Over the course of multiple years, I wondered why we all love miniatures so much, why I was so enthralled by their magic. And throughout this time I read Susan Stewart’s ‘On Longing’ and a reactionary blog series to that book. And I fell somewhere in between. So I continued to pull information from all sources I could find pertaining to this topic and the above video and below transcript are the result. And finally I felt and still feel like the urge to pursue this topic has left me, the voracious inquiry is no longer, but hopefully this will help you in yours.
I’m a miniature photographer, and all around miniature enthusiast. And as miniatures continue to have their time in the spotlight, I’ve found myself continuing to think about why. Why do we find miniature objects so engaging, so thrilling?
A couple years ago I found a miniature maker, Louise Krasniewicz’ 3 part blog series, written from 2015-2016 called ‘Miniature Manifesto’. In them she vehemently denies Susan Stewart’s take on the why miniature topic in her 1984 book titled ‘On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection.’ Susan Stewart makes the claim that “The miniature offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularized and generalized in time – particularized in that the miniature concentrates upon the single instance and not upon the abstract rule, but generalized in that that instance comes to transcend, to stand for, a spectrum of other instances.” And in essence, believes miniatures are about us gaining control. Louise however says, in reference to Stewart, and I quote “Basically her problem is that she sees miniatures as a metaphor or symbol, or as metonymy, making them not important in and of themselves, but as demonstrations of some human anxiety or foible or unrelated action.”
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure why Stewart is so highly regarded on this topic, aside from the fact that she’s one of very few who have published such insight into it. That said, and controversial opinion here, I think there’s some merit to her theory, but with that I also agree with Louise’ closing remarks “But more importantly, great miniatures are not an escape from the real world but a way to engage, confront, question, critique, or consider it.” I simply don’t see the theories as such separate creatures.
Let’s start with miniatures in film and TV as examples. Of course, taking a miniature, which is in essence symbolic and adding it to another symbolic art form, may distort this argument a bit, but give me a minute and I’ll take a step back into real world examples. Spoilers ahead.
In the 2018 film Hereditary, the mother, Annie, a miniaturist, uses miniatures to work through her emotions. We see scenes of her ill mother, a preschool, her dead daughter. They are visceral and representative to the point of her destroying them because they cause too much pain.
Charlie, the daughter, also makes miniatures, in the form of whimsical dolls. And as Katie Blair points out in her article ‘Elements of Control,’ these dolls and miniature scenes also serve as metaphor for the lack of control their creators have of their real lives “their fates preordained by demonic forces.”
In the 2018 HBO series Sharp Objects based on the 2006 novel by Gillian Flynn, the youngest sister Amma, has a overly ornate dollhouse replica of her real home. She dotes on the dollhouse incessantly and won’t let anyone else touch it. It seems to be the only thing in her life she has any control over as her mother poisons her to keep her pliable. We later find out she’s finishing the ivory floor in her dollhouse from human teeth she murders for. Which further cements that she’s looking for control in every way she can.
In season 2, episode 10 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we get a brief glimpse, of Hannah’s dollhouse. Hannah has been stolen aware from June, the series’ main character and is being raised by new parents in this dystopian society. June has just gotten the chance to see and once again say goodbye to Hannah. After, left in the empty house alone she sees Hannah’s toys. And in a way these show an innocence in this very otherwise society.
With that, I think we can say that Hollywood sees miniatures as objects of both control and whimsy, and maybe even escape.
So now let’s delve into the real world.
When looking into reading Susan Stewarts On Longing, I often saw that Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book ‘The Poetics of Space’ would be more worth my time, so I read the miniature portion of that as well. Bachelard says both “The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it. But in doing this, it must be understood that values become condensed and enriched in miniature.” and “…the tiny things we imagine simply take us back to childhood, to familiarity with toys and the reality of the toys…But the imagination deserves better than that. In point of fact, imagination in miniature is natural imagination which appears at all ages in the day dreams of born dreamers.” So okay, let’s simplify that to say he believes miniatures are nostalgic, whimsical and possession or control.
In Francis Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, she uses detailed miniatures as teaching tools, representational of real crime scenes.
Mark Hogancamp, as explored in the documentary Marwencol and the upcoming film Welcome to Marwen, uses toys as a form of self therapy – representations of himself and those around.
The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan, which explores the life and work of author and toy photographer Dare Wright, shows Dare’s work as again, self-portraiture in which she explores her lonely life through her doll.
Netflix’s The Toys that Made Us shows toys as a nostalgic, a form of escape from our every day lives, and as per the essence of toys whimsical/joyful objects.
So from those sources, we can glean that miniatures are iconographic, allow for self exploration and serve as an escape. All of which, when broken down, to say that these are things we can form ideas through and therefore possess, or control.
So, maybe utilizing and having an appreciation for miniatures is about control. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that we’re all desperately searching for control in our chaotic lives, but more that we’ve chosen a medium that is symbolic of the world around us, one we can fully mold to suit the ideas we have in our heads. But what are your thoughts?
There are so many more sources I could dive into, especially when it comes to why toy photographers choose the subjects they do. I’m sure there are more sources for why miniatures or toy makers do what they do too, but for now I’m going to keep this to the idea of miniatures as a whole. If you’d like a follow up on toy photography though, let me know in the comments!
Until next time…
Sources and Further Reading:
- ELEMENTS OF CONTROL: MINIATURES IN “HEREDITARY” AND “MARWENCOL”: Little in size, big in meaning., Katie Blair, Fandor, 2018, https://www.fandor.com/posts/elements-of-control-miniatures-in-hereditary-and-marwencol?position=2§ion=most+recent
- Death in Diorama, http://www.deathindiorama.com/francesglessnerlee.html
- Little things: The reasons why we love miniatures, The Daily Telegraph, 2018, https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/lifestyle/minifinal-edit/video/9c8bd90fa5231af8d530d31e91ecbe53
- Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn, 2006
- The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton, 2014
- On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart, 1984, https://tourmalinenow.com/2017/03/27/why-miniatures-part-3/
- The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1958, https://tourmalinenow.com/2017/02/13/why-miniatures-part-2/
- The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, Jean Nathan, 2005
- Hereditary, 2018
- Welcome to Marwen, 2018
- Tiny Furniture, 2010
- Gulliver’s Travels, 2010
- The Miniaturist, 2018
- The Indian in the Cupboard, 1995
- Downsizing, 2017
- Honey I Shrunk the Kids, 1989
- Sharp Objects, HBO, 2018
- Handmaid’s tale, Hulu, 2017 –
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Miniature Serial Killer, Seasons 7 – 9 (Episodes 701, 702, 707, 710, 711, 716, 720, 724, 801, 907), 2006 – 2008
- Marwencol, 2010
- The Toys that Made Us, 2017 – 2018
- Of Dolls & Murder, 2012
- Miniature Manifesto Part 2: Stop Quoting Susan Stewart, Louise Krasniewicz, 2015, https://thewonderofminiatures.com/2015/06/01/miniature-manifesto-part-2-stop-quoting-susan-stewart/
- Puppet Fashion Show from British Pathé TV 1960. via the research of @chicojefferson, Juxtapoz Magazine, 2018, https://goo.gl/kZZt6F
Interesting insight. After some self-reflection, I have to agree with some of your points as well.
Thanks so much!