Kenneth Tanaka | Essay: Laughing Stock

Essay: Laughing Stock

August 23, 2014  •  1 Comment

There's no question that a good sense of humor is one of the healthiest attributes you can have.  I don't recall who said, "A good dose of humor is the most effective antidote to daily life.", but it was sage advice, indeed.  (Maybe it was me?)  When it comes to sharing humor it has long seemed to me that a funny photograph has a much longer effective life than a spoken joke or funny story.   For examples, I've never tired of seeing Elliot Erwitt's wonderfully witty snaps or Joel Meyorowitz's similarly humorous oddities captured from the streets of New York.  They always make me smile.  But long-familiar spoken jokes or over-told stories usually lose their bite quickly.

Unfortunately, capturing humorous scenes candidly with a camera is maddeningly difficult, which may explain why we see so few good humorous images.  I certainly cannot claim to be expert at capturing such images, or in the larger subject of humor.  But I have given the subject a generous amount of examination and can share some observations that might help you to better create and/or see such images for yourself.

One Bad AppleOne Bad Apple

Single Objects That Just Look Funny

"One Bad Apple", at left, would seem to be about as simple of an opportunity as you could hope for.  Surely you might think it must have been no harder than grabbing this tough-looking apple, lighting it and snapping a few shots.

True.  But I had to see it first.  I had to spot the mouth-like shape of that crown, the stem perfectly positioned as a ciggie, the scratches that resemble fight scars on a chin.  I had to envision how it could be photographed to best display those characteristics. How often do you really look closely at, for example, a piece of fruit you're preparing to eat?  Would you spot the opportunity if it was oriented differently?   There's no substitute for basic alertness.



Context, Proximity, and Gesture

The relationships of multiple elements in a frame offers the broadest range of possibilities for humorous photos.  Photography's intrinsic nature of quoting out of context often inadvertently presents humorous images.  But this is nevertheless the genre of candid humorous image that's most challenging for photographers to create intentionally.

Photographer Jay Maisel is fond of saying, "The more you shoot, the luckier you get.".  That is certainly true for marginally increasing your chances of capturing any type of good images.   Even Google's semi-robotic street cameras manage to find funny scenes.

But Jay's remark is intended to cut to the keener, and more general, suggestion that practice is essential for improving your chances for success in any type of photography.  That is even more true for capturing humorous images.  Many such opportunities are extremely fleeting.  I could not, for example, have ever expected a tired-looking chef to sit next to that "Live Raw" sign in a million years.  He was there and gone in an instant.  The see/shoot cycle was perhaps, at most, 5 seconds.

The other two images, however, were the results of seeing a situation with potential and waiting for something to develop.  Neither required more than a couple of minutes of wait time.  Additionally, neither image represents the result that I had originally anticipated.  For example, I was originally waiting for the Budweiser horse to line-up perfectly with the image on the trailer's side.  But a young girl passing the trailer with her family became startled when the horse moved and snorted, presenting a much richer image than I expected.

Seeing momentarily strong circumstances of context, proximity, and gesture, and having the wherewithal to capture the moment is a wonderful skill that can be developed with time.  But in my opinion learning to foresee potential and waiting for it to develop is even better and more productive.

  Live Raw"Live Raw"









show of hands


Kyoto, Japan






Closely related to proximity and context is the impact of incongruity in a scene.  For examples....

The women in Kyoto dressed in traditional geisha attire dating back to the 6th century checking messages on their 21st century cell phones. 

The mother and daughter costumed in dance tutus admiring a police horse while the mounted officer appears to be posing for a portrait. 

And how could I possibly have returned empty-handed from an event to set the record for the number of people wearing nose/moustache/glasses disguises? noses











Finding and capturing candid incongruity, whether humorous or editorial, can be a formidable challenge for any photographer.  But the rewards for success are unique to photography and can last a lifetime.




Keeping It Simple...and Fast

rolleiRolleiflex 2.8 FX I enjoy using all kinds of cameras and lenses.  But when it comes to candid photography I tend to stick with simplicity, speed, and, most of all, familiarity.  (No, while I salute Vivian Maier I do not shoot candids with my Rolleiflex.)  I use a camera familiar enough to me to be a prosthetic extension to my eye.  Being second-nature-reflex comfortable with your camera is of paramount importance for doing your best with all candid work.   As I write this, for example, I find the Sony RX100 II and III advanced point-and-shoot cameras to be just about perfect for such work.  They're small enough to take anywhere, silent, fast, good in low light, and have excellent articulating lcd screens and excellent electronic viewfinders.  Capturing 20+ Mp files also means that they have plenty of resolution for cropping.

But my main point is to use a camera that's fast and extremely comfortable for you, regardless of the camera's coolness or price.

A Perpetual Project

Capturing humor in a photograph is a tough job, especially candidly.  It's a challenge that calls upon every aspect of photography -- from visualization through camera craft -- and can be pursued in every style of photography -- from street to studio.  Capturing humor is a constant goal and subtext in my photography.  If you're looking for a challenging mission to pursue with your camera you couldn't ask for a more difficult, or more rewarding, challenge than hunting humor.  It's a project that can last a lifetime.







Karen Ishizuka(non-registered)
Hi Ken and Chris, Hope you get this and would love to reconnect. This is from my son Tad: I'm going to be in town to screen my new film Mele Murals - Documentary this Saturday (4/9) at 7:30p at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of Foundation For Asian American Independent Media's Asian American Showcase! Hope you can catch it. Kenny, Nice to see you're into photography. And trust you are both well! Love from your cousin Karen
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