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Is Toy Photography Art?

Headlights: Waiting 2

“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

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

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.



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