All images by Ken Hermann. Used with permission.
Hollywood has been known to many as a place to go in order to pursue one’s dreams to become a star. But for many, it doesn’t seem to work out. Those people often fall off and do other jobs. They’re the focus of photographer Ken Hermann‘s project called Hollywood Characters. He is the winner of the Hasselblad Masters 2012 for his City Surfer work and has a book out now collecting some of his work.
Hollywood Characters is subtitled as being “The dead-end of the American dream.”
According to the series description:
“Amongst the bustling crowds and chic boutiques on the streets of Los Angeles are a cast of costumed characters, waiting for curious passersby to take a photo.The street characters make a living by letting themselves being photographed together with the thousands of tourists who visit the Boulevard each day and pay them a tip them to take a shot.
Some of the Street characters does a really good job acting as look-alikes and they actually look a lot like some of the big Hollywood stars while others just look like silly grownups in poor and dirty carnival costumes.
Most of the street characters have one thing in common though. They are, or once were, pursuing the American dream of becoming someone special and famous. It is this struggle mixed with the childish fantasy world ken Hermann finds interesting to portrait.”
The project started when he became fascinated by the good look-alikes and the bad ones. Spending time observing them, he found that sometimes a person just needs to have a funny or crazy attitude to be successful. But in this project, Ken tried to show off who the real person was behind the disguise.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Ken: I have taken photos since I was little – especially when we travelled and I have always been fascinated and interested in the different lighting techniques and post production. But I guess I was quite old – in my twenties before I realized that photography was the perfect career for me.
In Denmark you have to get an apprenticeship to be able to take the degree in advertising photography. It can be very difficult to get these contracts with a studio or photographer as there are many who apply for these vacancies and a lot of freelance photographer do not wish to have the extra fixed labor cost – especially because the apprentice also goes to school in periods. I guess I was lucky to sign a contract with a studio where I could assist and learn from 8 different photographers. This gave me the chance to develop my own style as I could learn from many talented photographers. When you see people who have assisted only one well-known photographer the assistant often ends up with a personal style very alike the masters’. After my apprenticeship and end of my education in Den-mark I moved to New York to assist and learn from some of the big photographers there. It was quite a contrast to experience the really big photo shoots with celebrities. There were so many people on the set and the assistants duties were very specialized compared to what i was used to in Denmark. In Denmark we actually had our own clients already as apprentice and we had to learn the post production as well. In US these roles are much more specialized. One of the most important learning I had from the period in New York is that you have to have a personal style that differs you from others. In is in relation to this my personal projects like the Hollywood Street Characters become very important. Both as a show pieces, to develop my own style and stimulate my creativity.
Phoblographer: How did you get into portraiture?
Ken: I guess I posses a natural urge to explore photography, people, culture and world alike. I have traveled extensively, from secluded regions of India and Ethiopia to modern metropolises like New York. From every location, no matter how small or large, I find energy and inspiration; exploration of people and culture is a central facet to my work. I have a natural curiosity when it comes to people – especially the subcultures or just non-western cultures that differs from what we are accustomed to in the western part of the world.
Furthermore I like working with people as I can work with both the ‘model’ and the location to achieve the look I am aiming for. Sometimes I prefer the location to emphasize the ‘story’ and sometimes I want a natural location to give the viewer a focus on the person being portrayed.
Phoblographer: Where did the idea, inspiration and concept for Hollywood Street Characters come from?
Ken: While in Los Angeles working on an assignment in April, I stayed at a hotel close to the Hollywood Boulevard. Walking down the Boulevard every day I became very fascinated with the street artist who work as impersonators dressing up as Hollywood icons and pose with tourists for tips. Passing by giant cartoon characters, Hollywood star look-alikes, and superheroes, I became curious about who these street artists who spend so much time and effort imitating someone else really are, and my idea for the series ‘Behind the mask of Hollywood street characters’ came to life.
After talking to several of the impersonators it became clear to me that many of them are, or once were, pursuing the American dream of becoming someone special and famous. I found this struggle and pursuit of the ambition meshed with the innocent fantasy world of dressing up intriguing.
Some of the street characters does a really good job acting as look-alikes and they actually look a lot like some of the big Hollywood stars while others just look like silly grownups in poor and dirty costumes. I was fascinated by this big contrast between the good look-alikes and the poor ones. And I also noticed that the success of the street characters was-n’t about being the most perfect look alike – it also depended upon acting as the most hyped or popular characters or maybe just having a funny or crazy attitude.
Phoblographer: After talking to the people and finding out more about them, what gave you the idea to shoot them in the particular scenes that they’re in? It has an almost depressing feel to it.
Ken: With the series of portraits my idea was to give the viewer the same curiosity about the person behind the mask as I had when the idea for this project occurred. I want to give the viewer a more serious aspect of each character, taking a look at the lives that hide inside the cartoon costumes and outlandish outfits. Normally the street characters are pictured with a funny face in lively settings but instead I were aiming for the more personal expression of the real person behind the mask. In order to enhance this several of my portraits was taken in the characters’ own home.
Phoblographer: What are you trying to say as an artist with these images? Obviously, the story is about people who tried to become famous and pursue the American dream; but are there under-lying connotations with how the American dream has crashed and burned?
Ken: Most of the street characters have one thing in common as you are also addressing in your question. They are, or once were, pursuing the American dream of becoming some-one famous. Many regard the impersonators as failed actors, people who tried to make it big in Hollywood but couldn’t. I noticed the same thing when talking to a lot of them and some of my photos seem to reinforce that notion – Marilyn Monroe stands alone in a motel lot, and Captain Boulevard’s homemade costume is smudged with dirt. 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 be-cause the dream did not go as planned not all of them are fallen stars.
Phoblographer: Which person’s story were you most touched by? Why?
Ken: I don’t know, they all have interesting stories to tell–I kind of like Captain Boulevard because he is very different from the other characters and the fact that he made up his own superhero. He was hanging out with he friend Solar flare which was another home made characters. He told us that they have been living on the streets for the last 5 years – I never found out if it was for real or not!!
Phoblographer: How did you go about first explaining the idea of this project to the people involved and getting them onboard for shooting?
Ken: Getting the street characters to agree to be photographed was no easy task. For one thing, it’s illegal for street artist to accept money other than tips, and many are worried about attracting too much attention to themselves in an area riddled with cops.
I had made contact and arrangement with a few of the characters on my visit to LA in April when I first had the idea for the series, but most of the performers were recruited during the days when I was shooting. I took a lot of work for both my and my assistant to talk the impersonator we preferred in to being a part of it but when I showed the impersonators some of the first shots I had taken they became more interested in being a part of the project..
Phoblographer: How did you go about building trust and figuring out scenarios to shoot with these people?
Ken: Some of the characters were reluctant to show their real face or even break character, citing professionalism so my idea about peeking behind the mask was a bit challenged. For the first few days, I found myself negotiating a photo shoot through a giant Mini Mouse head. But when I met the Mad Hatter, also known as Jason, I knew I had an inside man. Well-known and liked along the Boulevard, the Hatter introduced me and my team to others who agreed to be photographed and even bring us back to their homes.
Phoblographer: What do you want to do with this project?
Ken: With the series of portraits my idea was to give the viewer the same curiosity about the person behind the mask as I had when the idea for this project occurred. I want to give the viewer a more serious aspect of each character, taking a look at the lives that hide inside the cartoon costumes and outlandish outfits.
On a personal level I do these personal projects because they stimulate my creativity – and when I have an Idea I have a hard time letting it go. I can also use the leanings and outcome from these personal projects in relation to my commercial and artistic work. They give me the opportunity to express my style and they give me a lot of press coverage in the international media. Many times my personal project has been the direct ticket to bigger commercial jobs.
Phoblographer: Where is this project going? A gallery? A book?
Ken: A few galleries have shown interest in doing an exhibition of the project but I have not agreed to anything yet. I might have to do some more shots with some of the characters who I really want to be a part of it before I do an exhibition. I am also selling the photos to different media companies to have some of the cost covered.