In the alternate universe that is Hollywood Boulevard, Marilyn Monroe has a restraining order against Chewbacca, the same guy plays Darth Vader, Barney and Mickey Mouse, and multiple Spideys vie for the title of baggiest costume. For years, photographer James Knoblauch has been photographing the characters who populate the few blocks around Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, and earlier this year his collection of portraits was published in a book called Imposters.
Here, we talked to him about what it’s like to go back to SpongeBob’s place for drinks, among other things.
You called Roger Gastman, the founder of Swindle magazine, the “instigator” of the book. How is that?
I did not use the words “instigator” to describe Roger Gastman, who was a business contributor to the project. Someone at the publisher thought it was a cute way to describe his function in the book project. I had sent Roger “imposter” photos with the hope of having some printed in his magazine and he suggested creating a book with 30 or so images of different characters. He then found a publisher to release the book.
Why did you choose to shoot portraits of the characters rather than doing a documentary-style project?
I believe that the photographs are a document of the character. While understanding the documentary process, the portrait is a style which I enjoy and feel most comfortable working with.
Can you tell us about your lighting set-up? Was this a medium format project? What camera and lens did you shoot with? Why did you choose this kind of setup?
I only used two studio lights and a Hasselblad camera with a standard 80mm lens. I like to keep it simple since I work alone and enjoy staying light-on-my-feet. I really like to keep things simple.
You said you started shooting the characters in 2001 by bringing a backdrop to Hollywood Boulevard. Aren’t there all sorts of rules and bylaws on the Boulevard, or was that back before it became so regulated?
I began this project before 2001 and there was a lot more freedom to work in public. People didn’t make such a big deal when they saw you do something out-of-the ordinary. They left you alone for the most part. In the beginning, I would set up a backdrop with stands against Mann’s Theater and had characters pose in front of it. And no one cared. If they approached me, they would see that I was alright and wouldn’t bother me. It was awesome. It was also before tons of tourists would visit the block in front of Mann’s as well, which made things easier.
Then you moved the venue to the characters’ homes. How easy or difficult was it to get them to open up themselves like that?
It wasn’t hard to get the characters to let me photograph them in their homes once they saw that I had photographed others in their homes. They were really cool about it. They saw that I was just a guy who wanted to make a book and they wanted to be a part of the project. Since many characters are actors, they are big on having any type of promotion.
Who was your favorite character to be around? Least favorite? Were there any characters that you would purposely avoid? Like that Catwoman, for instance? She’s a real bitch.
My favorite character is Donnie who plays Elmo and Yoda. He’s a middle-aged guy, like myself, from Chicago and we hit it off. When I would dress as Sylvester the Cat on the Boulevard, we would work together. He would say, “Sylvester likes pictures too” after a tourist had their picture taken with him. But lately I am having a problem with Gerard, who plays Freddy Kruger. He is upset that I said his apartment was a mess in the intro section of the book and has threatened me with a lawsuit.
Describe some of the problems you had on the Boulevard, i.e., police, security guards, tourists, transients.
I really didn’t have any problems working on the Boulevard. It’s really a hard place to send any amount of time; it’s dirty, hot and crowded. Other than that, no problems. There are some crazy people around there, but I fortunately never had a hard time.
Which character’s living arrangements surprised you? And who was it that made you think, “Ah yes, of course!”?
I thought SpoongeBob SquarePants had a fun apartment. It was in a large apartment complex one block off Hollywood and was a total bachelor pad with lots of brown tones and cocktails. He would have parties almost weekly and everyone would meet there before heading out to work on the Boulevard. His fridge was always stocked with drinks too.
What was one of the most bizarre experiences you had shooting this project?
It was really bizarre going down to South Central at night to shoot Captain America in an apartment he shared with a friend. It was a one-bedroom apartment and the Captain was using a throw mattress on the living room floor. There was stuff everywhere and there must have been six cats living in there as well. He was upset over the bus commute to Hollywood.
Describe what it was like to be inside the Sylvester the Cat costume on a hot day. And, more importantly, how bad did it smell at the end of the day?
It was terrible wearing my Sylvester costume during the summer when it was hot and sticky. But I had it easy compared to other characters’ costumes. When you take the costume off, I felt like you lost 5 pounds. I remember that I would go to dinner feeling great by simply wearing shorts and t-shirt.
What has been the characters’ reactions to the book? Are you anybody’s arch enemy now?
As far as what the characters think of the book, I’m not sure. I know that some of the characters are unhappy. It’s just the way it is. I get the feeling some characters feel that I’m making money with the book and they have been taken advantage of. But the truth is, I haven’t made a nickel and most likely won’t in the future. My understanding is books like this really don’t really sell. But they may have a hard time believing that when they see a stack of books down at the Arc Light. Just go back there in a month and you’ll see the stack hasn’t gotten much smaller. As I mentioned before, Freddy Kruger wants to sue me and Cat in the Hat recently told me he could do the project better. It kind of sucks!
There have been quite a few issues on the Boulevard relating to the characters — altercations, allegations, complaints, and the like. Do you think there should be any regulations regarding the characters working there? If you were in charge of Hollywood, what changes would you implement?
I can’t begin to comment what should be done with the Boulevard. At the time I wanted to shoot more characters, but I hit a wall and just couldn’t spend anymore time up there. It’s too crazy for me. And plus there seem to be new characters each week. I’m a person who likes the beach with only a few people around.
What do you think you achieved by doing this project? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I believe I met my goal with the project. Photography has limitations and I feel I created a successful document of my time spent up there. I would have liked to of photographed a few more characters, but my time was up.
What’s next for you in terms of photography?
I am presently shooting my heavy metal friends in their favorite band shirt. Some of the shirts are 20 years old and hardly fit. It’s really funny. You can see them on my web site: jamesknoblauch.com.