Anyone who has spent time around Hollywood Boulevard has seen tourists posing for pictures alongside recognizable pop culture characters like Spider-Man, Jack Sparrow, and Chewbacca. During a recent stay in Los Angeles, Ken Hermann was inspired to find out more about the people in the costumes and created the series “Behind the Mask.”
The work is in line with some of Hermann’s other portraiture of conspicuous people, including “Flower Man,” which focused on the men who sell flowers in Kolkata. Many of the ideas come to him during trips away from his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he says he doesn’t pay attention to what is often right under his nose.
“It’s difficult to do things in Copenhagen because I see the same things everyday,” he said. “When I go abroad, I can think about things and why people are doing them.”
For many of the street characters, the job is in many ways either an extension of the American Dream or another way of trying to pursue an acting career.
“Some of them are trying to pursue the American Dream while others are into acting,” he said. “For some of them, acting didn’t really work out and people started to know who they were and then they became part of the boulevard … maybe they aren’t A-list celebrities; for some it’s not enough but for others, it is.”
Hermann said he wanted to get a mix of the characters half in and half out of their costumes, although that presented a lot of challenges since many people didn’t want to show their faces. Other times, removing a mask made it difficult to know exactly which character the actor was portraying. Although it presented a challenge to find a happy medium, often simply finding people to participate in the series was complicated.
“I was standing there on the street talking to Minnie Mouse and trying to convince her about the project,” he said. “It’s a lot of casting and they can earn a lot on the street so a lot of times they had to like the project since they could earn more than the cash I would give to them.”
Another issue was finding a place to take the photographs. Sometimes Hermann would find a location on the street, other times people invited him back to their homesto take a portrait. Hermann said he is happy with the mix of lonely surreal-looking locations alongside living rooms.
“I wanted to make it cinematic, to be different from a reportage style,” he said. The look also reinforced the idea that many of the people working on Hollywood Boulevard are actors who had failed dreams of making it big in Hollywood.
“Some of my photos seem to reinforce that notion,” he said in an artist statement about the work. “However some of them are living out their own version of the American Dream: two of the characters I photographed just won the green card lottery and the bumblebee is a full-time electrician who just likes to do the impersonations at night. So even though many of them do this because the dream did not go as planned, not all of them are fallen stars.”
Follow Ken Hermann on Instagram.