For his new book Heroes & Villains: A Photographic Odyssey into the Fantastic World of Cosplay, published today by Smith Street Books, Andrew Boyle photographed the sea of fans in costume at New York’s annual Comic Con convention. Over the course of several years, he photographed Batmen and Wonderwomen, armies of Deadpools and Thors, cosplayers from the worlds of anime and manga, and magnificently dressed fans of Star Wars, Spaceballs, Game of Thrones and Beetlejuice, among many others. The book collects more than 200 of the portraits Boyle made in and around the convention, all posed against plain or painted walls, or in front of the Javits Center’s distinctive cement to isolate the spectacular costumes. In an email, Boyle tells PDN about how he approached the project.
PDN: Were you a fan before you began the project? How did you acclimate yourself with the culture and characters, or was that necessary? Do you need to convince your subjects that you appreciate the subtleties of their costumes, or are they usually just happy to be photographed?
Andrew Boyle: I’ve been reading comics since I first learned to read, and a Batman title was my first comic book. On top of that I’ve always been into cartoons, movies and video games too, so there wasn’t a need to familiarize myself with any part of the culture. Obviously staying on top of what newer characters are coming up or titles across the so-called geek culture is key, be it in printed form, Japanese animation, toys or moving image. At Comic Con, cosplayers are always keen to be photographed as they’ve spent so much time and energy on perfecting their costumes. As long as you’re patient and ask, there isn’t a problem. It’s a bonus to have a quick chat and meet these people too. While shooting cosplayers last year for an editorial, I asked everyone their name and what they did for a living so as to accompany each image with something a little more personal. It reminds you that underneath a mask or makeup there is a police officer, a parent, a teacher, a shy kid challenging themselves, a scientist, any number of professions. I even met an air traffic controller last year under some very elaborate armor. Mostly I just loved seeing how happy cosplaying made these people, and their fellow Comic Con attendees.
PDN: What did you look for in a subject?
A.B.: It kind of depends, as a lot of it is just intuition. I do enjoy finding people who seem to really live the costume their wearing, as if it’s a natural extension of their personality. I enjoy finding humor in subjects too, especially in cosplay that is a clever reimagining (shifting sci-fi characters to different time periods is great), a mash-up of different super heroes, or gender bending a comic icon to create a female version of a popular male character, and vice versa. I love that moment of “Oh! I get it!” when they come through a crowd. But mostly it’s a first impression when I spot them in a sea of costumes, and feel like their costume will compose well within an image.
PDN: How do you pose your subjects? How much direction to you give?
A.B.: I do a fair bit of editorial portraiture so it’s instinctive for me to give some direction. Composition and angle is most important to me, so I have them hold themselves a certain way and a subtle tilt or life of the head, angles for the shoulders and where they look. I look to Anton Corbijn, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon as my photo heroes, so I appreciate the nuances of their portraits. And I let them bring their character out a little. Obviously the instinct for the subject is to strike an exaggerated action-based stance, which you’ll see in a lot cosplay photography, but I prefer them to appear as if it’s completely normal to be dressed that way. I aim to make them to appear as an icon.
PDN: What kinds of equipment do you use? What were the biggest challenges of the project, and how did you overcome them?
A.B.:I shoot with whatever I can attach to my camera, bounced flash light, and any available blank walls found throughout the Comic Con venue, which are mostly in corridors on the bottom level and the outside part of the venue. A lot of the most elaborate cosplayers congregate in the exterior area to pose for pictures amongst themselves, media and photo enthusiasts. It can be a little hectic to grab someone, or a space, within this area as some shooters bring paper backdrops, mobile flash packs and heads. If I stay completely self contained, I can stay within the convention center and grab people as they move around the venue in proximity to a suitable backdrop. Having a blank background is important as for me it’s all about the person, their creation and composition within the frame, so having the least amount of distraction behind them is best. There are over 150,000 people at the peak of the weekend, and backgrounds can understandably get cluttered.
I’d say the biggest challenge is patience. If I spot someone in a really busy area of Comic Con with the perfect costume they’re understandably swarmed by all of us eager photographers before you can blink. As I don’t like to shoot them with people behind them or a busy backdrop, I have to either wait until they move towards a usable spot, or ask them to jump in front of an ideal area. It can take a long time to get them, but when you get the shot it’s worth it. In the end, you have to respect the fact these people are also there to enjoy themselves too, so I try to be mindful of that, and other photographers who are just as keen as I am to get the perfect portrait.