Is Toy Photography Art?

“Art is the expression of those beauties and emotions that stir the human soul.”

– Howard Pyle

Photography as Art

Photography had been around since 1840, but it was not accepted as art then. The medium was meant for documenting reality, and that alone. But there was a group of artists that saw the manipulation of film in a dark room, or the purposeful creation of a scene, equivalent to a painter manipulating paint. In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secession movement and began work on the corresponding publication Camera Work, that shared the pieces of Avant-Garde artists.

In 1905 Stieglitz and Edward Steichen founded 291, a New York Gallery, that also promoted Avant-Garde work.

Avant-Garde art was considered ahead of the curve, subversive and fell within the period of Pictorialism which ranged from 1885-1915. Pictorialist photographers emphasized beauty, composition, lighting and tonality over documentation of reality. And this period came to the forefront through the Photo-Succession movement.

The Two Ways of Life, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, 1857
The Two Ways of Life, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, 1857

Tableaux Vivants, or still stage productions where actors would make a freeze frame of a popular scene began in 1830, with Tableux photography following in 1850. Oscar Gustave Rejlander, a photographer who worked in this style, is known as the father of fine art photography.

Fast forward, and staged (or fabricated) photography made it’s way forward in popularity in the 1980s. Staged photography, a similar practice to Tableaux, sets a narrative. The practice had existed since the invention of photography, but the name wasn’t coined until the 1980s. Its rise in popularly is owed to Cindy Sherman, Duane Michaels, Joel-Peter Witten, Thomas Demand, and dabblers in toy photography Laurie Simmons and Arthur Tress.

The Nymphenburg Figure, Baron A. de Meyer, Photogravure, 1912
The Nymphenburg Figure, Baron A. de Meyer, Photogravure, 1912

Small-Scale Tableaux Vivants

or rather small stages, small fabrications? Okay, toy photography.

Toy photography is precisely staged. Precisely fabricated. There are very few instances where the toy photographer isn’t literally and intricately placing items before the camera. While I have photographed museum or store miniatures precisely as they’ve been set, those images are still far from documentary as they are close, intimate looks, compositions I have chosen, lighting I’ve deemed best.

But is toy photography art? As with everything else, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It simply depends on your intentions. Did you set out to make art? Yes? Then you made art. Would it be considered pictorial? Well, did you emphasize beauty (this being subjective), composition, lighting, rather than documentation? And further, in art in general, the goal of eliciting emotion often comes into play.

People always like to argue here that just because someone set out to make art, it doesn’t mean they did. But I think that statement is really saying “I don’t like it.” And just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not art. Beauty and meaning are in the eye of the beholder. I assume you also haven’t liked every piece you’ve seen in a museum. Sometimes something existing, or the message it gets across to even a few people is more important than grand acceptance by the masses.

Pictorial Toys

The example above is the earliest example of toy photography I’ve found so far, but I assume there’s even earlier ones to be found (update). In any case, lets take a look at some of the early pictorialist and staged photographers, who have set the stage for modern toy photography movements.

Does modern toy photography fit the bill?

Of course. I don’t even know why this is a question.

More on these artists here:

“All great works of art are trophies of victorious struggle.”

-Julius Meier-Pressfield

Art in its simplest definition is expression. Here the artist expressed something and in turn these pieces make me feel something.

Peter’s house, lit up, full of hope, but also theres something forboding about the darkness that surrounds it. Tobias’ decisive moment that was instead staged, the lines all point toward the woman descending the stairs, her dress white amongst the shadows, what happened precisely before and after this scene? Eva’s image has us see from the girl’s point of view, she’s stumbled on a skeleton, but I feel a sense of wonder, not fear or sadness as you could assume would be associated with the scene before us, something exciting is happening here.

Now these aren’t necessarily what the artists intended, but as with all art, once it’s out into the world, the viewer brings their own experiences to the piece, and take their own impressions from it.



15 thoughts on “Is Toy Photography Art?

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  1. I’ve been considering finding something else to photograph besides nature. The idea of toys has crossed my mind once or twice since I saw one of your posts about it. But I don’t feel any ideas or inspiration… Well, not for toys or anything else, really
    How does a photographer choose and connect with subject matter?

    1. Find something you like, food, family, anything and start there. Don’t force yourself to find a new photo subject, just follow what feels right. I started with toys because I wanted to tell stories, and toy and miniature icons felt like the best was to do that.

    2. I agree with Tourmaline; I’d even say, find something that excites you! The answer can as well be abstract.
      For example my sincere answer was: Abstract art, literature, music, and movies – and how do photograph these things? So I started exploring the ways in which photography could be abstract art.
      Then I happened upon toy photography which gave me an opening towards literature. The point is to find a creative solution, and you’d only bother to do so if you’re really into what you do. And once you get investetd, you’re likely to stick with that ‘subject’ (because it is something you really care about). And once you stick with it, you do not have to worry about developing a style; it will then come naturally.
      Just my 2 cents, if I may.

  2. Very well said! I fully agree with you about art and its definition, but I alwas struggle with saying it so concisely. So, Kudos!

    I agree that making art means inviting a certain kind of discourse, a certain way of talking about it. You would not expect anybody to wonder if “this really happened”. Rather, you invite people to talk about composition, light, narrative, intention and … well, art. Maybe talking about art means talking about who we are as human beings. Maybe disliking a work of art means disliking the assumtions this work makes about the human condition, of how it tries to define us as humans?

    In art photography, one thing is for sure: The photographer does not try to humbly vanish behind the photo, which then claims to be a neutral picture of reality. On the contrary!

    Thanks fpr teaching me so much about toy photography (through both your texts and your photos), and thanks for the honor of being mentionend here, Jennifer!

    1. Thank you and your comment is so well put! And I agree that art does expose our human-ness and in the same way we don’t always understand each other, we don’t understand all art either.

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