Toy photography, in large part, has followed the same trends as photography as a whole and art of other mediums over the years.
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
“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.
- Photography: A Cultural History, Mary Warner Marian
- Fiction and Imagination in Early Cinema: A Philosophical Approach to Film History, Mario Slugan, 2019
- The Early History of Faking War on Film, Smithsonian, Mike Dash, 2012
- Edward Hill Amet (1860-1948), Lake County, Illinois History, 2010
- American Cinema 1890-1909, Andre Gaudreault, 2009
- War, Modernity, and Motion in the Edison Films of 1898, Dylon Lamar Robbins, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, 2017
- Vaudville and Film 1895-1915: A Study in Media Interaction, Robert C. Allen, 1977
- Photo Fakery: A History of Deception and Manipulation by Dino A. Brugioni, 1999
- The Surgeon’s Hoax, The Museum of Unnatural Mystery
- Nessie’s Secret Revealed, The Yowie-ocalypse, 1993
- Death in the Air: The War Diary of a Flying Corps Pilet, Wesley D. Archer, 1933
- Hare Aerial Patent Field Camera, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum online collection
- Edward Steichen, Artnet
- Sarah Moon, Artnet
- Edward Steichen: In Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine, Owen Edwards, May 2009
- Harley Weir Shoots New Cover of Vogue Italia and People are Divided, The Culture Trip, India Doyle, 7/31/17
- Harley Weir Bio, Art Partner
- Harley Weir Overview, Michael Hoppen Gallery
- A Brief History of Fashion Photography, Artnet News, Caitlin Parker, 2/7/14
- Still Lifes by Guiseppe Cavalli: Photography as Art, Italian Ways, 3/2/15
- Photography: the eternal rivalry between “La Bussola” and “La Gondola”, Livornossera, 9/13/17
- Giuseppe Cavalli: Master of Light, Studio International, Anna McNay, 7/6/12
- On Photography: Horst P. Horst, 1906-1999, photofocus, Kevin Ames
- Google Arts and Culture – Calotype, Daguerreotype, Photogravure and Kodak Brownie searches
- Children and Toys-Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes, Kathy McMillan, Pinterest
- New exhibit combines art and science, C. Molly Smith, Daily Trojan, 11/5/13
- Artist Adolph de Meyer, ICP
- Adolph de Meyer, Artnet
- Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Met
- How the Brownie Camera Made Everyone a Photographer, JStor Daily, Erin Schewe, 12/26/18
- Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography, Robert Hiersch, 3rd edition 2017
- Alfred Stieglitz Camera Work – The Complete Illustrations 1903-1917, Pam Roberts
- Fine Art Photography: Photography as Fine Art, Art Encyclopedia
- Tableax Vivant: History and Practice, Art Museum Teaching, 2012
- When Staged Photography Becomes Art, Wide Walls, Elena Martinique, 2016
- Big Ideas Behind Small Things, The Met, Joanne Pillsbury
- A Brief History of Modern Miniatures, Lisa Robinson
- Miniature objects as representations of realia, World Archaeology Issue 1: Miniaturization, Philip Kiernan
- The Coming of the Fairies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1922
- A Spell for a Fairy, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, Alfred Noyes, 1914
- Cursed by the fairies, Express, 5/10/09
- Joe Cooper obituary, The Guardian, 8/24/11
- The Cottingley fairy hoax of 1917 is a case study in how smart people lose control of the truth, Quartz, Rosa Lyster, 2/17/17
- Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs by Anne H. Hoy
- Photo Fakery: A History of Deception and Manipulation by Dino A. Brugioni
- The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan
- László Moholy-Nagy, Guggenhiem
- Herbert Bayer, MOMA
- Herbert List, Magnum Photos
- Retrospective of the Work of Emiel van Moerkerken at The Hague Museum of Photography, ArtNet
- Vilem Reichmann, Photo Edition Berlin
- Art History Timeline: Western Art Movements and Their Impact, Invaluable