Viennese photographer Klaus Pichler’s intimate photo series, Just the Two of Us, aims to reveal the people beneath a variety of costumes without unmasking them.
For adults, the act of dressing up in costume is most often associated with some form of social activity. It’s a spectacle, a transformative activity that grants us permission to temporarily play out a fantasy role in the everyday world. Costumes and disguises permit people to act in ways that they might not normally, to pretend to be somebody or something else. Cosplayers (an obvious combination of costume and play) are devotees to this art of the second skin. They come in a variety of forms and dedications, and dress up for different reasons — cultural heritage, fandom, LARPing (live action role-playing). For some, it’s about the reinvention and innovation of identity. There are those who dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to fashioning highly detailed outfits. Others put more effort into mastering the mannerisms and personalities of the characters that they are portraying. The quality and detail of their creations vary, but it is apparent that passion and devotion are the keys to creating a successful cosplay persona.
By simply photographing his subjects costume-clad in their own homes, Pichler allows for a unique look at the people behind the masks and makeup. Subjects pose using the rooms they inhabit as they commonly would every day — reading the newspaper, exercising, taking a bath — providing insight into their day-to-day lives. The images created are uniquely compelling. Imagine extraordinary characters doing ordinary things: Batman practicing the drums or a hooded assassin catching up on his ironing. These mundane activities, the things that we all do, remind us that beneath all of the masks, there are ordinary humans after all.
There’s a sharp contrast between the fantastical costumes and the everyday surroundings depicted in each of the nearly forty works that make up this series that Pichler worked on from 2011 to 2013. Shot on 6 x 7 film in natural light, the photos delightfully capture these interior spaces as reflections of personalized domesticity. They are comfortable, crafted spaces where minds that gravitate to worlds filled with mythical beasts and sci-fi scenarios are at a natural ease. The surroundings reveal a variety of personal histories and motivations. The antique furniture, knick knacks and collections (or lack thereof) speak to the character traits of the individual and the costume that has been created. We look at the persona and the surroundings, and we attempt to connect the dots. The choice of an all-white costume in a minimalist space, for example, might be an indication that the person delights in maintaining order.
Pichler deliberately chose not to photograph the participants out of costume, leaving the identities (and often genders) to the viewer’s imagination. The costumes are thoughtful and time-invested, conscious decisions that become extensions of each person’s identity, conveying information about them. While many of the costumes are easily recognizable (like a Halo SPARTAN-II soldier sitting on a couch in quiet contemplation or Boba Fett playing with a DJ controller) many more are original creations or characters steeped in folklore. Fabled beasts sit in rooms surrounded by religious paintings and angel statuettes. Krampus, the anti-St. Nicholas (instead of rewarding children who have been good, he punishes those who have been naughty) looks like the devil visiting your grandmother — sitting on her couch, in her favourite chair, at her table. In other scenes a good Perchten (an exorcist of winter) knits wool socks; a winged dragon plays the piano; a medieval knight puts together a jigsaw puzzle; a stone angel weeps in a mirrored hallway; a skeleton lies on one side of a double bed, a portrait of the Virgin Mother and Child overhead.
The portrait of a Heath Ledger inspired Joker/ Mad Hatter hybrid sitting in a basement running fabric through a sewing machine might be the most revealing and haunting image of all. While the character generates feelings of criminal insanity and manic hysteria, the scene focuses in on a person with a keen sense of craftsmanship and purpose. The room is filled with seamstress’ dummies and masks. Instead of pictures of family and friends, the walls are adorned with pictures of the character’s outfits. It’s a fantasy in the act of creating itself.
A lot of the images Pichler creates are weighted with an aura of loneliness, intentional or not. Characters that would elicit awe and fear in their natural story land environments seem powerless when embedded into the banality of the real world. With hooded heads bowed and single-expression faces staring out of frame, there’s a sense of seclusion and inner reflection connected to many of the works in the series.
Just the Two of Us merges the cosplayers and their fictional personas, allowing them to co-exist. The personality of each room and character fuse together, shedding light on the unique person underneath it all.