- A Cosplay Photography Sampler
"Making icons out of their icons."1 This is how photographer Elena Dorfman describes her portraits of cosplayers, a characterization that suggests the layers of representation in cosplay photography and the ways these layers can be peeled apart (or collapsed together) to shed light on how fandom is viewed and displayed.
Cosplay itself probably needs little introduction here. Originally a Japanese abbreviation of "costume play," it refers to an international range of practices centered on dressing up, particularly but not exclusively fans' practice of constructing costumes based on anime and manga characters and donning them at conventions.2 But the cosplayer is really only half the equation: the other half is the cameraman (or woman), and there is a strong sense that the photograph is the privileged end product of the entire enterprise.
Cosplay photography is a form of fanthropology in the sense that it documents fan activities. But it also accepts the challenge posed by the editors of this volume, the challenge to speak about fans in new ways. Fandom is not a foreign object to be regarded by academic specialists from the other side of a divide established by our own cultural or disciplinary expertise. Nor is it an esoteric community that only initiates—only fans themselves—can hope to [End Page 176] understand. Ideally it is a set of people, practices, and phenomena that challenge and expand not only our received knowledge but our very systems of knowledge.
One useful way to counter the sense of fandom as a closed object is to see the ways that fandom inevitably redraws the boundaries between producer and consumer, viewer and viewed. Like fan fiction and dōjinshi parodies, cosplay is part of the feedback loop that allows fans to enter into a text and transform it, turning readers into authors and blurring the distinction between fan and critic, as well as reader and text. Challenged by these practices, professional critics have lately learned to read more like fans—reinventing their own approaches in order to interpret the increasingly seamless space of fan + text.
By making icons from these icons, cosplay photography adds one more interesting layer. The photographers (in or out of costume themselves) range from interlopers, to fans, to fans of fans, and what their photos examine is precisely the construction and confusion of boundaries between fan and character, fan and critic, or observer and observed. Some photographers try to erase difference by creating photographs that reproduce the visual qualities of the animated frame or the manga page. Others intrude literally or figuratively into the frame, forcing us to consider the social contexts in which these images are produced and consumed. Some allow fans to emerge from underneath their costumes or try to pry them violently out of character, while many question the sometimes facile divisions and fraught power relationships these kinds of operations assume.
It is futile or contradictory to construct a canon of cosplay photography. Photo-sharing sites host millions of pictures by hundreds of thousands of photographers, making it impossible to give an overview of this genre, much less a who's who of photographers. But perhaps this ongoing documentary (constantly shot but never edited) gestures productively toward an anthropology of addition rather than reduction. In that spirit, we have assembled a purposely diverse sampling of work that hints at the range of approaches in this new genre.
Eurobeat King and the Archive of Fan Cosplay Photography
Several of the photographers discussed below approach cosplay productively from the outside, often with complex ideas about photography but limited [End Page 177] experience with the syntax and goals of the cosplay community. But here at the outset it is important to remember that all but a tiny fraction of cosplay images are made for and by the community, and come with their own very particular context that structures the images—a complex combination of conventions, history, geography, audience, and use values. Some of the photographers treated below (Elena Dorfman and Steve Schofield, for example) create images primarily for display and discussion within fine art galleries and for audiences of art buyers with no knowledge of anime...