Why? by Leila Chieko

I used to be a scrapbook queen. I’ve been documenting my life through photography since grade school and have put together dozens and dozens of scrapbooks all the way up until about ten years ago when I made the transition from 35mm film to digital photography. I photographed the usual: people, travel, landscapes. In my quest to answer the “Why do I take toy photographs?” question this blog series is based on, I dug up one of my earliest scrapbooks from age 11 in which I remember taking a photo of a Hot Wheels truck in front of a Hawaiian sunset.

“What kind of picture is this? Is it a comet striking Mauna Kea? Is it a truck on the horizon? Nope, it’s just a toy truck, on Ikaika’s [dog] house, by the sunset, with the neighbor’s roof in the back.”
“What kind of picture is this? Is it a comet striking Mauna Kea? Is it a truck on the horizon? Nope, it’s just a toy truck, on Ikaika’s [dog] house, by the sunset, with the neighbor’s roof in the back.”
Now, forgive the image quality as this photo was time-stamped “July 1987” and I was rockin’ one of those rectangular 110mm point-and-shoot cameras, but check out the composition! My 11-year-old self deliberately used silhouette and forced perspective techniques to create a “landscape” for my toy car. I even offered up a “comet” story to incorporate that strange light leak/lens flare that appears in the center of the photo. The most amusing part though is the way I presented the photo. It’s almost exactly what I do on Instagram today: Engage my viewers to comment or make a guess about something in the composition, and then provide a behind-the-scenes explanation of my setup! Although, who was I even directing my questions to back then? Maybe scrapbooking was my version of social media? Who did I think would be viewing it beyond my parents and my fifth grade bestie?

My interest in photography was undoubtedly sparked by my father who is also a photographer. I studied his photographs in our family albums often and took keen note of his use of DOF, how he framed his subjects, and his ability to nail great exposure within one or two shots. The photography class I took later in high school is the extent of any formal training I have, but it taught me how to use an SLR camera, how to develop film and make prints, and how to employ The Basics to create good photographs. I also worked in photo labs for about ten years where I color-corrected and inadvertently got to critique thousands of customers’ images, seeing what worked and what didn’t.

Classic Knight vs. Pit Bull, 1988? Photo by Andres Gaoiran Jr. (my father)
Classic Knight vs. Pit Bull, 1988? Photo by Andres Gaoiran Jr. (my father)

But let’s go back to the toys. Before I became a scrapbook queen, I was a LEGO maniac. I had some Classic Town and Castle sets, but I especially loved the Classic Space sets and was content to be locked up in my room completely immersed in the mini worlds I created. Growing up in Hawaii also meant I spent a lot of time playing at the beach. I explored tide pools and porous lava rock boulders, searching for suitable “headquarters” for my LEGO minifigures. And I envied them. My little Space guys. They got to investigate all the cool nooks and crannies, inspect the minerals in the rocks up-close, and gaze up at the textures of their cave “ceilings” because they were small. I wanted to be that small. The world seemed so much more interesting at that scale and playing with LEGO outdoors allowed me to live in that macro fantasy land.

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I eventually grew up and moved away from Hawaii, but I held onto all my LEGO and carted them around in storage bins. I fell out of the LEGO loop for about twenty years and didn’t pay attention to it until the Lord of the Rings sets came out. As a huge Tolkien fan, this combination of LEGO + LOTR just completely blew my mind! I couldn’t believe how far LEGO had come from the classic minifigure perma-grin to the specialized expression and design of Gollum! It was then that my love for LEGO reawakened.

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A year later I got onto Instagram and discovered Shelly (@xxsjc) and the @brickcentral community. Mind blown again! Shelly’s outdoor LEGO photos struck a huge chord in me. She combined well-composed portraits of colorful characters and landscapes, but on a macro scale, and I was instantly transported back to my mini LEGO worlds from childhood.

Since then toy photography has taken over my life. I switched out my wide angle lens for a macro one. It gives me that immersive experience I achieved as a kid. Whether I’m traveling to exotic locations or just hanging out in my backyard, I love the challenge of hunting for tiny landscapes, or “LEGOscapes” as I like to call them. I prefer to keep setups fairly simple, using and bouncing available light. I typically only use post-production to clean up lint and adjust a few exposure levels instead of relying on it to tell the story. Lately I’ve been including larger non-LEGO toys too, but my process is still the same.

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Photo by Cindy Dockter @coney_dogg

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There’s a fine art to utilizing natural elements found in the larger “real” world to create the illusion of a small world that then appears large from the minifigure’s point of view. I think that’s what I strive for when I compose a toy photo. I want to find naturally occurring playgrounds for my characters and then document their lives. At the end of the day I just want to be that small and escape into that macro world myself, exploring caves, inspecting tide pools, and tromping through fields of moss!

It also gives me extreme joy to be able to share these little worlds through social media, and see hundreds of other amazing toy photographers do their thing too! Being able to meet some of these artists in person and see them in action has been incredibly inspiring, and many have resulted in long-lasting friendships.

I’m grateful to have an international following and be part of such a creative community. The internet and social media certainly helped me realize I could combine my photography and LEGO passions into a daily creative outlet. But even if the internet suddenly disappeared, I would probably still be taking toy photos regardless of knowing if my audience was real or imagined. Just like my early scrapbooking days, I do it simply because I love it.

Thanks for reading and following! Thanks again to Shelly and the Stuckinplastic crew for having me contribute to the blog. It is such an honor!  

Leila @brickandmordor

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0 Comments

  1. Lizzi

    Such an awesome post! I wish I had more photos in my childhood scrapbooks – I mostly have newspaper clippings and cinema tickets!

    I also love the term ‘LEGOscape’ – I’m going to have to try and use that concept more!

  2. What a wonderful “why” piece Leila! It’s amazing that the 11-year-old you seemed to know her destiny. Jump forward from ’87 to now, and I can only assume that she’d be proud of what she’d become. Thanks for sharing this lovely post.

    • Leila @brickandmordor

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it Brett! It was a really wonderful experience digging up old memories and photos, trying to figure out what my ‘Why?’ process actually is! It was satisfying to make that connection all the way back to childhood play. And now my photos make so much more sense to ME now! haha 🙂

  3. Wonderful post Leila! I’ve been amazed by your beautiful photos on IG, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I think it’s fantastic that you started photography and storytelling when you were young and now you are continuing the tradition 🙂

    Lynn

    • Leila @brickandmordor

      Thank you Lynn!! Aw, I think YOUR work is amazing! I’m definitely grateful that two of my passions could be melded into Toy Photography. I still wish I could be two inches tall sometimes!

  4. Charlene

    Hehehe! Enjoyed reading this! I remember hearing you from that very young age, stirring through your big container of LEGO pieces soon after you woke up… that continual sound would sometimes drive me crazy! I also remember how you once saw a for-sale ad of some kid’s LEGO collection and paid for it all with $$$ you’d saved up. So proud of your accomplishments and happy that you have pursued your PASSIONS!

    • Leila @brickandmordor

      Hahaha thanks MOM! Well, thanks for allowing me to have free reign in the creativity realm, even if it drove you crazy! I’m so grateful, really, to have such freakin’ cool parents!

  5. Dear Leila ,
    I’m very impressed with your wonderful story about your talent and the development of your creative hobby. It has so many sides and I enjoyed your view of the beauty in the small fantasy world very much!
    Also I admire the families with the same interests: I share this joy with you , because we have the same unity of minds. 😉
    Thank you!
    Kind Regards,
    Ann.

  6. Leila,

    I wanted to chime in with all the other comments about how fabulous this post is. You really nailed the joy, the charm, the fantasy of taking toy photos. Your humor, your intelligence and your attention to detail shines through in all your photos. You know I’ve been one of your biggest fans ever since I featured your photo of the Yeti hanging from the icy branch on BrickCentral. I’m proud to count you as one of my friends. Thank you so much of sharing your experience and your journey with us here at StuckinPlastic.

    Shelly

    ps – I can’t tell you how cool it was to read your Mom’s comment. I wish my mom was that cool!

    • Leila @brickandmordor

      Awww, that Yeti ice storm photo! 🙂 I’m proud to count you as one of my friends too. I’m thankful for all the work you’ve done and continue to do to keep the toy photography community engaged and enlightened, online and in person. It’s life-changing! Here’s to more playful plastic portraiture! xo

  7. Kiwi Chen

    Such an amazing and inspiring story, Leila. It’s really made me think how, and why I’ve started this too!! And I’m just like you always searching for Legoscapes or Vinylscapes! Love that expression and word! Gotta think small in a large world, I always say! I absolutely love your art work with toyphotography!!! ❤️

    • Leila @brickandmordor

      Oh Kiwi, thank you for commenting! I know how special it is that you did. 🙂 And maybe it’s time for you to contribute your “Why?” statement too! “Why people need more ‘poop tarts’ in their lives!” – by Wikitoybox. LOL I love you sis! Thank you for always making me laugh!

    • Leila @brickandmordor

      Thanks so much Stefan!! I’m glad people like the “LEGOscape” term! Here’s to producing more wonderful toy photos, and having Stuckinplastic be a place where we can all geek out on it! 🙂

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