Telling a joke to an audience large or small can be a risk. An edgier joke can offend as many people as it amuses. Using humor in photography carries that same risk. Many photos can have a natural humor, but when a professional photographer is tasked with creating a humorous photo from scratch it can be serious business.
Setting out to take a photo that has to be funny is an daunting task and one that is far more complicated than a dramatic or beautiful photo. Taking a humorous photo that is also dramatic and beautiful an even greater challenge. Photographers Nick Vedros, Andrew Brusso, and David Eulitt share some insight into bringing the humour into their work.
Advertising photographer Nick Vedros has a long track record of taking that risk and succeeding in delivering the funny for his clients and in his personal work. “Humor is more difficult than what most people might believe. I’ve always taken my humor seriously. I love how It can be used to inform and entertain the reader. The marketplace, I feel, needs more humor in it. I remember some early humor photographers and how much I enjoyed seeing it. I felt it would be a good specialty for me to create in the Midwest. At that time the best humor photographers were in NYC, Chicago, or LA. I wanted to try it from Kansas City. I was inspired by the story telling of Norman Rockwell and the wry, sick humor of the cartoonist Gary Larson. I mashed them together and added a dash of steroids from me to authenticate my own style.”
Vedros frequently uses animals in unexpected situations for his advertising clients. “I love animals and recall Aesop's fables using animals to tell a story with an outcome to allow humans to see themselves in a different perspective. I have owned dogs and cats and watch them live their lives. They have inspired some of my imagery. We haven’t always had the luxury of digital imaging and Photoshop. It was more difficult back then. Somehow we always seemed to find a way make the photographs work. We began using digital manipulation in the early 1990s, and it made things easier.”
“The type of humor that I am most often hired to get involved with is called ‘Over the Top.’ It is so ridiculous that everyone gets it with first glance,” Vedros says. “The execution was done with such a high quality that the images were fascinating to look at. The objective was to stop the reader in their tracks and make them keep looking at the ad. The advertiser wanted the reader to know they were in on the joke.”
However his personal taste in humor leans towards more subtle. “In some of my shots I build in subtly that people usually get and understand. I try to create images that are not too smart for the room, meaning people had to get it. My goal was to create an image that would appeal to the mentality of the typical shopper and also to the intelligentsia. I call it high-low. One technique I used was when the door bell rang and the FedEx guy came to deliver a package. I would ask him to look at something. I would show him the image I was working on and ask him to tell me what he was looking at. His comments were taken seriously. I would either dumb down the image to make it more understandable or conversely make it more subtle,” depending on the reaction. He says, “It’s all about balancing your story telling. I try to make my images have a narrative.”
Editorial portrait photographer Andrew Brusso works with both real people and celebrities for magazines and clients like Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, ESPN, Golf Digest, Newsweek, and Reader's Digest among many others. He is known for his humorous work both for publication and in his personal work. "If you're shooting personal stuff then let your freak humor fly and see what sticks. When shooting celebrities or other well known people it can become a little more difficult and risky. No one wants to come across looking ridiculous, nor would I. So it’s about doing your homework and gaining your subjects trust," he says. Brusso has worked with a variety of notable people from athletes to intellectuals and from pop stars to popular comedians.
Some of his assignments call for a straight forward approach to editorial portraiture. His reputation for being able to deliver on more conceptual challenges brings him both the freedom and the opportunity to take some assignments deeper into the unexpected and humorous. "For me, I do a lot of research on my subject and try to come up with a concept that fits their personality, interests, and or current project." Brusso says. "I also think it’s important for the shooter to have a good sense of humor. There’s nothing worse than humor gone bad and missing the mark." Often his approach involves extensive set design and preparation or even custom prop fabrication. Other of his concepts blend exceptional sets, unusual wardrobe, and unique props to both tell a story about his subject and create a humorous impact on their own as images.
Brusso is equally adept at working in the studio as on location. His flexibility and experience come in handy when his initial inspirations concepts are rejected or changed due to logistics. "You have to be open to the fact that some ideas, which may sound great, when executed just don’t work. Know when to move on to plan B and plan C. Always be open to some magic to materialize. Be ready to grasp it," he says. "Never force an idea. If it doesn't flow then it wasn't meant to be."
Award winning photojournalist David Eulitt is an staff photographer for the Kansas City Star. “I'm in daily photojournalism, so a lot of the places I go to make pictures either don't have a lot of funny things around them or it would be inappropriate in that context,” he says, “but I do see things that I find a lot of whimsy or irony in. A lot of times, the incongruity of something in a specific location can make the mundane comical. I always try to find the amusing in the right situation that lends itself to humor. People in costumes in very banal situations seems to be the most common situation I find funny photos from.”
Eulitt does take concern to not take advantage of his subjects when it might be perceived that a joke is on them. “This is my top concern. I don't make a lot of images that directly make people look foolish themselves just for the sake of a gag. I think it's more the situation they find themselves in, but if I felt like an image was really putting someone in an embarrassing light, I wouldn't show anyone that and that's not my kind of humor anyway. I'm of the mind that butt-crack shots or something like that is pretty much a cheap shot at someone. I think if your subject feels uncomfortable with your idea or execution, turning that idea into a really funny image is going to be a real challenge. The best shoots come from the subject being 100% on board, or even excited about the idea.”
He says that he tries to worry more about engaging the audience than he does about the all of the audience getting the joke. “I think if it's a legitimately funny photo, everyone will understand it as humor is pretty universal. In today's society, people are increasingly more visually literate so if it's funny, people get it. There is a whole segment of the population that just has no sense of humor at all. You can't make someone laugh who doesn't see the world with an amusing outlook. It's really tough to BE funny in a still image, just like the written word is a much tougher format than hearing someone say something funny because you have all those verbal and facial nuances that help.”