The Improvisers: How I Turned a Hobby into a Photography Project


I am not a studio photographer. Until a year ago, I had no interest in studio lighting or even on-camera flash photography. I have a Speedlight, except I couldn’t tell you where it is. I couldn’t even remember what to call said “Speedlight” and had to ask a colleague about synonyms for “external flash” to use for this article. He was disappointed in me, to say the least. 

When asked, “What kind of photography do you do?” I talk about my travel and documentary work. After nearly ten years of traveling from country to country, I’ve found that natural light takes up the least amount of room in my carry-on. And then, mostly out of curiosity, I enrolled in not one, but two studio lighting classes this past year. I learned about hot lights and strobes and LED panels. I learned how to meter light, how to mimic the lighting I liked in magazine editorials and advertising campaigns, and how to take pretty portraits. I also learned that communicating with foreigners in foreign lands makes giving a model directions in English feel like a piece of cake—yet it’s equally fun and rewarding.

“sweet” …And the next year, for my Grandma’s birthday, my mom came home one day and my mom was like, “Just give her this.” And there was a stuffed animal that looked exactly like the dog, and I was just like… “Whaaaaat?”

Before the end of my first lighting course, I was setting up a Varipole Support System at one end of my living room and debating which colors of seamless to order. A Profoto D1 Air Studio Kit and a Profoto 3' Octa Softbox arrived a few days later. Within a couple of weeks, and a significant amount added to my credit-card balance, I had a fully functioning home photography studio. I even had a model whose schedule aligned perfectly with my own. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t listen to any directions and preferred sniffing the light stands instead of sitting patiently in front of them. Props to dog photographers everywhere, because trying to work with my two-year-old rescue pup became more of an exercise in patience than one in studio lighting.

“stalker”...She wasn’t a stalker, like by the definition of like… stalker, but she did stalk me a little bit.

I turned off the strobes and started pondering a self-portrait project, while trying not to be frustrated with what was beginning to feel like a spontaneous (and expensive) desire to have a photography studio in my shared one-bedroom apartment. I went to work, went to my lighting class, and rounded out the week performing in the final show of an Upright Citizens Brigade improv class. Much like every other photographer in New York City, I carried a camera the whole time. We were getting notes from our improv teacher after our performance and I couldn’t help but photograph her as she critiqued our respective sets.

“ice-cream sandwich” …every dessert that I see that’s chocolate and vanilla, I think of me and my boyfriend. He’s super dark, and I am super, obviously, opposite of dark.

Then the obvious dawned on me; I was surrounded by performers. Truly wonderful, funny, and supportive performers who have literally been trained to say, “Yes, and…”—in response to whatever you ask of them—when on stage in an improvised world, of course.

If you’ve ever been to an improv show, chances are you’ve heard one of the performers ask the audience for a word to get the show started. Maybe the improvisers dove right into an organic performance based on that word. Maybe they huddled up for a “pattern game” where they brainstormed aloud about what that word made them think of before they started acting out a scene. Or, there might have been a monologist who told an anecdote about herself based on that one word.

“anesthesia”…It was the seventh inning. It was the end of the game. I was the last one to bat. And I was like… “Guys… I’m underneath the bench puking. I’m sick. I don’t feel well. I have to go to the hospital."

I wondered what would happen if I took portraits of improvisers thinking about a word? What would happen if I photographed improvisers giving a monologue based on that word? What photographer in his or her right mind wants to photograph anyone while they are actively telling a story? Before I could talk myself out of what could very likely be a terrible idea, I invited a handful of improvisers over to perform solo in my Brooklyn abode, against seamless paper instead of with a team, in a theater, in front of a live audience.

It was meant to be an experiment, an excuse of sorts to combine my improv hobby with my eagerness to practice my studio lighting and portraiture skills. My friends, as you might have predicted by now, said, “Yes!” and then asked, “Wait, what do you want me to do?”

“canyon”…we were kind of in a standstill with the herd for twenty… thirty minutes. There was no cell phone connection. It was pitch dark. And we were also running out of gas.

“I’m going to give you a word and you can take a minute to think about it… ‘A to C’ it [an improv concept wherein the improviser moves from “A,” the initial word, skips “B,” and takes advantage of “C,” the third idea] and then delivers a monologue about the word! The only difference between what you’re doing here and being on stage is that I’m going to photograph you the entire time you’re talking!”

I hit record on my Voice Memos app with the intention of grabbing a singular quote to enhance each portrait, grabbed a word from an online word generator, and started photographing. Improvisers who weren’t performing were squeezed into the room, sharing seats, and standing in the doorway, peeking in on the action. I stepped in between legs and feet as I moved around the room for tighter and wider shots. I became consumed by capturing images, not wanting to miss an expression that flickered across a performer’s face for the shortest of instants. I became completely oblivious to the fact that my living-room photo studio had become an intimate performance space and that I had inadvertently become the emcee to the evening of monologues.

“necktie”…and I just stopped… like one day… I forgot how to tie a tie. I came back to America and I just couldn’t do it. I kept going around and I couldn’t figure out what the knot was.

Every time I set my camera down, I apologized profusely for being a selfish photographer, thinking of my studio classes where fifteen or more photographers took turns with four models—at most. I had eight models all at once, all to myself! Eight wonderfully talented and expressive performers were sharing the most hilarious and oftentimes highly personal stories for the love of improv—and for the love of a good photography project.

After roughly 25 separate monologues, I sat down exhausted and was immediately asked if I was going to do it again, another night, with different improvisers. Surprised and delighted, I responded that I would absolutely love to, if other improvisers would be interested.

“shellfish”…she would set herself up to have allergic reactions. I’m sorry, but I think she wanted attention. I know that’s not nice, but she was always having an allergic reaction!

Over the next few weeks, I got to work editing dozens of portraits and transcribing an equal number of monologues. I got feedback from friends and colleagues about whether to include a singular quote with just one image or complete monologues with a series of portraits. Everyone I asked agreed: the combination of a complete monologue and portrait series allowed for more context and added depth to the project.

I created a new, separate Instagram account and a new landing page for the project on my personal website. I held my breath as I created a second event nearly one month after the first. I changed up the lighting setup and tried not to get overwhelmed when twice as many improvisers showed up to participate! With a fleshed-out concept and easily accessible examples on Instagram, the new group of improvisers jumped up in front of the seamless and quickly launched into monologues upon receiving a word.

“sunset” …I don’t hate puppies, or anything like that, but… I just, I don’t know, I just don’t get the allure of a sunset.

Asked if I plan on holding a third shoot, I hesitated, thinking of the two full 64GB memory cards ahead of me to edit, and the accompanying monologues to transcribe. But I’m an improviser now, even if only once or twice a week, so the answer will most likely be something along the lines of “Yes, and… all I need are more improvisers to participate!” Good thing I live in a city where improvisers, comedians, and storytellers aren’t hard to come by.

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The joy of being in an improv group and taking pictures of my co-improvisors doing their thing.  Although most of the pictures I've taken are of groups of our talented troup rolling on the floor, gesturing and making interesting faces, some of the best pictures have come from some of the tighter crops of individuals or of just a few folks doing their thing.  Now you've got me interested in imitating what you have done to see if my results are as solid as yours. In the meantime, I'll continue expressing myself through improv and pictures.  Good luck to you in your endevor.

Hi Jerry!

My inspiration came from a photograph taken of a group! Good luck with the tighter shots and exploring photographing your co-improvisers. Combining the two mediums has been a really fulfilling project for myself. It sounds like it already is for you as well! If you're in New York, maybe we'll bump into eachother on a stage sometime soon. Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your own experiences with photography and improv!

Take Care, 

Absolutely love it! Beautiful idea and it really is interesting how different things capture a photographer's attention. I've been a more factual-based business person for the past couple years, but I dived into photography maybe 5 months ago. Once I started exploring all the different things I could capture....I was delighted. Keep up the great work, and thanks for sharing your story.

Nora, Thank you so much for the lovely comments! So glad to hear that you're diving into photography now - there's so many different avenues you can go down with style and subject (just to name a few)! Enjoy it!!!

This was wonderful!! Love the story behind this article and it was informative and entertaining! MORE MORE MORE!

Thanks, Tezz! So glad you enjoyed it! 

This is such a great article! Love the pictures. Love the project. Love the equipment. Love everything about it. 

Thanks, Dan! The Improvisers who participated are the real stars of this project! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!