If you’ve ever been to a comedy show–or, if you’ve ever been minding your own business at a bar before being ambushed by a comedy show–you know that Chicago’s known for being a robust comedy city. Part of what makes it formidable is the strength of Chicago’s comedy photographers. You know the ancient adage: if a comedy show happens and no one sees it on Instagram, did it really even happen?
Comedy photographers work late hours, on weeknights and weekends, for not a lot of money (if any), to make fancy photos readily available to comics. (Full disclosure: I myself am a comedian who has worked with the photographers mentioned below.) Comedians use photos for bigger opportunities, for their personal social media, and sometimes to convince their grandparents that yes, they are real comedians, even if they’re not getting “paid” in “money.”
Here are three major players in Chicago’s comedy photography scene.
When Sarah Larson photographed her first comedy show in 2015, she had no idea that it would propel her into becoming one of Chicago’s most prominent indie comedy photographers.
“I thought I wanted to own a flower shop,” she says, laughing.
You can tell that Larson’s spent most of her adult life working with gentle plants–she’s the type of person who would offer a venomous spider a cup of coffee on its way to murdering people. It’s that same perfectionist’s touch of arranging a bouquet that also lends itself to darting around a room to snag a profile-pic-worthy photo, while being imperceptible to the audience.
Larson mostly photographs indie shows, which can range from the long-running Paper Machete in Uptown to shows at the Hideout to random bar shows run by 23-year-old men with no bed frames (my words, not hers).
It started after a childhood friend and comedian asked her to photograph his show. She was a hobbyist back then, using her point-and-shoot to document nature and friends. Soon after his show, she was asked to photograph Rat Pack Comedy, a now-defunct weekly show in Uptown. She almost turned it down. “I was just starting to do photography stuff, and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have any experience,'” she says. “I didn’t know anybody. I was really nervous.” But she accepted. As she got more serious, she enrolled in photography classes.
Soon she was turning down headshots and other sessions because they conflicted with her day job. She finally went full-time as a photographer in 2018. Now, she splits her time between photographing events and comedy shows.
Larson is all about candid moments, often shooting in the slivers of space between a setup and a punchline. “I like to capture moments in between jokes, like if a comic looks down and smiles, because they’re thinking about something,” she says. “Or interactions between the audience and comics. I’ve seen so many people’s sets where I know them and I know when people are about to laugh.” She was influenced by album covers in high school, and considers that while editing. The more bombastic visuals and the stronger a venue’s lighting is, the better. You wouldn’t think an image of a PowerPoint detailing feces in horrific detail could look like a work of art until Larson photographs it.
She still gets nervous going to new shows. But one thing that’s delighted her about the scene is how tight-knit it is. “They’ve accepted me, I feel like, and support me and put my name out there,” she says. “And there’s so much talent in Chicago. To see how much comics have changed and grown over the years is pretty cool to watch. And I’m growing, too.”
As for the flower shop? “I worked there last week. For a few hours, just to help out,” she laughs.
When you see photos of a performer on the Laugh Factory stage, for a second–if you’re foolish–you believe that the pink-yellow glow of the Laugh Factory’s stained glass backdrop is naturally washing the performer in sunset jewel tones. That’s how easy Ashley NiCole’ makes it look. She’s got a special spot at the Laugh Factory where she’ll shoot from multiple angles with the intention of grabbing a shot that pops. Photos are living, breathing entities; when you’re looking at one of NiCole’s, she wants you to feel like you were at the party.
She’s been a photographer for 15 years, professionally for eight, and a comedy photographer for nearly four. In addition to Laugh Factory photos, NiCole’ freelance shoots indie shows, headshots, and even some food. NiCole’ is ambitious in an aspirational way. She works hard because she wants her work to be personally meaningful, not to be impressive to other people. Hearing her talk about photography makes you want to start writing your novel, or at the very least reorganize your sock drawer.
“No matter where you’re at, no matter what show you’re doing, there’s always a perfect spot,” she says. “No matter how crappy a location may look, there’s always a spot somewhere in the room where you can make that person look like the most important person in the whole world.”
NiCole’ was homeschooled and started photography and graphic design at 15 in suburban Indiana. As a creative kid, she struggled to focus so she started taking art classes, photography included. Her teacher noticed she had a good eye, and NiCole’ kept at it. She soon moved to Chicago to cut her teeth as a photographer.
“I wasn’t even trying to be in comedy. It just kind of happened,” she laughs. After an unexpected period of unemployment, NiCole’ interviewed with Curtis Shaw Flagg, operations manager at the Laugh Factory, for a position as a graphic designer. He hired her on the spot. She credits him for providing a space to house her talents. Soon after, she began shooting shows and established a headshot studio within the club.
NiCole’s ascent didn’t happen overnight. Being a Black woman in a field that’s 79 percent white and predominantly male could be likened to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. “A lot of people don’t realize how few people of color are actual professional photographers,” she says. “It’s really, really hard to be taken seriously, which is why I’ve been doing photography for so long, and now just finally getting my foot somewhere.”
With that in mind, NiCole’ has POC performers’ backs. She’s an expert in color-correcting photos for darker skin tones to ensure that photo subjects don’t look too dark, washed-out, or orange-skinned . “A lot of times people don’t consider the lighting hits different on Black and Brown tones than how they might hit on a white person,” she says.
Being a comedy photographer has embedded NiCole’ into the scene. “When something really cool happens, you get to cheer them on, you get to raise them up, you get to celebrate with them. When something bad happens, you get to cry,” she says. “I don’t have to be a comedian to share the love with the scene. I’m very much part of the community and I really, really, really love that.”
Chris Santiago loves to hang. In fact, he loves to hang so much that he’ll drive around the city with his camera and lighting equipment just to photograph comedians in their homes. Well, that, and he’s addicted to collecting things. And on a galaxy brain level, he needs a concrete reminder of his own existence. It all coalesces into why he’s embarked on a project to document the Chicago comedy scene, which he calls a “visual, historical record of people that were doing this one specific thing during a span of time.” So far he’s done more than 100 shoots of comedians in their homes. It’s exhausting, but doable for someone who is the human equivalent of a bouncy ball, vibrating with frenetic energy.
First a photojournalist and then an art teacher for 13 years, Santiago started doing stand-up in 2016 as a way to be less isolated after going freelance to write a book. He soon found that the scene turned over periodically, and his instinct to document kicked in. He embarked on the project in March 2018. “People come here, stay for five years or less, build up their material, and leave. And I wanted to capture that changing face of the scene,” he says. “And also to see people’s stuff. I’m very curious about that.”
When choosing who to photograph, Santiago and the FBI have one thing in common: both of them got lists. He lists open mikers, seasoned veterans, representatives of cliques, unique voices in the scene, and neighborhood eccentrics. “If I go to an open mic and I see someone that is so weird, I’ll be like, ‘I have to capture this person,'” he says.
It’s also his way of historicizing how he wants to remember the scene–he tends to reach out to more comedians of color. “Being an Asian man, being a POC, I want to represent that part of the scene,” he says. “I think the collection will look more diverse than the scene actually is, which would be intentional.”
There’s the intimacy of being in a private space that allows for more open and vulnerable conversation that’s more substantial than, say, having a drunk conversation at 2 AM after a show. Santiago has BDE (Big Dad Energy), which means he respects bedtime. Plus, hanging out during the day opens the opportunity for conversations about people’s lives outside comedy.
“Some people are very, very concerned about me coming over, or embarrassed. But it doesn’t matter. I won’t make you look totally broke,” he says, incredulous. “It’s meant to honor the performer and the space they live in. We’ll find something cool to do.”
The portrait sessions indulge goofy surrealism. Santiago doesn’t go into the sessions with a plan; he and the performer figure it out as they go. Sit on a stack of books. Wrap yourself in a blanket like a burrito. Hold your potted plant like it’s a child. Call your mom. The more texture, the better.
The most interesting part of the process has been seeing how comics live, especially compared to his assumptions. “Some people are very settled down,” he says. They’re here for the long haul. And other people are like, ‘I have a table. I have a laptop and this is where I write.” The most common item across apartments? A Nintendo Switch.
His dream is to house the photos in an archive at the Chicago Public Library, or even turn them into a coffee-table book. “Thirty years from now, some kid wants to know a little bit about what comedy looked like in Chicago whenever, and it’s like, oh, there’s this little document of it, of people that were around.” v