If you’ve seen a photo of a working comedian in New York City, then you’ve probably seen a photo by Mindy Tucker.
Credited adoringly in comedians’ Facebook profile pictures, named quietly beneath their press photos, and whispered about between them as the “angel” of their trade, Mindy Tucker has gradually become the household name for comedy photography in New York. Justly so: over the past decade, Tucker has amassed a staggering photographic record of shows, performers and parties in venues across the five boroughs. Since 2012, she’s documented “the year in comedy” with a photographic mosaic of places and faces the likes of Tig Notaro, Mike Lawrence, Chris Gethard, Sasheer Zamata, The Lucas Brothers and Nikki Glaser. Each portrait she takes is marked with her discernible signature — subjects wearing a warm expression, posed comfortably, almost fish-eyed in definition and bearing a striking luminosity.
Unless you’ve met the woman behind the lens, these photos won’t seem especially significant. After all, seeing a comedian’s picture online is just par for their publicity; it doesn’t offer up any meaningful metaphors. And to the uninitiated, Mindy Tucker is just “the press” who snapped the photo. But when we sat down with Tucker to talk about a life in photography, she revealed that she doesn’t see herself as press at all.
“I’m just a very extraordinarily lucky visual artist,” she told Brokelyn.
In fact during our conversation, Tucker was nothing but effusive about her career in comedy photography, expressing sincere bewilderment at having achieved such celebrity on the scene.
“‘For a while I heard that people were even saying “getting a Mindy,'” she joked, indicating with finger quotes that the phrase meant having your photo taken by Tucker. Which, she admitted, she found very strange, because she’s never viewed her photography as exclusive.
“If you’re out there doing the work, I’m trying to find you,” she said.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Tucker moved to Williamsburg in 2000, when the borough still had weirdness to its name and comedy photographer wasn’t even a whisper. New York wasn’t part of the original career plan but, having just graduated from a modular fine arts education at the University of Connecticut, Tucker was listlessly craving an art scene that didn’t feel as “academic” as her degree.
“We were doing studio visits in Brooklyn, back when artists lived here,” Tucker told us. “And we went to a studio in Williamsburg filled with stupid sculptures. One was a bubble machine, that blew smoke I think? I was so sick of academic art.”
Tucker was inspired in part by the sculptures she saw in that studio, and also by the work they later saw at the equally whimsical Crest Hardware Art Show, an annual event at the iconic store on Metropolitan Avenue that mixes artwork in with the hardware.
“[The art scene] felt like Montevallo near my hometown in Alabama, just kooky and amateurish. And I thought, what is that?”
So at 24, Tucker set up shop in a studio at Jackson and Leonard. The rent was $750/month. She attended live shows and took photos of bands for fun. For a long time, the bizarro art that had drawn Tucker in wasn’t translating to her own work. “Factory-educated” to adhere to what she calls “the Tyranny of 20 Slides,” Tucker had been conditioned to shop her photography portfolio around at galleries, begging to be let into group shows in the hopes of one day having her own.
“For three or four years, I banged my head against the wall,” said Tucker. Even when she did land a group show in 2003, and had her pictures mounted for all to see on a 30 x 40 foot wall, Tucker was unhappy.
“I didn’t like it. I was lost, I just gave up.”
The call to comedy came when Tucker’s best friend from high school, Carol Hartsell — now a digital producer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — invited Tucker to shoot her comedy show on the Upper East Side. It took an hour and change to commute from her studio in Williamsburg, but Tucker did it to be a good friend since Hartsell needed photos for her blog.
“This was before Splitsider,” clarified Tucker, referring to The Awl’s comedy website.
When Hartsell’s one-off shows uptown moved to a recurring show in the East Village at the now-shuttered Rififi Bar on 11th Street, the commute was more convenient, and Tucker got to snapping photos of other comedians. Her portfolio grew. And, predictably, so did the demand for her attendance at other shows.
“I really can’t stress this strongly enough. I spent a really long time trying to get into things. Filling out applications, going to galleries. But I have two clichés: one, go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated. Two, the best party to go to is the one to which you’ve been invited.”
Tucker aims to photograph two to three live shows per week. And to this day, she attends only the shows she’s been invited to. Her reason for doing so isn’t so much career-driven as it is common decency: “Photography is an invasive act. It’s rude to show up uninvited.”
In choosing which invitations to accept, Tucker tries to keep it fair and ethical, varying which comedians she covers and how often. “If a lineup has five comedians I photographed recently,” she explained, “then those people are taken care of.”
And amazingly, Tucker doesn’t charge for any of it. Not for attending comedians’ shows, not for the hours she spends editing their portraits and action shots. Why? In part, she feels indebted to the comedy world for giving her an ongoing sense of purpose.
“In the beginning, everyone was my collaborator,” she said. “I’ve been around for so long, and my work grew because of a constant conversation with comedians. It’s a conversation I’m still having to this day.”
The other reason she’s not charging is that she, along with her portrait subjects, understand a higher purpose of the photography: to capture the zeitgeist. Drawing inspiration from Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters photo series, Tucker explained that her comedy portfolio is actually a “long-form documentary project” slowly building out the visual archives of comedy in New York City, that historians and culture-lovers might one day pore over in places like the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts or the Brooklyn Museum.
“My work is a community document,” she said. “Lay it out chronologically, and you’ll see something.”
Tucker still has to make a living, naturally, so she maintains a private photography studio doing portraits, album covers, actors’ headshots and other live events. Given that her career path is so attractively “niche,” we asked her whether she ever struggles with the particular demands of one type of photography over another.
“With music, you can’t hear the camera clicking,” she said. “Though usually it’s lit more interestingly, so you don’t have to work so hard to make it interesting. With comedy, you are the only movement in the room. You have to time shots carefully not to step on a punchline, you have to think about the audience being seated. And [the comedians] are animated and talking, making weird faces.”
She’s certainly risen to meet the aforementioned challenges. Every instance of the artist’s work online, such as the photo of Phoebe Robinson above, demonstrates Tucker’s scholarly sensitivity for best facial angles, lighting playing off performers’ skin, bodies in motion. And just as everyone’s comedy is highly individual, explained Tucker, so is everyone’s picture. “It’s something that makes their comedy really specific to them. It’s different for every person. For some, it’s just about looking calmer and sexier than they look onstage.”
Tucker told us she always knows the perfect shot when she sees it. Unfortunately for all the aspiring photographers out there, it’s not a secret she knows how to share.
“It’s like that quote by Lewis Hines: if I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”
So what’s the takeaway for all us aspiring artists out there? How might we, too, become household names in our respective fields?
“A thing that really bothers me is that people have taken note from career that you should be this super specific thing,” she told us. “You can’t just take a specific thing someone else is being. That’s where the great unhappiness comes from. And the real lesson of my career is that I only found the work I was supposed to do when I stopped trying to make the 20 slides and started nurturing friendships.””
“The Great Unhappiness” sounds like some kind of psych term or a great band name, but it’s really just Tucker’s way of describing what happens when you pine for already-made labels instead of creating your own.
“It’s antithetical to everything you’ve learned about New York, and it’s dumb, it’s Oprah, but listen to your life. I got where I did when I started listening to my life, putting one foot in front of the other. To a place where people seem to be interested in what I have to offer.”
And when Mindy Tucker takes a photo, she’s sure of what she’s offering: a definitive visual record of people who were alive and doing comedy at a specific time, in a place that once existed. She’s especially adamant about this part — contextualizing the comedic canon, against an ever-changing backdrop of New York City venues. “Those places eventually change or close. I’m always thinking about that.”
Want to know what Sam’s always thinking about? Follow her on Twitter: @ahoysamantha