While in Los Angeles working on an assignment in April, Copenhagen-based photographer Ken Hermann became fascinated with Hollywood Boulevard, where impersonators dress up as Hollywood icons and pose with tourists for tips. Passing by giant cartoon characters, Hollywood star look-alikes, and superheroes, Hermann became curious about who these street artists–people who spend so much time and effort imitating someone else–really are.
That’s the premise of his photography series, “Hollywood Street Characters” which shows the people behind the costumes, unmasked and on their own turf. The portraits are both intimate and surreal: in one, a man dressed up as Bumblebee, a character from Transformers, sits slumped on his beige living room couch beside a bookshelf full of trophies. In another, Darth Vader sits stiffly in an oversized chair, flipping through channels in the glow of the television.
“I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to shoot them at Hollywood Boulevard,” Hermann says in a phone interview. “They earn a living getting their picture taken, but I wanted to get away from the tourists. I wanted to do it more personally from their homes.”
Getting them to agree to be photographed was no easy task. For one thing, it’s illegal for street performers to accept money other than tips, and many are worried about attracting too much attention to themselves in an area riddled with cops. Others were reluctant to show their face or even break character, citing professionalism. For the first few days, Hermann found himself negotiating a photo shoot through a giant Mini Mouse head.
But when Hermann met the Mad Hatter, also known as Jason, he knew he had an inside man. Well-known and liked along the Boulevard, the Hatter introduced him to others who agreed to be photographed and even bring him back to their homes.
Many regard the impersonators as failed actors, people who tried to make it big in Hollywood but couldn’t. Some of Hermann’s 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, Hermann says that some of them are living out their own version of the American Dream: two of the characters he photographed just won the Green Card lottery. “The bumblebee is a full-time electrician and likes to do [the impersonations] at night,” Hermann says, “Not all of them are fallen stars.”