Recently, I took tour photos at the Lyric Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, of my favorite comedian, Nikki Glaser. Nikki’s team is using my photos to create graphics that she shares on social media to promote The Good Girl tour.
One of my goals in photography is to establish my grainy black and white 35mm documentary photography as more than hobbyist nostalgia or artist eccentricity. So representing a mainstream celebrity like Nikki Glaser with my less commercial style of photography is not only a big win for me personally, but I also think projects like this expand conversations about modern photography.
I am very grateful to Nikki and her team for taking a chance with me. And I wanted to share my experiences taking these photos for her fans and film photographers too.
Before I get into the details of photographing Nikki, let me explain one overarching takeaway I got from doing this project.
Long before I put in my request to photograph her, I struck up conversations with Nikki’s other photographers. This was originally out of personal interest in their photos. But when I got the gig, these guys generously offered advice that I would need to nail this session. One was surprised that I was shooting all film and no digital at all, but told me he was excited to see what I’d come up with.
In photography, sometimes we silo up and focus on our own projects, but it’s great to communicate with other photographers doing similar, or even totally different work. If nothing else, it provides context to what we’re doing. But better, we can all draw from one another to take our work in different directions or just improve the one we’re moving in.
Nikki’s Backstage Announcement
I used two Leica M6 TTLs for my all the backstage candids with Nikki. One with a Voigtländer 40mm f/1.4 Nokton and one with a Leitz 90mm f/2.8 Tele Elmarit — both chosen for their unintimidating physical size and ease of use.
Nikki walked out of her dressing room, saw me, and exclaimed “I’m so glad you could be here!” Immediately, I felt welcomed and ready. She reiterated what her tour manager told me — that we could shoot after she announced her opener, singer-songwriter Anya Marina. But I asked if I could grab the announcement too.
As Nikki walked to the backstage wing, in near complete darkness, I realized that my set-up for this shot was backwards; I’d need the 40/1.4 on the P3200 body. So I swapped lenses quickly as she began to speak. I fired off ten or twelve versions of this shot during the few minutes it took Nikki to open the show and introduce Anya.
I don’t think any of her other photographers have taken this photo — my insistence on shooting more than the routine already paid off.
But so did having two cameras loaded with different ISO films. If I’d just been wearing one camera loaded with Tri-X, I wouldn’t have the grain and tonality that I do here. If I didn’t have the second camera pre-loaded with P3200, I’d have wasted time loading it and potentially missed a good moment.
I chose Kodak TMAX P3200 over Ilford Delta 3200 as I often do for stage lights. I use Delta for more tonal/flatter lighting and TMAX for more contrasty lighting.
I shot and processed all the TMAX P3200 from this session at EI 6400 in Kodak HC110 (while listening to Anya Marina’s music, of course!).
15 Minutes With Nikki in Her Dressing Room
The first shot was sort of a fluke, how easy it was. Now, things got challenging. We walked back to Nikki’s dressing room, where I had 15 minutes one-on-one with her until she went on stage.
That sounds like a guy’s dream come true, right? After all, it was why I was here. But in reality, it started out totally awkward!
I’m strictly a documentary photographer and had nothing planned for Nikki to do. I expected more people to be around, getting her ready — to give her things to do that I could photograph.
But all of that was already done. It was just us! She expected me, the no-name photographer, to tell her, the roast queen of FBoy Island, what to do!
I was so intimidated. But this is a dream job, right? I could do it!
To make things easy for myself, I stayed with the 40mm on the P3200 body even though there was enough light that I could have used Tri-X. This way, I wouldn’t have to swap lenses again and it was great not to have to worry about critical focus for. I’d move to Tri-X when it was easier.
I shot frame after frame, even when not much was going on. I’m a wedding photographer primarily and do this to get clients warmed up, but also, sometimes you find a unique, personal moment in these seemingly throwaway shots. And that is exactly what happened.
I made small talk about The Nikki Glaser Podcast and how much I enjoy Anya’s laugh, Brian Frange’s off-the-wall humor; anything to demonstrate that I’m a fan without sounding obsessed. Nikki somewhat performatively worked on her already-awesome hair and makeup as we talked. Amazingly, she seemed a little nervous, too. But slowly, we found little topics to go back and forth about.
Nikki admitted that she has a million photos of her doing her hair and makeup. To which I assured her, “But these will be better.”
Maybe I was getting TOO confident, but I was only “manifesting,” as Nikki calls it — when you tell yourself that you will succeed. Besides, I save my self-deprecation for the melodrama of editing!
One of those first awkward dressing room moments not only made it into a promo graphic, but it’s advertising the live recording for her next television special. It will forever remind me of how I powered through that initial challenge by just sticking to my intentions and not letting my nervousness take over. I think my dressing room candids exhibit an intimacy and vulnerability that I wouldn’t have captured otherwise.
Going Fast and Long Onstage
While the focus of my project was backstage candids, I was invited to photograph Nikki’s onstage performance also.
I saw Nikki perform at the Lyric in 2022 and also knew from her network specials that she is not one of these comedians who paces the stage while she’s talking. The Lyric stage is roughly 100 feet wide at the proscenium. So I needed a lens that would get me to about 50 feet – the distance from the wings to downstage center.
I am no stranger to using long lenses on my Leicas, but I’d need something beyond the 135mm limit of these rangefinders. I chose a Nikon F2sb SLR to be my long lens platform.
I really wanted to bring the Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 AIS that journalist Bill Green recently gifted to me. It had seen plenty of cool shoots. But the trouble with that lens is it needs to be supported with a monopod. Because photographing a famous comedian was new to me, I didn’t want to assume that I would be able to stow a giant, foot-long lens and a monopod when not in use. Nor would lugging it around would help with my nervousness.
My Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 AIS ED would reach 50 feet for a full body shot and is a much smaller lens. I figured I’d make it work!
If I could have shot on Tri-X at 1600, full body shots alone would have been acceptable to me. But I was astonished at how dim Nikki’s lights were. She was in spot light and the up stage curtain was only lit with some faint cookie patterns. To the eye, it was very nice and flattered her. But for my film, I could have only shot at EI 1600 if I had a monopod and dropped my shutter from the requisite 1/250th to 1/125th or maybe even 1/60. Even then, I’d be wide open at f/2.8 on aperture.
So I had to shoot at 6400 in order to be able to keep a handholdable shutter speed and stop down at little.
When shooting TMAX P3200 with its large grain, I like to make tighter compositions. If you shoot wide shots with a grainy film, facial features etc just get lost in grain. This is fine for a few images, and this one even made the cut for a promo.
But as you can see, the balance between details and excessive grain tips towards grain in this example, even for me! I wanted to deliver a good variety of wide’s, medium’s and close-up’s.
Just like seeking advice from Nikki’s photographers helped so much in preparation, again, I found myself willing to learn from someone more experienced than myself. And it saved me.
Matt Pond, Nikki’s tour manager, talented musician, and burgeoning photographer, was also taking photos. I would sometimes pause and watch him for ideas and I noticed Matt shooting from a pair of empty seats at the front center of house. Ironically, the reason that these prime seats were empty was because they were my wife’s and my unused comps. You make your own luck, right?
Once Matt cleared out, I could get perfect, head-and-shoulders close-ups of Nikki. Amazingly, the angle from the house floor looking up at her on stage was not too steep. Now I could work the 180/2.8’s magic! I was so elated to find a great angle that I remembered I was at a comedy show again, and laughed out loud.
Shooting comedy is exactly like photographing a politician or wedding guest giving a speech. It’s all about choosing good positions from which to photograph the speaker, setting exposure, roughing in focus, and then waiting for good moments. The same can be said for some concert photography too but changing lights and movement usually complicate things. But this is the basic idea, and it guided me through Nikki’s set.
Dinner with Nikki
Nikki exited the Baltimore stage to thundering applause. Thousands of fans rose to standing ovations as I fled to the stage door.
Unsure what else, if anything, I’d be permitted to photograph, I wandered backstage while replacing the Nikon F2 with a Leica M6 again. I ran into Nikki’s boyfriend and producer of her next special, Chris Convy. I think my enthusiasm to meet and talk to him assuaged any doubt Nikki might have had with me.
So I continued to hang out in Nikki’s dressing room and shoot as Chris went over his notes on Nikki’s performance.
Nikki ate blocks of tofu from her miso soup, and Chris kindly offered me pizza. I got over my shyness and snagged a ginger root beer Zevia from Nikki’s mini fridge.
I took everything on Tri-X now. I rated and processed it at EI 1600, also in HC110. I could have shot at 400; the dressing room lights are deliberately very bright. But I wanted some grain and contrast to be consistent with my 6400 shots.
Nikki refers to regular listeners of her podcast as “besties,” a term that I was reluctant to bestow upon myself. But that is how Nikki introduced me to Anya Marina. Not only did I feel like I fit in, but I knew that I actually did.
Getting over my self-consciousness and being MORE than the stereotypical photojournalist fly-on-the-wall was the key to getting the personal candid shots that I’d been looking for.
When I announced that I needed to get home and process my film, Nikki hugged me and invited me back. I shot thirteen rolls of 35mm film (about 468 photos) that I processed in my kitchen sink. Within a few days of the performance, I delivered just under one hundred final images. These numbers may sound small to digital shooters, but it’s all about what shots get used, right?
I understand that many people don’t care if I shoot on real film or simulated digital. The medium we choose is just the vehicle of our self-expression. But I like to think that what vehicle we choose affects where we go and what we ultimately say.
I’m working on an article where I’ll make use of more of the photos that I took during my short but inspiring time with Nikki Glaser. Sure, the promo images are just low-resolution Instagram-ready files, but I am impressed by and appreciative of the creative uses of my work by Nikki’s team. I had a blast making them and seeing them on social media. I hope you do, too!
And if there’s a project that you want to shoot on film or some other medium or lens/camera that seems “inappropriate” for the task (I’m thinking of shooters like David Burnett and Frank Thorp V who cover news events with large format cameras), go with your instinct. Do what you love and see how it works out. At least you did things the way you wanted to do them instead of just doing them the way everyone else says they have to be done.
Check out Nikki Glaser on The Good Girl Tour or wait for her next television special that will be streaming on a major network soon. You can also watch her previous specials Good Clean Filth on MAX, Bangin’ on Netflix, and Perfect on Comedy Central.
About the author: Johnny Martyr is an East Coast film photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. After an adventurous 20-year photographic journey, he now shoots exclusively on B&W 35mm film that he painstakingly hand-processes and digitizes. Choosing to work with only a select few clients per annum, Martyr’s uncommonly personalized process ensures unsurpassed quality as well as stylish, natural & timeless imagery that will endure for decades. You can find more of his work on his website, Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram.