Chris Rainier’s fascination with ritual masks began in the mid-1980s, when, during a photography trip to New Guinea, he was confronted by a tribesman adorned with feathers from a bird of paradise.
The encounter with the masked man ended amicably, but it planted the seed of an idea that would take over three decades to bring to fruition. After spending a further 10 years documenting the island’s tribes and traditions, Rainier was “hooked.”
“I decided that I wanted to follow the trail of traditional masks around the world,” the 61-year-old photographer said on the phone from the US.
Deer masks photographed by Rainier in the Mustang region of Nepal. Credit: Chris Rainier
Used in initiations, weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies — often by those believing they can connect with spirit worlds — the masks represent gods, animals and ancestors. Some appear placid enough, but many featured in Rainier’s collection take on unsettling, otherworldly appearances — wide-eyed demons and sharp-toothed beasts.
The project focuses largely on remote tribal cultures. But the portraits also feature more familiar costumes: Japanese samurai and the skull masks used on Mexico’s Day of the Dead. In his travels, Rainier even went to the Austrian countryside where, on the eve of the feast of Saint Nicholas, Alpine villagers combine Christian and pagan beliefs by donning half-goat half-demon “krampus” masks.
Rainier’s only stipulation was that the masks he photographed were still used in present-day rituals: “I wanted to express to the viewer that they are, in fact, alive,” he said, “That they’re not merely these pieces of wood or cloth that sit behind the glass at your local museum.”
Alive they may be, but many of the rituals documented are under threat, said Rainier, who described himself as being in a “race against time, as modernity — like a tsunami — sweeps around the world.”
A mask used by Buddhists in Paro, Bhutan. Credit: Chris Rainier
“I see it as my role as a photographer to archive traditions,” he added. “Not for posterity but for the possibility that maybe there’s a young man in New Guinea who, in 50 or 60 years’ time, will look at these images and see his grandfather or great-grandfather doing a dance that has long been lost, and that he may just pick up the costume again and dance.
“Photography can serve a really powerful role in revitalizing, maintaining and amplifying traditions around the world.”
For all the costumes’ aesthetic and functional differences, they are bound by commonalities. All the masks allude to the natural world in some way, said Rainier, either in a literal sense — resembling bears in Canada, ravens in Alaska or butterflies in Burkina Faso — or a more spiritual one.
“Since the dawn of mankind we’ve been wearing masks, and they (represent) cultures that live within nature, worship nature, fear nature,” said Ranier, whose previous books on indigenous and traditional cultures include one on tattoos from around the world. “They are using those costumes to connect with something that is beyond Earth.”
A ritual mask from southern Sri Lanka that represents a powerful demon with nest of cobras atop its head. Credit: Chris Rainier
The pervasive use of masks across cultures, religions and eras also reveals something universal about humanity, Rainier suggested, pointing to Halloween costumes as a modern expression of the same phenomenon. Whether serving as conduits to the other world or signifying rites of passage, masks “allow the mere mortal human to become something more,” he added.
To illustrate the point, Rainier recounts a shaman warning that he would “go rapidly into a trance” upon putting his mask on: “The mask literally served as a catalyst for his personality to change right away.”
His work, however, attempts to capture the character of the costume, not its wearer.
“I’m trying to document the spirit of the mask — to relay to the viewer a sense of spirit and sacredness, of what the masks and their roles are all about,” he explained.
Mud masks used in a tribal ritual on the island of New Guinea. Credit: Chris Rainier
Rainier, who was once an assistant to the renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams, also sees his portraits as “environmental,” with his backdrops often as eye-catching as the subjects themselves. The images sometimes assume a dramatic, almost sinister quality, with brooding clouds or muted backdrops creating a sense “of doom, of darkness and of magical realism,” as he puts it.
Yet Rainier depicts his relationships with his subjects as ones of friendship. It can sometimes take years (and numerous visits without his camera), to earn the requisite trust. And though the photographer sees his role as that of an archivist, he’s not been averse to participating in the many rituals he has witnessed over the years.
“There have been moments when I’ve put down my camera and danced around the fire,” said Rainier, who now owns a sizable mask collection of his own.
“I think, as a photographer, I’m there to do my job, but there’s no such thing as objectively. You get caught up in the emotion and excitement.”