We Can Be Heroes

Photographer Roy Berry chronicles the colorful characters of Fan Cons

[Trekkie and Son.]

[“Trekkie and Son”]

In 1908, a certain Mr. and Mrs. William Fell of Cincinnati, Ohio arrived at a masquerade ball dressed as (respectively) “Mr. Skygack” and “Miss Dillpickles,” two then-popular comic strip characters. Their motivations remain unknown. And whether or not the Fells wound up in the social register or mental asylum is an equal mystery. But their entrance that evening at a Midwestern skating rink decked out in colorful and otherworldly garb is considered the first documented instance of individuals dressing up as science fiction and comic book-born entities.

Fast forward three decades later to 1939. Pioneering science fiction author, editor, publisher, and visionary polymath Forrest J. Ackerman attended that year’s inaugural World Science Fiction Convention in Manhattan donning a “futuristicostume.” In a memoir piece penned by sci-fi author and fellow attendee Dave Kyle, Ackerman arrived at this ground-breaking event with his shirt imprinted with the superhero-like-symbol “4SJ” (as in Forrest J. Ackermann) while “wearing his eye-catching street costume with green cape and baggy breeches.”

Since his death in 2008 at the age of 92, Ackermann has been credited as being the undeniable spearhead in launching genres such as horror and science fiction from the underground world of pulp magazines into the stratosphere of popular culture. Among his many accomplishments, Ackermann coined the term “sci-fi,” helped propel and push the literary and creative careers of writers including Ray Bradbury, Marion Zimmer Bradley, L. Ron Hubbard, as well as über-cult hero Ed Wood, while amassing a personal collection of over 300,000 pieces of memorabilia.

Ackermann (aka “Forry” and “The Ackermonster”) also helped broadcast, organize, and publicize future events that sprung from that initial gathering in NYC, a day that attracted 200 sci-fi, fantasy, and horror lovers who were surely seeking some kind of imaginative solace from The Great Depression and were undoubtedly pleased to discover that they were not alone in their otherworldly obsessions.

And that tribe has continued to grow. Over the course of the following decades, these fan conventions (or Fan Cons) developed in a sort of parallel rhythm with the increasing popularity of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror that manifested as comic books, novels, television shows, motion pictures, and related marketed-memorabilia. Today, a cursory online search reveals that there are 400-plus Fan Cons occurring around the globe that celebrate sci-fi, fantasy, horror, Anime, role playing games, and every other possible mutation that even a dreamer like Ackermann ever could have imagined.

And Ackermann’s decision to show up at that first Fan Con with his freak flag flying was as influential and prescient as his belief that sci-fi, horror, and general weirdness were valid art forms. A centerpiece of many, if not all of these contemporary Fan Cons, is the attendees wearing costumes paying homage from everything from Star Trek to Pokémon. This costume play (or Cosplay) is a blending of adoration, creative expression, performance art, inventive DIY artisanship, and, let’s not bullshit ourselves, possible mental illness.

Photographer Roy Berry is an admitted comic book freak and no stranger to what has been deemed “nerd culture.” Yet the 30-year-old Berry is also first and foremost a visual artist. As revealed in the following interview, Berry’s immersion into this world of Cylon Raiders, Klingons, Daleks, and Pikachus was fueled as much by Jim Beam as it was Jedi Knights. Berry’s upcoming exhibit Children of the Atom features a dozen 16 x 24 images of people dressed in various Cosplay Couture that Berry photographed over the past few years while attending fan conventions. Superheroes, Trekkies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and other subcultures are captured in a variety of postures; some seem deliberately self-promoting, some are playful, while others appear stoic if not indifferent to Berry’s lens. What is missing from these shots is any sense of sarcasm or snark. Berry is almost the ideal type to document this unique realm. The artist has enough knowledge of the Fan Con vernacular to move freely among the herd, while still maintaining the surely-needed discernment and distance of a fine arts photographer.

Earlier this year, the PhotoJax exhibit at CoRK Arts District included images from Berry’s The Vacation Collection, a series of deliberately plotted and arranged photographs that chronicled the dissolution of a then-relationship. Those pieces, which seem based on a blending of psychodrama, romantic-creative partnership, and portraiture, are a far cry visually from the off-the-cuff approach of his latest work. Yet Children of the Atom still taps into Berry’s apparent fascination with relationships, albeit in a brighter light, with imagery populated by caped crusaders and sword-wielding princesses who have the good sense to still tap into the inherent possibility of dreams and continue forward into their adult lives by engaging in the transformative act of playing dress up.

The opening reception for Children of the Atom is held from 3-9 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30 at Tact Apparel, 2746 Park St., in Riverside. The event will also feature cold beer and light snacks. The show is on display through December. “Tact is normally open on Saturdays and by appointment,” explains Tact co-owner and artist Tony Rodrigues. “We try to open every day in December though, to accommodate the holiday rush. I’ll be in Miami from Dec. 5-8 for Art Basel Miami Beach, so we’ll be stretched a little thin. But anyone interested in seeing the exhibit can call 904-568-5418 for an appointment.”

I interviewed Rodrigues via e-mail on Nov. 25 and then spoke with Berry via phone that night. What follows are the transcriptions of those interviews.

Tony Rodrigues

Starehouse: When did you first discover Berry’s work?

Tony Rodrigues: I met Roy when I started working on the curatorial/installation team at MOCA Jacksonville. He told me he was a B.F.A. candidate at UNF. I seem to remember it taking a while to drag that information out of him. He’s pretty modest about his work.

S: Why did you decide to present Berry’s work at Tact?

T.R.: Wendy C. Lovejoy, my wife and partner in Tact Designs, and I were impressed by The Vacation Collection series he exhibited at the last PhotoJax event at CoRK. I had been following the series in progress, but that was the first time I saw anything in print. Plus, Roy is just a really nice guy. I enjoy working with him and we share a common sense of humor. After handling and installing so much art together, both with MOCA’s collection and loaned works, I can see that our tastes and sensibilities about photography and art in general are pretty close.

S: What do you find so compelling and singular about his photography?

T.R.: I appreciate the duality of playfulness and deadpan execution in Roy’s work. Also, the work is deceptively complex in technique and composition. The Children of the Atom series is a slight departure from The Vacation Collection and another current body of work he’s doing with Ashley Olberding. Children of the Atom is shot more spontaneously and with a hand-held strobe. I sense that Roy has a firm understanding of contemporary art photography, its context, and a good eye in general.

Roy Berry

[The Hotel Bar.]

[“The Hotel Bar”]

Starehouse: Hey Roy, can you talk?

Roy Berry: Yeah, yeah hold on one sec (…) okay, this is the perfect time.

S: Are you at the beach?

R.B.: No, Riverside.

S: Tony said you had once been a Jax Beach dude.

R.B.: Yeah, I’m from the beach. I grew up there. I spent most of my life there.

S: Yeah, me too.

R.B.: Oh yeah? Cool. Where did you grow up at the beach?

S: Jax Beach (…) over by the graveyard (laughs). Let me get some basic background info.

R.B.: Sure.

S: So you graduated from UNF?

R.B.: Yeah.

S: When was this?

R.B.: Two thousand and (…) jeez, I don’t even know anymore (laughs). I think 2010. That sounds about right.

S: What was your major?

R.B.: It was communications. I was focusing on electronic media (…) and there’s a whole story behind that…

S: So tell me the story. How did you go from electronic media to photography? Were you always doing photography or some kind of visual art?

R.B.: Yeah, I’ve always been involved in drawing and painting or whatever. But I was living in Tallahassee for three years with a girlfriend and she was going to FSU. She couldn’t get into the film department there so the next best thing was (…) I think it was called the electronic media department. So people who couldn’t get into the film school would go there and make narrative films. So we made movies while we were over there and I came back to Jacksonville and thought, “Wow, that was fun. I’m going to try and do that here. They have the same program.” And I made it in and spent pretty much two years making movies and doing various stuff and then I realized this shit is just a major for news and sports people (laughs). I felt like I had just wasted a massive part of my life (laughs).

S: Well, you probably absorbed some information. And it sounds like it could somehow be a trapdoor into filmmaking.

R.B.: Yeah, yeah (…) that was the point. But I also got my photography minor during that time.

S: If nothing else, you got a handle on technology and how to steady a camera. And there’s always sports filming in your future. “Roy, go film that Jai Alai tournament.”

R.B.: Yeah, true.

S: So let’s talk about the show. Why are you calling this exhibit Children of the Atom?

R.B.: I think that is what The X-Men were originally called (…) you know, “The Children of the Atom,” this kind of early sixties, Cold War-era (…) and how this leftover radiation from WWII was “changing the youth” (…) so for me “Children of the Atom” is really about outsider people and for me, I translated that through people who go to these conventions and dress up. That was part of the draw initially to go these conventions. When you go there, you really see how these so-called outsider people are so excited to be in a group of like-minded individuals who understand whatever is going on in their life.

S: Bound by the compulsion to wear capes.

R.B.: The compulsion to wear capes! Yeah. The name kind of came out of trying to find a phrase that described these people. Not a mocking, judgmental idea behind it. They want to be mutants. And that is actually great.

S: Yeah, they celebrate this. I’m sure that they would know where the title of your exhibit comes from.

R.B.: Right; absolutely.

S: In our e-mail exchange, you explained that with this series you wanted to combine three things that you love: nerd culture, people in costumes, and whiskey. So what led to that inspiration? I’m putting my money on whiskey, by the way.

R.B.: Well, we went to a convention in 2006, the AWA (…) the Atlanta (…) I don’t even know what it’s called or stands for (…) it’s an Anime convention.

S: Yeah, Anime Weekend Atlanta.

R.B.: Yeah, that’s it.

S: I did some hard-hitting Starehouse investigation work with Google to look it up.

R.B.: It’s incredible. I had never experienced anything like that and some of my friends had; they had gone when they were younger. And they were trying to tell me, “Trust us, it’s going to be a shock. It is a little world in this hotel. And the trick is to just be drunk and have fun. And realize that everything here is absolutely non-confrontational. You can pretty much do anything you want and there’s going to be no problem; I mean, within reason.” That weekend was it – going to conventions, getting a bottle of whiskey, just staying drunk the whole time, and interacting with all of the people.

S: So possible alcoholism aside (laughs), are you a direct participant in what you describe as nerd culture and do you wear a costume or do you just attend in your civilian attire?

R.B.: No, no I wasn’t wearing a costume. Every year we talk about wearing a costume so we could possibly infiltrate these secret-weirdo-hotel-room-parties that are going on (…) but no, we never got our act together in time.

["Teenage Mutant Ninja Uncle"]

[“Teenage Mutant Ninja Uncle”]

S: In the statement for this show, you describe yourself as an “outsider” but after the AWA you started to attend these conventions pretty regularly. And you’ve explained what you found so interesting about that first convention in Atlanta. But what do you think has kept pulling you into this realm? It seems like it became more than just this funny event you went to for the drinking; you started to go to other conventions.

R.B.: I’m also like a comic book nerd. So there was also that motivation of going to take pictures but I also wanted to check out the comics (…) but yeah, there was just something really addictive about the energy that those places have.

S: What do you feel that energy is? Like you had said, is it because there’s a sense of celebration? It seems like you are visiting this ecstatic tribe of people. This is surely filed under nerd culture. And I don’t think you use that description facetiously. But greater society surely dismisses this kind of thing as these fucking crackpots that need to grow up.

R.B.: Oh totally, yeah. There’s people there attending these conventions that are almost dismissive. You have one nerd looking down on another nerd (laughs).

S: I think Philip Larkin wrote a poem about that (laughs). So there’s like a nerd hierarchy inside of these events?

R.B.: Yes, there actually is nerd hierarchy. It is like accidentally walking into a tribe; “tribe” is a good way to describe it. This is something special, it’s something else. And I think one of the most important parts about that is how friendly and wildly non-confrontational everybody is. It’s safe, somehow; and terrifying at the same time.

S: Looking at the images, the people seem pretty agreeable to being photographed. Granted, they are dressed up like “The Flash” so it isn’t like they’re trying to be subtle. So when you go in there, is alcohol still your guiding force?

R.B.: It usually is but it’s not so much a matter of “let’s have fun and drink.” It helps me focus on how I want to photograph the people. So once I start getting loose, I feel like I am able to get in and surprise them. There are these moments when they’re still in character and they might be just taking off their masks to spit out a piece of hard candy (…) some moment like that. And when I get drunk, I get fast and fidgety and start jumping from one place to another.

S: So the booze fuels your enthusiasm and approach.

R.B.: Yeah.

S: Don’t get me wrong; I’m not judging you or making fun of you with this. Drunkenness is surely allowed in making art. Some artists’ process surely involves mood or mind-altering substances.

R.B.: It’s funny because I never really drink with any other work that I do. I usually play it really straight.

S: When you see a “Spiderman” eating a corndog the tequila comes out. I have never been to one of these conventions, but I know that some of them are immensely popular and even legendary. So out of that population, what are your criteria for shooting a particular individual? There’s gotta be, like, eight versions of “Aqua Man” walking around. How do you decide which one to shoot?

R.B.: Usually the best option for me (…) so okay, there are eight “Aqua Men” (…) and which one am I going to do? It’s usually the guy that made a costume the night before. He has the enthusiasm so he really put a lot of work into it (…) but maybe somehow forgot about it and realizes, “Oh shit! I gotta be ‘Aqua Man’ tomorrow!” He looks kind of like garbage but he’s still so excited; he’s just as pumped as the other dude who spent months on his costume. And they’re [the alpha “Aqua Man”] usually the ones that will give you that glimpse of [in bored voice] “Yeah, yeah, take my picture.”

S: These old timers have become these ersatz superheroes. “Hey man, I am the ‘Green Goblin’ of the Southeast circuit.” So you’re looking for the person who is the more humble, earnest one. They actually convey it through their costume’s shortcomings.

R.B.: And then there are also the people around the photo booth area that are just complete characters, probably in or out of character. Like the guy in that dress [Booth Babe] (…) he was walking around so casually, like he wasn’t wearing an absurd costume. He seemed indifferent to his environment. And I asked, “Hey, can I take your picture?” and that pose just happened immediately; they have it [a pose] in their pocket, ready to go in a second.

["Booth Babe."]

[“Booth Babe”]

S: In our previous e-mail exchange, you had described how particularly at Orlando’s MegaCon you would “find costume players in moments that were somewhere between candid and posed…those fleeting moments before they fully transform into their respective characters.” Do you ever ask them not only “Why do they do this?” but even “What is going on in their minds?” when they become the character?

R.B.: I try to keep my interactions with them as limited as possible. I don’t want to know their motivations. I feel like sometimes if I even knew their motivations, like if they had some really heartwarming story about why they do this, I think it would ruin my own magic.

S: Sure; why break the spell?

R.B.: Yeah. I want them to be just the goofy or straight, button-down they are but who are now just freaking out and busting loose in costume. I feel like if I knew anything else about them it would ruin the mystique.

S: So how many conventions do you think you’ve been to since the AWA?

R.B.: Ummm (…) probably a dozen or so.

S: Wow. So has that been a matter of going to one or two a year?

R.B.: No, because they’re happening all over the place fairly regularly. But I have tried to get to them as much as possible. I try to make MegaCon each year.

S: So is this an ongoing series or are you kind of burnt out on this culture? Are you done with this or is it something you will keep pursuing?

R.B.: No, this is one of these things that I will keep doing. Because it is so immensely enjoyable to me, that I could never imagine being burnt out. And it’s really easy; it’s an easy thing to go (…) I love this stuff anyway (…) I love comic books, I love sci-fi. So it’s a win-win for me to go be around things that I already enjoy (…) and then just seeing maniacs everywhere.

S: And that seems to translate. As I was looking at the images you sent me, I don’t get any kind of sense that the tone is cynical or mocking.

R.B.: No, that was another thing. I tried to never make them feel bad about anything. I would tell them, “You look so great.”

S: Are they open to direction? “Work that light saber.”

R.B.: Yeah (laughs). I usually don’t guide them. I either get them in between whatever pose they were about to do, which I love doing, or they are already in position; like in their default thing. I feel like posing them would be a little weird because they probably have to deal with that all day, too.

S: They all seem pretty agreeable and excited about having their picture taken. But I am wondering too, conversely, if you have ever encountered any strong resistance or hostility (…) like, threatened by a coked up Pikachu?

R.B.: Actually, I have. There was one time (…) the second time I was ever at MegaCon there was this guy dressed up as a Dragon Ball Z character and people had told me that apparently he had a history of being really belligerent.

S: It’s that Dragon Ball Z, man. It has a history of changing people for the worse (laughs).

R.B.: Yeah, he had taken off his giant, crazy hair and I caught a picture of him as he was removing it (…) I just went, “Hey!” and then he looked right at me as he was taking off the hair and he was just furious that I took a picture of him while he wasn’t ready. And then he followed me around (…) I almost got in a fight with this guy! That was the only time.

S: Really? So it just escalated.

R.B.: Oh yeah, he was following me around yelling at me and finally I was just like “Fuck off!”

S: That’s probably an allowed response to someone coming after you with Dragon Ball Z Rage Issues.

R.B.: Yeah, but then I realized the absurdity of the situation: I am yelling back at a guy in a Dragon Ball Z costume. I just let it go and went back to my hotel room for a little bit.

S: The things one must do for art. I bet you never imagined that encounter when you were studying electronic media. So on a more sociological or even anthropological level, who do you think are the most diehard or even fascinating fans? Because I know it ranges from comic book people, to the Joss Whedon fanatics, sci-fi heads (…) there are all of these tribes within one giant tribe. Which ones really stick out or intrigue you?

R.B.: Oh man (…) I guess the Anime people are the ones that I am really drawn to because I don’t really know anything about Anime. I have no fucking clue what character they are supposed to be. So it’s great going back through the next day looking at the pictures (…) “What was this? Who were they supposed to be?” But then there’s also the classic people who are wearing a really shitty superhero costume, but they’re always great. But the Anime people are so serious.

S: Just in the meticulousness in their costume and demeanor? Like, “this is no joke: this is Anime.”

R.B.: Yeah, yeah (…) even the crazy Dragon Ball Z guy (…) that was a really good costume.

S: Have you noticed any like East Coast vs. West Coast Gangsta Rap energy at these conventions; like Dr. Who versus Star Wars? You’re in the middle of all this. Is there tension between different groups?

R.B.: It’s usually when you start crossing genres. It will be like the people who play “Street Fighter” are making fun of the people who play “Magic: The Gathering.” But there definitely seems to be that nerd hierarchy that can seem very, very strong.

S: Well, that’s terrible to hear. It’s like division in The Tribes of Abraham. This is Old Testament shit played out in Gandalf hats.

R.B.: It is so odd (laughs).

S: This series seems like a fairly large departure from your contribution, The Vacation Collection, to this year’s PhotoJax exhibit at CoRK. Those featured couples, or was it the same couple?

R.B.: It was me and an ex-girlfriend.

S: In that series, the two of you were in these different environments and the tone seemed almost somber. And it all seemed very deliberate and controlled: the placement of the objects and the people. But I am wondering, with Children of the Atom, which seems completely different in both content and your actual technique (…) do you bring the same approach to an image of you and your girlfriend standing stone-faced in the woods to someone dressed up like, say, Chewbacca?

R.B.: I do think there’s a similar sensibility in how (…) in that The Vacation Collection series (…) it started out as a kind of tongue-in-cheek thing but really became a therapeutic way of me taking photos when we would just fight like dogs. So it was really serious, it was a serious view of a relationship falling apart, but at the same time it’s inherently silly to put two people in front of three things. Snapshot photography is very silly to me. And that’s really what it was: an arranged and maybe a little more thoughtful approach towards snapshot photography.

["Cane Field" from "The Vacation Collection" series, 2012.]

[“Cane Field” from “The Vacation Collection” series, 2012.]

S: So in that series were you taking the photograph after or during an argument?

R.B.: I think that relationship was one big argument. But yeah, we would be in some beautiful place, we’d be fighting about something and then find a location where we wanted to shoot the photograph and say, “Alright; here we go.”

S: She was agreeable to this project?

R.B.: Yeah, she was. She was really excited and there were moments when we would hate each other at the time and then both agree, “That image turned out really well.” But I think there’s the same absurdity with that series and this new series. It’s just a little more from the hip. And right now my collaborator and girlfriend Ashley Olberding and I are working on another series that returns to that somber mood or traditional portraiture. And Children of the Atom was kind of the (…) I dunno (…) the palette cleanser between the two.

S: So between, you know, people dressed up like Smurfs and you, uh, working out your relationship-therapy-modalities in the woods (laughs) … you are moving forward.

R.B. (laughs) Totally.

S: But do you have a sense of new, similar or even divergent series? It seems like you enjoy working in the series format.

R.B.: Yeah, this series that I am working on now is hopefully going to be a giant effort with another friend of mine (…) it’s a series where Ashley and I take friends of ours and we go into their house and basically arrange them and then photograph them how we see them. And hopefully not letting their personality interfere with how we view their personality. We rearrange the room. “We don’t think this is like you,” so we will take a bookshelf out.

S: So you are kind of altering or reconfiguring their personalities, or at least the audience’s perception of who they are, through your mind.

R.B.: We are trying to fit whatever our notions of these people are. A lot of them are people I have known for a decade or more. Hopefully that will be finishing up in the spring and we will be showing with my good friend Sarah Colado, the painter. She’s working on a series where she gets people to bring ten objects and lay them around their feet. And she paints that portrait. She’s letting people bring their own personality, where we are kind of giving them a personality. It’s going to be a give-and-take kind of show. Yeah, hopefully it will be shown at CoRK. That’s what’s in the works.

["Elf Dicks"]

[“Elf Dicks”]

Daniel A. Brown



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