thu 03/12/2020

Q&A/Gallery: Photographer Rich Hardcastle | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A/Gallery: Photographer Rich Hardcastle

Q&A/Gallery: Photographer Rich Hardcastle

Portraits from the halls of comedy fame

'Does anyone have any objections to holding a dead animal?' Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait of the MonthAll images © Rich Hardcastle

From Edinburgh to London and back, via Tatooine and Port Talbot, Rich Hardcastle has photographed playwrights and magicians, burlesque dancers and rugby captains, and regularly adorned the covers of The Big Issue, FHM and The Sunday Times Culture section.

From Edinburgh to London and back, via Tatooine and Port Talbot, Rich Hardcastle has photographed playwrights and magicians, burlesque dancers and rugby captains, and regularly adorned the covers of The Big Issue, FHM and The Sunday Times Culture section. Along the way, though, the 40-year-old Londoner has missed no opportunity to shoot the great and the good-humoured, has documented Karl Pilkington’s idiocy abroad, and has produced the pictures for the illustrated book of Extras. Photographing funny faces, it turns out, is something of a specialism – and this month, his portrait of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan has been selected as the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait of the Month. Rich Hardcastle talks to theartsdesk about good photos, bad posters, and his sometimes thankless mission to turn comedians into rock stars.

ASH SMYTH Why portraits?

RICH HARDCASTLE: I always knew I wanted to do celebrity portraits – because more people would see your work! And I had always liked celebrity photography – or certain celebrity photography. When I was about 17 my dad got me The Rolling Stone Book of Portraits. It had iconic shots from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, from Janis Joplin to Bon Jovi standing there with flowing mane. And nestled in amongst these were a couple of photos by a guy called Matt Mahurin, and one of those photos was of Tom Waits – and it was the only photo I’d ever seen where you looked at the photo and heard the music. That really opened my eyes to the idea that a portrait could actually say something about a person, as opposed to the proliferation of stylised glossy images that are… just pictures.

Why comedians?

I wanted to do rock stars, and bands, and film stars. And I thought, rather than practising on my friends, I would just start photographing celebs. I was at art college in Edinburgh, and it was the comedy festival at the time. I was a fan of comedy, but thought it was about time that photographers starting shooting comedians as people who just happened to be comedians. Because a lot of it was jump-out-from-behind-a-pot-plant kind of stuff, or pull-a-funny-face. Or my other bugbear, which is them standing there with a microphone in their hand.

Hardcastle on shooting comedians: 1

  1. Eddie Izzard This is a really old photo, and I think proof of how comedians felt about what I was doing in terms of their portraits. I was offered an exhibition of comedian’s portraits at the Assembly Halls. So I got in touch with Eddie’s people and they said he was up for doing it,“but he’s going to be in New York when you want to do the shots”. I had no money to go to New York, and a rather wonderful comedian friend of mine called Adam Hills got lots of comedians to all chip in a tenner to pay for my ticket, which was really lovely. They wanted that picture – of Eddie being sort of rock‘n’roll – to exist.
  2. Stephen Fry This was taken for a Twitter benefit gig for Paul Chambers, the guy who tweeted about blowing up Robin Hood airport. Isn’t that a hell of a nose? It’s about two-thirds of his face! And you don’t realise how wonky it is. There’s a little perspective here, but really, not much! He looks like he might be Liam’s Neeson’s retired boxing coach. I was shooting Stephen for something else – for Great Ormond St – so I just took one for myself, while I had him. There are certain people where you don’t really need an idea, or a set. Some people just have remarkable faces.

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So I sought out this guy called Stephen Frost, an old stalwart of the comedy scene who used to do Carling Black Label adverts. And he loved his portrait so much that when I met him a couple of nights later at Bannerman’s pub on the Cowgate, he spotted some friends of his on another table and said, “You should let this guy photograph you.” Jo Brand, Sean Hughes, Bill Bailey, Phill Jupitus… I sort of endeared myself to them by photographing them as rock stars. I think I was the first person who photographed them like that – and that’s what I got stuck doing.

Was the comedy circuit actively looking for a fresh approach?

The way in which they embraced what I was doing leads me to believe that they were. I used to do lots of Edinburgh posters. It would really annoy me that bands had such cool posters and cool pictures, and all the comedians were just photographed against a white background, to make room for quotes: "****" or "GENIUS!"

Are you still in the poster business?

There are a few comedians I still do posters for. There were some quite nice ones in Edinburgh last month. Holly Walsh (pictured below right), for example. That’s a prime example of a beautiful image that the designer actually worked with, rather than destroying by plastering stuff all over it. (There was this beautiful, toned, black-and-white shot I did of Andrew Maxwell once, and on the poster the guy had just turned up the contrast and put some sort of splitting filter on it, to try and make it a more picturesque and dynamic photo. And you just feel, well, maybe if you made your typeface and design a bit more interesting and dynamic you wouldn’t have to butcher my photo!)

And, y’know, I’ve just been lucky because a lot of the people I was photographing back then are now massively successful. I’m also very fast, which I think stood me in good stead, especially when it comes to editorial work where you turn up and they say you’ve only got five minutes with the person.

Do you turn up for shoots with everything planned out, or just see what comes up on the day?

My stuff now is more about ideas, trying to do something a bit different. Back in the day it really was just turning up and trying to take a nice photo of the person. But now everyone can do that. You could just take a nice picture of Paul Smith, say. But the problem is these days everyone’s got digital cameras, and the digital cameras are so good now that you’ve got to bring something else to the game, because anyone can take a photo, and with a memory card that holds 500 photos – well, a chimpanzee will take a good picture if you give him 500 goes and point him in the right direction!

Hardcastle on shooting comedians: 2

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  1. Greg Davies Greg was doing his first Edinburgh show last year, and I’d met him on the Tube, and I’d wanted to photograph him anyway because he’s a funny-looking bloke, so we got chatting and swapped details, and then he emailed me saying, “Look, I actually need to get some stuff done for my show.” The show was called Firing Cheeseballs at a Dog, and the immediate photograph you think of is someone firing cheeseballs at a dog – and that’s a mistake a lot of people make. It’s funnier if the photo is nothing to do with that. Greg, bless him, had this idea of a sort of Heathcliff-on-the-moors shot, standing there strong as the wind blows at his hair. We went down to this theatre-costume-hire place to try on breeches. But he’s such a ridiculous size that we couldn’t find anything to fit him. So I said, “I actually have an idea…”
  2. Holly Walsh This is based on a rather beautiful Richard Avedon shot of Audrey Hepburn. It was done for Holly's show, The Hollycopter. She's an attractive girl and I thought it would be a shame not to give her an attractive photo. All too often female comics' promo shots shy away from that. The addition of the ‘copter cap is self-explanatory, I hope.

How do comedians react to creative steering? Are they easy to work with?

It depends. He’s not a comedian, but I emailed Michael Sheen last week, whom I’ve shot before and we got on really well, and he’d asked me to go down and document The Passion Play in Port Talbot. I had a couple of ideas banging round in my head, and kept seeing him in the photos, and so emailed him and said, “Look, these are my ideas. When you’re back over doing Hamlet do you want to do it?” and he said, “Absolutely!”

Whereas the Rob Brydon/Steve Coogan shot that’s now in the National Portrait Gallery, The Sunday Times wanted to me to come up with something that would depict their combative relationship – and some of their suggestions were, y’know, them growling at each other. But I quite liked the idea of Rob bringing a fieldmouse and Steve bringing an owl – sort of like bringing a knife to a gunfight. I thought it was a good idea, and had a very clear image in my head of what it would look like. But obviously I had to email their respective publicists and say: “This is my idea. Does anyone have any objections to holding a dead animal?” And I think I might have said, “I’ve got a brilliant idea…” So the first thing Coogan says when he turns up is, “Are we doing anything else today apart from your brilliant idea?”

'There’s still, in this country, a real cheapness about comedy, and about promoting comedy'


You're not close friends, then?

Rob Brydon is the loveliest, loveliest man. Steve Coogan’s an absolute [puts hand over Dictaphone. Pretty sure he said "twat", though]. But kudos to him for being true to himself. General consensus is… that he is… and then you meet him, and he doesn’t disappoint!

Do the subjects ever refuse to play along?

No, I think people trust me now. Coogan won’t have been surprised that we got the cover. There can be logistical hurdles, though. In one shoot, with Anna Popplewell, my assistant and I turfed the inside of a listed building without anyone knowing. We tarped off the floor, and brought the grass in, did the shoot, and then the catering arrived so we had a picnic. Afterwards, we said, “Hope you don’t mind, but…” I always think it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.

You mentioned capturing that essence of Tom Waits’s music in a photo. When you photograph comedians do you try to get them to be funny?

No, the opposite. I just try to photograph them. Everyone knows they’re comedians: everyone knows they’re funny. Even if they’re not household names, it’s generally pretty clear: my photograph of Greg Davies, for example.

Hardcastle on shooting comedians: 3

  1. Barry Humphries Not particularly complicated, this one. But I like it. It says everything it needs to say.

  2. Terry Gilliam This was taken when Gilliam was directing The Damnation of Faust at ENO. (There’s another one from the same set that makes him look like Ernest Hemingway.) His is another great face. But I decided I wanted demon horns, so I ended up staying up until 3 in the morning the night before the shoot, making demon horns out of sheet music. If you looked really closely you could see the notes – which he was quite impressed with!
  3. Tim Minchin Unfortunately he can’t actually do this on a chair. Again, this is shot on film, and again, really lo-tech. We moved the table there, and he’s perched on the edge of the table; and then we put the chair in. It’s stupidly simple. But I like it when you shoot in available light: it has more of a sense of reality to it. This is the studio where he was writing the music for Matilda. And he borrowed my jacket. He looks better in it than I do.

  4. Flight of the Conchords I just got them to raid the costume department for as much fur as possible!

  5. Ed Byrne So this is Ed as Faye Dunaway after the Oscars. I was out at Ed’s place, for some reason, and saw the swimming pool and the house, and thought that’d make a great photo. It’s so ramshackle, which just made it funnier (though, to be fair, I think they may just have moved in!). And he’s got a LOL-cat mug. And if you have a pool like that you have to do a Faye Dunaway shot, by the pool at the Chateau Marmont which amazingly doesn’t have any people round it.

  6. Tim FitzHigham This was the first thing I’d ever done with Tim, and for me it sums up a whole ridiculous trip. We’d met at Dara O’Briain’s 30th birthday party, and then we had a meeting at the Groucho Club and he was talking about this idea of doing Don Quixote. He suggested maybe having the shoot in an office, with a table-fan to represent a windmill, and I said, “OK, when can we do it?” and he said, “Well, actually I’m off to La Mancha to see the windmills next week,” so I said, “Why don’t I just come to La Mancha?” It was amazing: 34 degrees, and him running around in a gold suit of armour – with a quilted Barbour jacket underneath.

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Have you ever considered abandoning comedy?

I did get really sick of comedy because it wasn’t earning me any money. There’s a lot of money in comedy, but only for certain people. There’s still, in this country, a real cheapness about comedy, and about promoting comedy. Whereas in the States, if you look at Chris Rock or someone like that, they have great photos, great campaigns: they spend money on it. Here it is just always someone in a suit against a white background. But now that there is more money in comedy, and people are promoting it more, I am getting magazine work photographing comedians. Before it was very unusual to photograph a comedian for a magazine because they just weren’t in it that much.

Whom would you like to photograph that you haven’t yet?

Comedy-wise? Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Garry Shandling… Billy Connolly.

And outside of comedy? Do you have a list?

Oh yeah. And it’s quite a long list. Mostly it’s just so that you get a chance to meet them, really. That’s a real bonus of this job. I always say I photograph people with interesting day jobs. Tom Waits. Johnny Depp. Keith Richards. Y’know, all the sort of gnarly-looking people, people with interesting faces.

Do you use digital cameras yourself, or are you a film purist?

I used to shoot on film until just a couple of years ago. Medium format. But the back-up’s not really there any more, and clients don’t want to wait. It’s slightly annoying when you’re shooting with digital and after you’ve taken a couple of photos everyone trots over to have a look at the back of your camera. I don’t like that.

Hardcastle on shooting comedians: 4

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  1. Karl Pilkington I’ve known Karl for years, and photographed him a lot. And he does just have the most remarkably round head. This one was more about the shape of his head than about him being an idiot! Originally I saw the image as being a lot more close-up, so you’d be able to read the words, and I was going to impose the words for things like "Twixes" and "monkeys". It would have been hysterical. And I shot this like it was real: no studio light. So I shot the table and the phrenology head, and then got Karl to stand there and shot his face. On film, too. Insane. Normally you do stuff like that on digital. And it worked. Must be a couple of times a month I get an email from someone asking where they can buy the head, and even Karl’s girlfriend asked if they could keep the bust. I’ve said to Karl that once we reach 100 emails we should actually make some – and the top of the head should lift off, to keep belly-button fluff in, or something.
  2. Ricky Gervais When I went to art college, for my Master’s show I was kind of building worlds inside rooms. The idea of the show was creating godheads for things that didn’t have them – the martyr of the pigeons, or the Madonna of the bees – and there’d be this bold religious pastiche. I’ve always wanted to get back to that, and the Ricky clown shot really fitted in. I’m hoping there’ll be a bigger project along these lines: involving Ricky, Michael Sheen, Paul Smith and others. Hopefully for an exhibition. Hopefully without any comedians. Apart from Ricky.

What are you doing with the rest of your day?

I’ve got to pick up some prints that I entered into the Taylor Wessing Award, a big photography award that I enter every year and every year curse myself for entering. I’m no longer going to enter. It started out, many years ago, as the John Kobal Award (he was a Hollywood photographer who then amassed this archive of glamorous stuff): celeb-heavy stuff, but good. Then it was the Deloitte Touche, or whatever, and it got more and more worthy, and now, they call it a portrait competition, but it’s fucking reportage! You walk round and it’s an African woman who’s just been raped, or a kid in a mental asylum in St Petersburg, or an Indian street kid. They should just be honest about it: this is a reportage/documentary-portrait competition. Specially when you’re charging people to enter. Every year I go along thinking it will change, but it’s just really bleak. I stupidly entered this year, but I won’t again. It’s a waste of money.

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