Toy photography, in large part, has followed the same trends as photography as a whole and art of other mediums over the years. Here’s the brakdown.
Early toy photography from 1898, the first example I’ve found so far, to 1934, played with the possibilities of the brand new medium. Photographs, unlike painting, showed the truth; they documented exactly what was in the world. And because of this belief, it was easy to fool the world with photographs of created scenes.
Toys, when photographed, can be any scale you want them to be, from a minute fairy to a naval ship.
Not only in toy photography, faked photography was seen as early as 1846, photography having been made a practical tool just 6 years prior.
- The War Films Made with Toys
- The Toy Photo that Fooled the World for 60 Years
- Toy Photos of War that Fooled the World for 50 Years
- The Staged Photos that Fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the World, for Nearly 70 years
- The History of Faked News Photography
“a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.” – Oxford Languages Definition
Surrealism and toy photography go so well hand in hand. Toys, miniatures and trinkets being iconographic lend well to symbolic juxtaposition and so many photographers of this time period used these items to delve into the unconscious mind.
- Hans Bellmer – A Doll Day Feature
- Surrealist Figure Photographers of the Mid 1900s
- Vogue and Toy Photography
- Historic Dabbling in the World of Toys – Bahaus, Fotografia Metafisica, Surreal
Photography was finally accessible to the working class person and people started creating photos, without artistic restriction.
“artists prized ideas over visual components” – Art History Timeline, Invaluable
Laurie Simmons, Ellen Brooks and David Levinthal all made toy photos during this period. Each explored social and political themes including war, racism and feminist ideals. While the images are aesthetically appealing, the meaning was even more important.
- The History of Toy Photography
- Where Toy Photography Got it’s Wings: David Levinthal at SAAM
- An Interview with David Levinthal, The Father of Miniature Photography
The Pictures Generation
“The Pictures Generation: Artists Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Gary Simmons, and others who were influenced by Conceptual and Pop art experimented with recognizable imagery to explore images shaped our perceptions of the world.” -Art History Timeline, Invaluable
Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, Arthur Tress, and Walter Wick (of the iSpy books) all emerged during this time, creating huge narratives with small objects. While Walter Wick and Arthur Tress chose to make the scale of their props obvious but still immersive, Nix and Gerber created worlds that feel real in scale. Neither technique is less effective in drawing the viewer into the story.
Toy Photography is big online, in the present day, from flickr, to now largely on Instagram. The hashtag #toyphotography on Instagram currently has 9,142,987 posts (as of 9:00pm EST 2/1/21). While not all, most of these posts include themes and figures from pop culture and in this they’re largely nostalgia based. From the stats I can pull, the majority of toy photographers in this realm are 25-45 year old males. This falls in line with the current 80s and 90s nostalgia trend of movies, tv shows and revamped toy lines. And we see a large amount of pop culture motifs in painting and other art mediums as well.
Working within nostalgia can be a way of making emotive art, experimenting with techniques, and merging lines to create new stories.
Those older than this generation, while not in the majority of Instagram based toy photographers, tend to create toy photos with war and apocalyptic motifs, which matches the interests of many who grew up in the same era.
But where do we go from here? Who are the ones making art younger than this and what kind of art are they making? It’s hard to judge a historical period while we’re living it, but it is unlikely toy photography will always look the way it does now.
Those born in, or fairly young in, the 1980s have a higher amount of pop culture nostalgia than those born before and after because of toy marketing at that time. With this, I can only assume there will be a shift in toy photography and art as a whole in years to come with those in newer generations.
Pop culture imagery is used by other generations as well, meaning as pop culture shifts, it will remain present in art, it will just look different.
With all the political activism of gen z, maybe toys will be used to voice change, or to illustrate difficult times we’ve lived through. Or maybe millennial and gen z images will revert to experimental plays with motifs and light. History is of course known to repeat itself.
I put out a question on Instagram asking 1990s and 2000s born toy photographers what kind of toy photos they make. I only got a few responses, but there was a strong experimental trend with the use of pop culture action figures.
In any case, we’ve been using toys as a means of narrative and illustration since at least 1898, so toy photography is most definitely not going away.
If you’re a toy photographer, add your name to the list – Record of All Working Toy Photographers
Disclaimer – As with all of the periods of art mentioned here, there are some pieces/creators that fall outside of these lines, and there always will be. But for the sake of defining the historical demarcations, we must look squarely at the trends.
If you use information directly from this page, you must properly cite this link –
“How Toy Photography Has Changed Over Time: 1898 to Present Day.” Tourmaline ., 22 Apr. 2021, toy.photography/2021/02/04/how-toy-photography-has-changed-over-the-years-1898-to-present-day/.
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Fascinating blog. I will be exploring further posts. 🙂 I’ve done some work with toys, puppets, and dolls in the past. My main interest has been collage & asemic writing. Here are some links to my work from my blogs.
Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I was aware of some of the “fakery” using toys, and “faked” photography; I more about those and was introduced to new ones through this post.
I’m not surprised there are so many #toyphotography posts, or the predominance of males. The “toy” as pop culture icon/collectable (I think of Star Wars and other touch stones) is a predominately male environment (as I understand — though I am by no means an expert), so as an extension of that, a certain age group might be male. Having these “toys” in the attic, the popularity of Instagram as a means of expression and time on our hands/looking backwards to “better days” might lead to engaging in toy photography.
But, what do I know? I have noticed an increase in toy-based imagery when I enter a search term and click on images. I find toy imagery fascinating and intriguing.
You have presented a fascinating time line with links to further information/articles/sources. I will be clicking around this post for some time to come.
Thanks again! (PS: The Little Prince images were fascinating!)
Thank you so much. There is definitely a correlation between the demographic that collects action figures and those who photograph toys, which of course makes sense. I’ll be interested to see what rises in popularity as the years go by.