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On the fringe of fame: star comics caught on camera in their early days at Edinburgh

As the Edinburgh festival prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, a trove of portraits has emerged, cataloguing the history of some of the most celebrated comedians from its fringe.

The photographs feature Michael McIntyre, Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand and others, from when they were struggling for laughs in the back rooms of Edinburgh pubs. They came to light when the photographer Rich Hardcastle was putting together a book to mark his 25 years in the business.

Sorting through the 130 images for the book, Hardcastle found a stash of undeveloped film. “I was so skint that I used to shoot one roll of film – 12 shots – in 10 minutes. If I had to go through an agent or a manager they would invariably ask me to take some shots of one of their new people. I’d just take three or four shots and then file them away.”

One of the undeveloped sets shows an unfeasibly youthful McIntyre, who emerges in a previously unseen portrait bearing the comedian’s traditional traits of arrogance and vulnerability.

Fittingly, Hardcastle’s volume starts with a gag: Ricky Gervais, smeared in clown make-up, a white gown gathered at his neck, grimaces as he holds the barrel of a revolver between his teeth. Across the image runs the title of the book: 25 Years of Shooting Comedians.

The book, however, does not yet exist. In fact, it may never exist, which would be a missed opportunity. There is no similar document chronicling the development of contemporary British comedy as it emerged in the early 1990s dishevelled, bleary-eyed and foul of breath from the grime of the Late ‘n’ Live sessions at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh.

Hardcastle is funding the book himself, initially through a Kickstarter campaign. “I could have done it on the cheap as a paperback but I wanted it to be a big beautiful book, a coffee-table book, and I knew a publisher wouldn’t be interested,” he says. “No one’s ever done anything like this, especially for British comedy. It would be a shame not to make it happen.” He hopes to raise the £32,000 needed by the time the Kickstarter campaign comes to an end on Friday.

Over his career, Hardcastle has tracked the comic heroes and fringe flops as they have gone from backrooms to living rooms: Stephen Fry, Phill Jupitus, Simon Pegg, Ed Byrne. His 25 years started when his dad bought him a copy of the Rolling Stone Book of Portraits in the late 1980s. “It was full of pictures of Jon Bon Jovi with flowing hair, but there was this one shot by Matt Mahurin of Tom Waits and I thought, wow, you can hear his music, you really get a feel for Tom Waits.”

Fast forward a few years and Hardcastle was a student at Edinburgh College of Art, nurturing an ambition to photograph rock stars and actors. “I didn’t want to practise on them, though, and I realised that with the Edinburgh festival, comedy over here was presented very cheaply and wasn’t getting the space that other things were getting.”

His break came when he was having a drink in a pub opposite the Gilded Balloon and bumped into the comedian Steve Frost, who agreed to let the student take a few photos. Frost loved the pictures and the following day introduced Hardcastle to the gang: Jo Brand, Mark Lamarr, Rowland Rivron and Paul Merton. Permission to hang out backstage at the Gilded Balloon followed and soon he was the chronicler of a generation, using a Hasselblad medium-format camera and a hand-held flash.

“I became known as the guy who shoots comedians but I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “There was no one else doing this, photographing them as if they were rock stars. All the photos of comedians had them with a microphone. I took the microphone away. I just forgot I was photographing a comedian and took a really cool photo of a person who happened to be a comedian. When a comedian is on stage, their performance is an amplification of their personality. When they’re off stage, they’re sort of normal. I was interested in trying to capture the bit of someone you don’t really see. I was their guy and they let me in.”

The strongest portraits are in many ways the quietest. While the showiness of Tim Minchin perched like Birdman on the back of a chair or Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon holding an owl and a mouse respectively is arresting, the most evocative and revealing images are the ones taken backstage at the Gilded Balloon. Jo Brand and Sean Hughes chatting amid the clutter, Phil Kay and Phil Nichol, drink in hand, Rich Hall, full of wiry intent. The square format and the absence of colour lend them the sheen of nostalgia, but they also speak of a simpler time, when audiences were small and communities were formed.

“I put the book proposal on Facebook and the response from the people I had shot was mental because they had forgotten I was there, that I had been backstage shooting them,” says Hardcastle. “It was an exciting time, there was a buzz about it. We were a gang. The people playing the O2 now would rather be playing a small club.”