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”

Miniature Photography from David Levinthal’s Diorama

As you may well know, my sister and I went to the opening of the David Levinthal exhibit at the Smithsonian in DC.

A very cool feature of that exhibit, is that one of David Levinthal’s dioramas is on display. To my understanding, Levinthal commissions custom pieces for him to then assemble to the needs of the photographs he envisions. While behind glass, and with only a 50mm lens at my disposal, I managed to capture a few interesting shots of the piece and I wanted to share those with you here.

These pieces are roughly 1:32 scale, meaning the adult figures are about 2 1/4″ (5.72 cm) tall and very intricately detailed.

Where Toy Photography Got it’s Wings: David Levinthal at SAAM

“There is less in my photographs than meets the eye. I look at my work as a narrative that taps into each individuals own memory.”

David Levinthal just turned 70, which makes it 40 years since his first NY gallery show and 53 years since he began his exploration of photography.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. now owns 545 of David Levinthal’s photographs, 8- of which are currently on view in ‘American Myth & Memory.’ Pieces from his journals can also be found in the Archives of American Art (papers can be seen by appointment only).

Levinthal creates composed worlds. His images both perpetuate and explore American stereotypes. He tells stories through small details, rather than through expansive, detailed spaces. This allows the viewer to bring their own visual memory to the photograph before them.

His work can be compared to film stills. The images are the moment in between an imagined before and after.

Continue reading “Where Toy Photography Got it’s Wings: David Levinthal at SAAM”

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. 

 

An Interview with David Levinthal, The Father of Miniature Photography

An Image from Hitler Moves East by David Levinthal
An Image from Hitler Moves East by David Levinthal

Last semester I did a project for my photo history class on David Levinthal. I took a chance and e-mailed his studio. To my surprise and delight he responded! On top of that, he gave me permission to share his responses to my questions with you!

Below is David Levinthal’s answer to the questions:

Why do you prefer to use miniatures in your work?
Would you say there is a defining idea to your work as a whole?
How do you choose your subject matter for each of your series?
Which of your images or series is your personal favorite and why?

Regarding the miniatures,I first started working with toy figures as the subject of my art work back in 1972, when I was in graduate school. I’m not sure that I can remember exactly why I began using them. I remember that I wanted to try and replicate some images that I had seen on old pulp magazines from the 50’s like Police Gazette, and I choose to use a Barbie doll with black tape over her eyes to simulate the black bars that they used to put over the women’s eyes, something that they used to do to “protect” their identity. What really got me focused on using toys was the work that I did with Garry Trudeau in making the book Hitler Moves East. We spent over three years on the project, and by the time the book was published in 1977, I had become fascinated by the ability to create a faux reality using toy figures. I have been doing it ever since.
 
I think that the defining idea behind my work is to try and get the viewer to enter the world between fantasy and reality. When you can create something so believable out of toys it starts to call into question what is fantasy and what is reality in our minds.
 
Finding the subject matter for any given series is usually just a question of chance. Early on in my career, I would see some interesting objects and think about how I might want to work with them artistically. Sometimes I might collect toys and figures that I found interesting and work with them years later. My work after Hitler Moves East, the Modern Romance and Wild West series, were based on my memories of film noir and of old Westerns that I used to see as a child. In the 50’s when I was growing up, many of the television shows were Westerns, and all the kids had cowboy belts and cap pistols to play with.
 
I think that Hitler Moves East, because it was my first major body of work, and the because it was also my first book, will always remain my favorite series. Without that work I don’t think that any of the other work would have been possible.
 
-David Levinthal, 2-27-12