Toy-esque Photographers | Onset of Photography through the 1980s

Photographers who at least dabbled in photographs of toys, miniatures, figurines and the like, a timeline.

Click the names to learn more.

Links and Photographer listing will be updated as I find more to add.

[Last Updated August 10, 2020]

1898 Albert Smith & James Stuart Blackton

Albert Smith and James Stuart Blackton, Raising Old Glory Over Morro Castle, 1898

Continue reading “Toy-esque Photographers | Onset of Photography through the 1980s”

Artists I Love

I’ve been working on and brainstorming some surrealist work. Patterns. colors and reflections formed together in interesting ways. I’m calling the 2 current series – Reflections of Self, and Electric Sun and I’ll begin sharing some of them starting tomorrow. In honor of this current creative streak I want to highlight some artists that are inspirational, weird, surreal, and the like.

Mike Diva

Known on Youtube and through his adversarial work, Mike Diva is a pop culture king.

Aleia

First and foremost an art director, Aleia uses miniatures in conjunction with snails, food, and other every day objects to create dark, surreal narratives. Most recently she’s been working with Sam Copeland to create short music video clips for Aly and AJ’s new album.

Arthur Tress

I’ve discussed Arthur Tress briefly in my ‘The History of Miniature & Toy Photography‘ post.

To be honest until researching this post, I was largely unfamiliar with Tress’ entire body of work. An avid traveler, he created on the go, but even so, his work whether miniature, full scale, colorful or black and white, remains mysterious, surreal, and a tad creepy. What had already fascinated me prior to this post was his Teapot Opera and Fish Tank series’, and since his Hospital Constructions have become all the more intriguing.

Learn more about Arthur Tress on his website – http://www.arthurtress.com/.

Sandy Skoglund

Sandy Skoglund creates life size sets full of vibrant colors and repetition. She then photographs the sets with live actors. Her photos explore fears in an imaginative, in your face way, forcing the viewer to confront and explore what is before them.

Learn more about Sandy Skoglund on her website – www.sandyskoglund.com/.

Walter Wick

Do you remember the I SPY books? Toys floating and falling in magical ways, with a list of things to find throughout the images. Well, those toys were carefully arranged and photographed by Walter Wick. Not only was he the artist behind the I SPY books, he also produced the images and text for Hey, Seymour!Can You See What I See?A Drop of Water, and Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks.

Visit his blog to get a behind the scenes look at the creation of some of his stunning imagery on his website – http://www.walterwick.com/behind-the-scenes/ – and blog – http://www.walterwick.com/blog/.

Walter Wick On set of Yikes! , 1993 – http://www.walterwick.com/blog/2015/11/16/photo-illusions-in-the-digital-age

Clive Barker

Known for his work on horror movies such as Hellraiser, Clive Barker is also an author and painter among other things. His Abarat novels are for young adults and he painted each of their numerous illustrations. His style draws you in in the intricate, sometimes creepy, compositions.

Discover more here: http://www.clivebarker.info/

The History of Toy Photography

The original text of this article has been modified 3/21/2019.

I want to discuss the history of the use of miniatures and toys in photographic works. I’ve seen a lot lately, listing artists from the 2010s as being founders of the field, and while they’re great artists, I think we all need to look back a bit further than the past 6 or 7 years…

The history of art, photography, staged/fabricated photography, etc. is a long and winding one. Each artist/creator comes to the field with a different background and moves forward on a different path. To find artists working in your field there’s modern day movements with social media (namely instagram as far as toy photography is concerned), but there’s still the old school route of galleries, museums and publications. Just because an artist is well known and inspirational to you, doesn’t make them the first of their kind. That said, newer toy photographers may very well make history, but it’s not going to be because they were the father of or founder of the field, it’s going to have to be because they had a niche or working process that revolutionized something.

Sources:

  1. Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs by Anne H. Hoy
  2. Photo Fakery: A History of Deception and Manipulation by Dino A. Brugioni
  3. The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan

To begin, photography came into being in 1800, with the first known surviving photograph being from 1826 or 27 (View from the Window at Le Gras). Paper and then celluloid film began being manufactured in the 1880s. In 1900 the Kodak Brownie camera was invented, giving the power of photography to the masses.

From 1910 to 1960 or so “fine photography restricted itself to exacting descriptions of things…” (1) This began to change in the early 1960s. The formal definitions of art began to be dissoved by artists and it’s then “[they restored] narrative to camera art.” (1) Fabricated photography was then brought to the forefront of the medium in the 1970s. That said “Staged photographs are almost as old as the medium: as early as 1843 the American daguerrotypist John Edwin Mayall made photo-illustrations of the Lord’s prayer, and in the mid-1840s, the Scottish calotypists David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson posed and photographed scenes from Sir Walter Scott.” (1)

Within fabricated photography is tableau, portraiture, and still life. Within tableau photography is toy photography.

Some definitions:

  • Fabricated Photography is the opposite of documentary photography, in it, the photographer creates what he or she photographs, rather than finding it organically
  • Staged Photography is essentially the same as fabricated photography. Within it, the photographer sets up a scene to be photographed.
  • Tableau Photography is a type of fabrication. Taken from the idea of theater, a tableau is a still story or narrative.
  • Toy Photography is the photographing of toy figures and objects, often in narrative form.

“With any means available, [tableau photographers] create photographs intended to convey their philosophic and moral views of the world and themselves – their place in the cosmos, society, and family; their relation to popular and high culture; their emotional and sexual identities.” (1)


1917

 

Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths began to create the images, later referred to as the Cottingley Fairies in 1917. These photos of cardboard fairies captured the public’s attention as proof of the existence of fairy creatures when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used them to illustrate a story in 1920. The truth behind the photos, while it had been questioned, was not revealed until the early 1980s.

1925

Edward Weston, considered a master of photography and one of the most influential 20th centery photographers, once photographed Mexican toys in 1925.

1933

“The most extraordinary photographs ever taken of air flights in war.” (The Illustrated London News) were some 50 images compiled in the book ‘Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot‘ (a book still available for purchase today) published in 1933. These images however were of model planes and created by model maker Wesley David Archer. Examined and believed to be of models, by a CIA photo expert in the early 1950s, deemed as fake by Time-Life Laboratory in 1979, these photos were not officially proven false until after Archer’s death, when some of his belongings were given to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1984, over 50 years after their publication.

1934

The most famous photo of the Loch Ness Monster was captured in 1934 by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson. This photo however was actually of a 14 inch toy submarine with an attached serpent head. This was not revealed however for another 60 years, when one of the men involved confessed on his deathbed.

1957

from Lona

Dare Wright published The Lonely Doll books from 1957 to 1981. While she both wrote and illustrated the stories, her illustrations were posed photographs of a doll, Edith and her bear friends. She also published a fairy tale story of Lona, another featured doll, in 1963.

1972

from Wild West, 2012

David Levintal started working with miniatures in his photographic work while in graduate school in 1972. He first began working with Barbies. However, his series he claims as officially leading him on the path to continue working with miniatures, and arguably some of his most recognized work, Hitler Moves East, was published in 1977. David Levinthal still currently works with miniature worlds to this day.

Special effects created in front of the camera lens, a technique that may seem unique today in the world of post-processing, is something David Levinthal has been doing since the beginning of his work with miniatures. From fog and explosions in his Hitler Moves East series, to recording miniature scenes on video tape, then photographing the TV screen as it played back that tape, for a noir-esque surveillance quality in his Modern Romance series.

Visit his website here.

It is in the 1970s that toy and miniature photography gained traction as fabricated photography came to the forefront of the photographic medium. It is because of this that David Levinthal can be called the father of miniature photography.

1976

from Early Color Interiors, 1978-1979

from Early Color Interiors, 1978-1979

If you don’t know the name Laurie Simmons from her photographic work, you may still know it from the connection with celebrity daughter Lena Dunham. Her work was also alluded to in Lena Dunham’s 2010 film Tiny Furniture, of which Laurie Simmons starred in.

Laurie began working with miniatures in 1976. While she does not work exclusively with miniatures, you will see through her site that she’s been working with them consistently from the 1970s til now. Some of her most recognizable early work are her Early Color Interiors (1978 – 1979) which serve as a commentary on domestic life. You can read a more in depth look at those images here.

“[At this time] Various women were exploiting photographs in different ways…and in so doing they pushed photography further toward the center of the contemporary art world.” – The New York Times

The technique of using a photographic image as a backdrop for a miniature set, may seem revolutionary today, but note that Laurie Simmons was using this technique in the early 1980s within her Tourism series.

Visit her website here.

1978

Ellen Brooks, Tableaux

From 1978 to 1985 Ellen Brooks photographed dolls. “stock figures [which] more clearly critique today’s definitions of female and male role models.” Visit her website here.

1986

from The Teapot Opera, 1980s

from The Teapot Opera, 1980s

Arthur Tress began photographing in the 1970s. However, in the 1980s he created The Teapot Opera – skillful conglomerations of toys and cutouts posed in a Victorian Child’s Stage. Visit his website here.

1990s and Beyond

Surprise Visitor from Can You See What I See?: Out of This World, Walter Wick

In 1992 the first I SPY book was published, and those books continued to be published up through 2012. While we’ve all heard of them, did you ever think about who set up and photographed all those toy arrangements? Walter Wick is the man responsible and is still currently a working photographer.

Referring to herself as a faux landscape photographer, Lori Nix is known best for her still photos of small scale post apocalyptic worlds. She bagan photographing small worlds in the 1990s, but is still active today in her work with Kathleen Gerber.

TV Delivery! - 1954

Michael Paul Smith, a diverse model maker, who began posting his work to flickr in 2003, photographed his model cars outdoors in the real world with forced perspective. While he’s received online media attention, going viral in 2010, he had been photographing toys for over 25 years.

In modern day, there are plenty of us who create images with toys and miniatures. Some have gotten bigger in the internet limelight than others, but overall toy photography’s history is still develping, and has a long and winding way to go.


Thank you so much for reading! Let me know your thoughts in a comment below.

Learn more here.