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Photographing Masks - history of a culture

Updated on October 7, 2013
CC license Attribution 2.0 Generic
CC license Attribution 2.0 Generic | Source

Many cultures have masks which they use to represent certain stages in their development, their beliefs, history and their evolution. This can make for a vacation project or a more international assignment which depending on your ability to travel can be very fulfilling.

Masks photography has some elements in common with cosplay photography. Both techniques involve recording images of people in costumes who are acting out the image's or mask's persona or the overall concept of the costume.

Mask photography can be done with people or models in complete costumes while they are wearing a mask, but this particular theme concentrates on first the mask by itself and then if possible a mask and its wearer.

There are many varieties and concepts associated with masks; from the humorous, to the grotesque and many in between. We will concentrate on the most elaborate ones, much like the ones used during the middle ages and very popular styles commonly used today during carnivals such as Mardi Grass.

To make this project functional, one should record images of masks in close up modes to highlight details, textures, shapes, vibrancy of color and forms. Aim to capture the beautiful details within each mask, and for this we aim to secure samples from antique stores and whenever possible, from museums even costume shops.

Replicas can subtitle for the real things, specifically if your subjects are replicas of valuable museum samples. Our main efforts should be directed towards capturing the representations or message, or even the intention behind every mask creation. Masks that depicts a real character or even a fictitious one such as demons are simplistic in their message and intention which is to recreate a simile of someone.

However, masks that aim to symbolize a feeling or an emotion are better subjects to photograph. For example masks that are a simple covering of the forehead and nose like the Phantom of The Opera style, are often decorated with feathers, are colorful or monochromatic in their color scheme and usually have a hint of a smile, and are meant to symbolize a mischievous or innocent character.

Aim to capture this symbolism, the simplicity in their design. Use diffused light for their photography, try different angles and perspectives. Dark backgrounds work well in isolating the subject and helps to avoid any distracting foreground details. Also useful is to arrange your masks subjects alongside complementary clothing, and detailed complementary items and props.

Although this project aims to capture texture, forms, different masks samples, intentions and symbolism it does not require that the masks be without a face to fill them in. You can photograph them while a model wears them. Most often the eyes of the model will add drama and interest to the shot a bit of mystery as it may.

A good project is to make your own masks with papier mache and then to paint them in colors and add details that depict feelings, or emotions. Once you record their images then it would be up to an audience to decipher what those feelings or emotions are and what was the purpose to their creation, and this is what makes them exciting to create and to record in photographs.

You can also add feathers, fake gemstones, crystals and glittering sparkles to make them more interesting.

These images can be shown in a thumbnail presentation format or as individual images. They are very good subjects for fine art galleries and as decorator pieces for many offices. Once finished with the photos, you can even sell the masks themselves.

Many costume shops have inexpensive starter masks. These are just the plain mask itself. But by adding some simple items and painting them you can make them extraordinary, as well as providing hours of just plain fun.

If your plans include a trip to Europe, try to procure samples from the many artisan shops that abound there, especially Italy where the art of mask making has become an art unto itself.

Of exceedingly international fame are the masks, costumes and carnivals held each year in the city of Venice, Italy. Indian festivals honoring several deities produce some beautiful masks and costumes too.

Japanese character plays are also renown by their very emotive mask creations. Some excellent samples can be obtained through catalogs and by visiting certain parts of a city where homogeneous nationalities thrive such as the Chinese neighborhoods of New York, the various Italian neighborhood of New Jersey and Chicago.

Consider visiting Native American tribal centers also as they sometimes have exquisite native and traditional masks and traditional props to go together as part of the scene. Some of their creations are in the shapes of animals and these usually make good photo subjects.

Again the purpose is to capture the essence of each mask, the texture, the small details ,the different shades of color, and if possible the intention for its creation; what is the meaning or feelings represented by each.

A variation of the project is to record images of models wearing the masks while in a typical costume, or one can even design costumes to fit the essence of the mask, in other words create a costume around the mask instead of the other way around.

CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

Be creative in your mask making endeavors and in your photography of them.

Don't worry if you are not particularly peculiar to making masks, buy some that are already pre-made, visit several antique stores and ask to photograph them on site.

Most of the time the shop keepers will have no objections to allowing your photography of them.

Visit some theater production companies and photograph their regalia. You may even be presented with an opportunity of photographing actors in full dress alongside with the mask.

All it will probably cost you are some copies of the images which the actors will probably use in their personal marketing efforts, thus you also get the benefit of the photographic credit.

(CC BY-ND 2.0
(CC BY-ND 2.0 | Source

Plan on doing something like this?

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© 2011 Luis E Gonzalez


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    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 6 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Luis, I am very interested in the earliest photography circa 1830's and 1840's, have you ever written about it or can you recommend a site to have a look at more exmaples? Thanks Cred2

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      Having been in musical theatre, I always see masks as costume pieces first for the stage-even though personally stage acting has been makeup and clothing-without masks. And the first thing one thinks of when thinking of a theatrical symbol is the pair of the two masks: one laughing and one crying.

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 6 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Another interesting photography topic. Thanks for your insight!

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Lynn: You could always place them on top of a dark to black background or a foam head like where wigs are placed (paint the foam black non-glossy)

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 6 years ago

      Interesting hub. I find my problem is "anchoring" them so they don't look out there. Hard to explain. But I love the examples!

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Cardisa: Thank you and no need to be scared, they are all made by

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 6 years ago from Jamaica

      I don't mind masks that make the female look mysterious but masks that are ornamental are a bit scary to me. They remind me of the voodoo art. But some are really great like the one that Jet Li wore in the movie "The Mask"


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