most important thing to capturing a comedian in his or her best light, so to speak?
“For me, the most important things are comfort and trust. Then lighting, expression, location…. concept is actually really low on that list. My favorite comic photographer is Andy Hollingworth in the UK- a blend of personality, artistic lighting, dynamic composition… and concept added as needed for his posters and comics’ campaigns.”
When you shoot someone you’ve already taken portraits of before, do you consciously (or subconsciously) try to get the same shot so you can mark the passage of time side by side? Do you try to do something completely different? Or do you not really think about the past shoots at all and just focus on the occasion at hand?
“It’s important to me that there’s context to the portraits, so I always try to have the venue or location as a part of it, which often means a wide shot, and I’ll usually lean towards the different instead of duplicating an earlier shot. Then if I know that I have what I need, I may go for some tight shots, especially if someone has a really expressive face without mugging.
The most important thing for me is that my subject likes the shot, and that follows from making an honest portrait and selecting a frame that really represents them.
While I certainly do shoots that have a purpose such as promoting shows or albums, I like (and I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious), art for art’s sake, the same way I love stand-up as an end in itself. Calling comedy ‘content’ is like calling filet mignon ‘fuel.'”