Just looking at some people is enough to make you laugh. The plastic faces of comedians like Chris Farley, John Belushi, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy come to mind from the past 40 years. And if you stretch back into time, you’ll find the insult comic Don Rickles, who passed away at the age of 90.
Of course, there’s no rule that says you must photograph comedians with a strange expression, but for better or for worse, photographers often fall back to stereotypes or tropes to represent a subject through portraiture. We shoot from low angles to make athletes look larger than life, we make our actors assume sexy poses, and comedians, well, let’s take a look!
This publicity shot from the CBS Photo Archive was taken in 1960 to accompany an episode of The Twilight Zone in which he starred with Burgess “The Penguin” Meredith. Rickles’ character – a bar brawlin’ bully – gets a taste of humble pie when aliens grant Burgess the strength of 300 men.
This is a lovely photo. Black and white with a nice grain structure. The depth-of-field is relatively shallow as evidenced by his out-of-focus right shoulder, but not so thin as some of today’s portraits that rely on ultra fast telephoto lenses. One could argue that it’s actually slightly front-focused, but not distractingly so. The lighting gives enough dimensionality to avoid a completely flat look.
For a 2007 assignment, Anne Cusack of the Los Angeles Times shot a series of portraits with Rickles mugging the camera. The catchlight in the eyes suggests a medium to large softbox set off axis. The depth-of-field is similarly narrow, but the focal length is noticeably shorter, which creates a slight distortion of facial features. This would normally be a no-no in portraiture, but it works pretty darn well here.
Verdict: Both photos put a smile on my face, and it’s hard not to be seduced by the black-and-white portrait. But in truth, my favorite image is a different image from Cusack’s series:
Cusack goes in a little closer which noticeably accentuates the barrel distortion of the image giving it an almost comedic effect – and one might claim that that’s the point! It might be a bit snapshot-y and lacks the crispness of the 1960s image, but it sure makes me laugh.