Mandee Johnson is a creative force, both as a photographer and as a content producer in the comedic sphere. Immersed in a world she had never anticipated early in her career, she is now an essential part of the artistic fabric of the Los Angeles comedy scene. She has curated some of the most iconic images in her scene, and is the co-founder and executive producer of CleftClips, the production company that originated the acclaimed live comedy show ‘The Super Serious Show,’ as well as ‘Hot Tub’ and other successful shows. Her playful, intimate portraits of comedians that have performed at the Super Serious Show are largely her most well-known work, though she is exceptionally multi-faceted in her photographic skills. Her wedding and engagement photos, as well as her commercial, editorial, and personal works allow her to capture a plethora of moments, and allow others to tangibly immortalize their own personal histories in the process.
I had the honor of being able to interview her on the phone to talk about the LA comedy community, her portraits, art school, and her overall love of her craft. As a long-time fan of hers, I could not help but feel nervous talking to her, and to be quite honest, I (somewhat embarrassingly) fangirled/nerded out a bit about her SSS portraits, though she was immensely gracious about it. She is incredibly kind, articulate, personable, and was an absolute joy to talk to. I’m grateful to have gotten the chance to have a conversation with her, and am thrilled to see where she goes from here with her amazing photography.
BB) Your job seems like such a dream job in being able to hang out with comedians and photograph them, as well as run a comedy show. I’m very curious to know what that’s like for you.
MJ) It’s a lot of fun, I always feel very honored to be a part of the comedy community. I’ve never seen a community so supportive. Like, for instance, in the photography community I found that when one photographer became successful another one who may not be on the same level is jealous and not really congratulatory. So it’s amazing to be a part of a community of people that is genuinely excited when someone has an opportunity, because it is exciting. And as producers of the show (The Super Serious Show), me and Joel (Mandelkorn) wanted to build a show the way we wanted it to be built. And rightfully so, because in the past there’s been a lot of abuse in the comedy community over the years with comedians being screwed over by club owners and managers, so at first there was a lot of skepticism around us. For years people would ask, “Well what’s in it for you?” And we were like, “Nothing, nothing’s in it for us.” We just want to do this. And now there are more comedy people who are just producers, most of them women, which is a really cool thing that no one ever talks about. The show’s really grown over the last seven years, and comedy in general has grown a bunch in L.A. So it’s really cool to be a part of a community that’s so vibrant, and growing, and supportive. It reminds you that there are good things in the world. (laughs)
BB) Totally, it’s a good reminder that people can just support each other and like each other’s stuff and it’s not a big deal.
MJ) Yeah, it’s always really nice. Like working with Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler in our fourth or fifth year of Hot Tub has been really wonderful. We started producing the show when they just moved out to L.A. and it’s still the highlight of the week. They’re both great performers, but also such amazing people. I shot Kurt’s wedding, and he’s about to have a kid soon, so it feels like such a little family. Both Kristen and Kurt have been doing it for years, but they still want to stick around to watch people perform, which is something not a lot of hosts do. It’s really a special thing.
BB) That’s so lovely! I think it’s so important to shed light on the people like you who help produce comedy behind the scenes, because it’s such a huge part of the grander picture. Was it your plan to start a comedy show from the start?
MJ) It definitely wasn’t a plan from the start, Joel and I had no idea that this would eventually become our lives and livelihoods. Which is either really stupid or really smart, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s somebody out there that says you have to have the five year plan. (laughs) At first we went into a photo studio and built it out over time, filmed it ourselves with Joel editing it. I shot my portraits on 4 by 5’s to have it akin to a comedy club to show people who else had done the show. The portraits didn’t start out to be this huge anthology of images that it is now. It’s kind of funny. We thought it would be cool to take these portraits so the comedians could have something to use for self promotion, because we didn’t have any money to pay them for doing the show for about a year and a half. So instead we would be like, “Hey, we can give you these edited video clips of you on stage, and these photos for you to use for other things.” It was a way to contribute and give back to them after them giving their time to us.
BB) When you photograph the comedians for the portraits themselves, is it more of a free-form style where you tell them to do whatever they want, do you tell them to do a variety of expressions, how does it work?
MJ) Well they only get two shots. I shoot them on a 4 by 5 with Polaroid film. I’ve only ever had to do ten re-shoots over the course of the seven years, which is remarkable, considering. I tell them they get two of them, one serious and one silly, or one super serious, it really is a dealers choice for them. And then if they’ve done the show a lot they can always take a little bit more liberty with the serious one, since I have other photos of them. Then I scan the photos and match them with the yellow tone that I’ve used for all of them.
BB) Which I really like, by the way! The yellow color just fits, I don’t know why.
MJ) Aw, thanks! I started out using a camera I’d had since art school, which I never threw out. And when I first starting taking pictures with this ten year old Polaroid the photos came out very, very blue. So in Photoshop I shifted it hyper yellow to help them become a little more normal looking. Over time I’ve had to evolve and adjust my process to have them turn out like the first one’s, which took a long time to really perfect. Now they’re more refined, but back in the day the really early photos would skew all over the place with some of them looking more green, some yellow, some super shadowy. (laughs) Then we thought about switching the color pallet every year, but I never really found another pallet that I liked as much.
BB) Off the top of your head do you have a funny or memorable story from when you were shooting one of the portraits?
MJ) I mean, Rory Scovel is always fun to shoot. A more memorable story of shooting at one of the shows is from the very first show, actually. I almost didn’t do it. I nearly lost my nerve. But then one of my friends who helped light the first show just said, “It’s fine, just do it.”
BB) You were nervous about asking the comedians to take their picture?
MJ) Yeah, yeah. The whole process of it, asking to take their photo, nailing it, and thinking about if they didn’t like it, or said no. I was really nervous about it, and I almost decided to not do it. It’s silly to think about that now, because I’ve been doing it so long that I don’t get nervous at all anymore, really.
BB) I know you do other kinds of photography as well, like interiors, weddings, personal works. What is it that makes you satisfied with an image, is it the lighting, the mood, or the personality shining through your subjects?
MJ) I don’t ever think, “I’m satisfied with this,” specifically, but there are things that I like that differ for all of them. For my weddings what’s really important to me is telling the story of the couple’s day with really pretty photos. Capturing the candid moments that they’ll never see, or won’t remember because most weddings are a whirlwind. Capturing those moments they may have missed so they can relive their day. What’s truly satisfying for me is knowing that the couple is happy with them. So those have a different arc than the Super Serious Show photos, which I love so much. It’s more about the whole of them, seeing the group of the photos together. I enjoy watching the comedians play… and see what Rory’s going to do for his tenth portrait. (laughs) I like when they have fun with it.
BB) Other than Rory who’s one of your favorite people to shoot?
MJ) T. J. Miller always has great ones. Paul F. Tompkins is always so dapper, he has a lot of great one’s as well. The most casual thing I’ve ever seen him wear is a linen suit with, like, Converse. But he was still in a suit. When I saw him I asked him if he was in his lounge wear. Aisling Bea, she’s an Irish comedian, she’s super fun to shoot too.
BB) I love her, she’s so funny! I hope she gets bigger here in the States, ’cause I think she’s absolutely hilarious.
MJ) I think that’s the thing that’s truly satisfying for me personally. Seeing your friends succeed. It’s so exciting to see the people you love and have known for years, who are insanely talented, make it and really see it happen for them.
BB) In terms of your personal work, do you ever go out and photograph things just for yourself or are you so busy that you’re mostly focused on other projects?
MJ) I’ve been finishing up on a series called ‘Women Volume 1.’ That’s the first project I’ve done for myself in a really long time, but I think I’m going to try and do one a year if I can. I haven’t done it in a while, but for a several years I did something called the ‘Untitled Bathroom Series,’ where I just shot a lot of bathrooms, because I find them really interesting. Either in public spaces or in one’s that someone has spent a lot of time thinking about how someone’s going to interact with the space.
BB) Is photography something you’ve always been interested in? Was it something you began as a kid, or did your passion for it develop over time?
MJ) When I was kid my dad gave me my first camera, and he let me take a bunch of photos when we went to Yellowstone for our first vacation. I really liked it, and then I took some photography classes in high school and would shoot my friends whenever I could. When I went to boarding school and didn’t do anything for a couple years until I built a dark room while I was there so I could keep developing film. After that I wanted to go to photography school, which got some hems and haws from my parents, and rightfully so, seeing it from their perspective years later. But the school I went to was a good fit for me. Being around people like me for the first time in my life made me feel much more normal, as opposed to when I was growing up in Indiana where I was the only artsy kid, which can feel isolating.
BB) What do you love most about photography?
MJ) It’s the one thing that I always felt I was good at. When I went to photo school I originally went to pursue documentary photography in war journalism, and I was always interested in the photos that were hard and complicated, in places that people didn’t want to see the truth in. But then I fell in love and didn’t end up pursuing it. But at the heart of it it was about storytelling, which is probably why weddings have always been a positive thing in my life in letting me tell that couple’s story. Photography’s something I never mind putting in work into doing. But, ultimately, it’s about sharing images from a period of time, or capturing something that… maybe isn’t always going to be there. But you’ve captured it and now it can be remembered.
Mandee’s social media
Website: mandeejohnson.com Instagram & Twitter: @mandeephoto
Interview conducted by: Veronica Brevik