Because of chance employment as a waitress at Comedy Works, Crystal Allen found herself surrounded by comedians -- and her husband, Ben Roy, even became one. An aspiring photographer, Allen used this opportunity to start capturing on film not just aspiring Denver performers, but some of the most accomplished standup comics in the nation. What began as a conceptual series of comedians playing with baking soda (Allen's subjects included Brian Regan, Daniel Tosh and Chuck Roy) became a cornerstone of a photography career.
While today Allen devotes time to other themed photography projects (such as her Boudoir series, a tastefully NSFW collection of women in bedrooms), she has managed to photograph almost every noteworthy comic in Denver. Visiting the comedian section of her recently launched website is like reading a more aesthetically exciting yearbook of our city's laugh-makers. (It would also make a pretty badass coffee-table book on Denver comedy.) Allen recently set down her camera to chat with us about what goes into comedy photography, what a sexy woman really looks like, and what the baking soda thing was all about.
Westword: When did you begin taking pictures of comedians?
Crystal Allen: Well, after I moved to Denver with Ben I was working in a doctor's office as an X-ray tech -- because that was kind of like taking pictures. With encouragement from Ben, I quit that job and began working at Wolf Camera on the 16th Street Mall. But that only paid like six dollars an hour, so I got a second job at Comedy Works. And that completely shaped the kind of work I do now.
But when you were taking pictures of comics there, you were doing this baking soda series on Polaroids. What's the story there?
I was taking random photos of comedians with the soda boxes.... I've always had a thing for baking soda. I clean with it, I used to brush my teeth with it. I just like the taste of it. And one year I wrapped up all these little boxes of baking soda and gave them as Christmas presents, and I began taking pictures of them with it. And the more it went on, people got more creative with the pictures. Then they started giving me gifts of Costco- size bags of baking soda, and made costumes as baking soda boxes. I have a whole little baking soda museum of things people have made me.
Yeah, I started with the baking soda project. And then no one had any money to pay a photographer [for publicity shots], and they'd be like, "Hey, you're a photographer, I'll throw you twenty bucks if you wanna take some pictures of me." I took a lot of pictures of Chuck Roy and Josh Blue. Then I started doing it more and more, and since comedians are so creative, it became a really good partnership.
So many comedian publicity shots have a kind of senior portrait feel. It's like they're selling them on bland sexiness, instead of humor. But that's what I like about your work -- you bring out the personality of the comic. Do you often go into a shoot with a clear idea of what to do, or is it more of a collaborative process?
It often depends on the comic. Some people have no idea, and then I have to pull it out of them. But usually I'll ask them to do a little of their material while I'm shooting and then they get into their comedian persona.
But I have to say, some ideas they have are terrible. Like, they'll want to do a photo with their jokes spelled out behind them. So my job is to kind of reel it in and simplify their vision. The idea is to capture their persona in the most simple way possible.
Because they're word people, and you're more of an image artist. So I imagine you have to find some common ground between the two.
Exactly. But if you start jumbling those two things up too much, it's not going to translate well. So the idea is to capture their personality in the most simple way possible.
When you work with comedians, how often have you already seen them perform before you begin the photo shoot?
When I worked at Comedy Works and was more in the scene, I'd already be aware of them. Nowadays I'm getting way more comics that I've never seen before. Usually I'll ask them for a YouTube video, or at least talk to them about their comedy and what they talk about on stage.
So it's important for you to not only capture their personality, but their comedic style and comedic content in the photos?
Yeah, and I think when you watch someone perform you get a sense of what they would or wouldn't be comfortable with doing in photos. If a comedian does more physical humor, you wouldn't photograph them being moody or dark. You want it to fit who the person is. Do you ever get requests from comedians that are just too wild or too large a scale to even accomplish?
Yes, especially the comics who smoke a lot of weed. I get the craziest ideas that are just so far out there.
When a model is stoned during a photo shoot, does that mess with getting them relaxed and natural?
It depends on the comedian. Some of them smoke so much they become more at ease when they smoke. But wirh most people, it's not a good idea. With photographs you want their eyes to be clear.
Putting people at ease is probably 80 percent of my job. Now that I know the craft and know how to work with lighting and setting things up, I don't even have to think about it. But the interaction with the people is the real work. Especially with comedians, because they're very fragile human beings. Which you might not expect. They can be very self-conscious people; as you know, most comedy comes from that place. So a lot of my work is finding that balance, giving them enough self-confidence. They need to feel like they're the funniest person in that room.
At least half of being a good comedian is being comfortable with your body on a stage, but I imagine that even if a comedian has accomplished that, it doesn't necessarily mean they're comfortable with their body during a photo shoot.
Most of the time they're a totally different person on stage than when you meet them in person. Especially if you're pointing a camera at them -- they can sometimes be terrified. Like I said, a lot of them have extreme insecurities. So I try to be the best audience for them; I'll ask them to tell me the best thing, or the latest thing, they've written. And I'll laugh, and get them feeling like they're on stage -- that's when you get the best pictures.
You've photographed so many local comedians, and looking back on those photos, can you think of any of the tactics you used in bringing out their specific persona?
Back when I photographed Nathan Lund, I'd only seen him on stage once before. So I only had a limited amount of knowledge about him. But in meeting him, and as soon as I put my camera on him, I realized that he is one of the most beautiful people. I am kind of obsessed with him. He has the most beautiful eyes. And as soon as I put my camera on him, I realized that was what I have to show, the beauty he has. His face is awesome, and his hair. So I put this fan on him and blew his hair out. They're very still, very stoic pictures.
But you're not exclusively shooting comedians. You also have this Boudoir series with some tastefully racy photos.
Yeah, that's something I'd like to do more of. I feel inspired by it. I think the human body and sexuality are so beautiful. I feel like I can be more creative with the feel and tone of those pictures, because they don't serve a business purpose. With comics the photos are for promotion, and I also work with a lot of small businesses, but with this it's very personal.
It's something I wanted to do more often, so whenever I'd see someone that I thought would be good for it, I'd drag them into it. So some of the people are co-workers, and this isn't exactly in their wheelhouse. Do you prefer working with them over professional models?
I like working with real people. Recently I did a shoot with one model and one "real person." And it was interesting, because the model clearly knew what her body looked like and how to use that, where the light was and how to move. So I got a ton of variety out of her. But when she laughed in the photos it clearly wasn't genuine. That's the personality part of it, which is what I love about photography. So she would laugh and try to be playful, but it didn't come across. And the other, non-professional model, when she would laugh in these awkward moments, it was so sexy and so beautiful. And you can't teach someone that. With those moments you really get their vulnerabilities and their personality.
For more photos by Crystal Allen, visit www.crystalallenphotography.com. Contact her by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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