The History of Toy Photography

The history of photographing toys is a long one, and often, we as a community seem to forget this. While each of us may be innovating within our field, we are far from the first or farthest reaching of our kind.


To begin…

Photography came into being in 1800, with the first known surviving photograph being from about 1826 (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 the 1960s, fine art photography was restricted to documentary like images – images that defined an actual thing or event. This changed in the early 1960s when artists began to break down the formality of photography and insert a narrative into their work. Fabricated photography, the opposite of documentary photography, in which the photographer creates what he or she photographs rather than finding it organically, was brought to the forefront of the medium in the 1970s. That said, while not heavily practiced until the 1970s, staged photography, the setting up of scenes to be photographed, dates back as far as the medium of photography does. In 1843, John Edwin Mayall made photo-illustrations of the Lord’s prayer and in the mid-1840s David Octabius Hill and Robert Adamson posed and photographed scenes of the work of Sir Walter Scott.

Within fabricated photography is tableau, portraiture, and still life. Tableau Photography is a type of fabrication. Taken from the idea of theater, a tableau is a still story or narrative. Within tableau photography is toy photography.

In regards to toy photography, Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths (aged 16 and 9 at the time) used paper fairies as early as 1917 to create photographic works. And the renowned Edward Weston photographed Mexican toys in 1925.

#4 of 5 - Cottingly's Fairies from the early 1920s
Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths, Cottingly Fairies #4, early 1920s
Edward Weston, Mexican Toys, 1925

While toy photography has existed since the 1920s, if not earlier, it came to the forefront of the field in the 1970s and 80s with the work of David Levinthal, Laurie Simmons, Arthur Tress and Ellen Brooks.

David Levinthal

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.

from Hitler Moves East, 1972-1975
David Levinthal, from Hitler Moves East, 1972-1975
Laurie Simmons

Laurie Simmons began working with miniatures in 1976, and still does today. Some of her most recognizable early works are her Early Color Interiors (1978 – 1979) which serve as a commentary on domestic life.

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

Laurie Simmons, from Tourism, 1983-1984
Arthur Tress

Arthur Tress began working with miniatures in the 1980s with The Teapot Opera. This series consists of skillful conglomerations of toys and cutouts posed in a Victorian Child’s Stage.

from The Teapot Opera, 1980s
Arthur Tress, from The Teapot Opera, 1980s
Ellen Brooks

Ellen Brooks photographed dolls, from 1978 to 1985,  as a way of critiquing female and male role models.

from Tableaux, 1978-1985
Ellen Brooks, from Tableaux, 1978-1985

In more recent years…

toy photography has been picked up by more and more people. However, while some may go viral, there are a few projects that really make a lasting statement.

Marwencol is a place – a miniature world, created by Mark Hogancamp in 2000. Mark spent 9 days in a coma after being the victim of a hate crime. He woke up without his adult memories, and he had to re-learn how to eat, walk and write. He began using 1:6 scale figures to create a world he envisioned. Through building, dressing, painting, weathering and so on, Mark began to rebuild his cognitive skills. He photographs this world, and his story has been made into a documentary and book and is said to be coming to feature film.

Mark Hogancamp, from Marwencol, 2000s

Brian McCarty began traveling to war zones in 2011. In them, he listens to the children and retells their stories through locally found toys. This project is called War Toys. The goal of this project is to engage these children in expressive art therapy and therefore help relieve some of their trauma.

Brian McCarthy, War Toys: West Bank, 2011

And that’s that. Did you know toy photography had such deep roots? Who’s your favorite historical toy photographer?

~ Jennifer Nichole Wells

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Jennifer Nichole Wells

Literally all I care about is photographing toys...and writing about photographing toys.

11 thoughts on “The History of Toy Photography”

  1. This is a very interesting topic and worth exploring more. I loved these examples, but they left me wanting for more. Even a crowdsourced vintage amateur toyphoto piece would work. Just think, how many people must have photographed their Matchbox cars in the 1960’s? Or, gasp, even Lego!

    Brian McCarty’s book was the first toyphotography book I ever bought. Loved his work, it was mindboggling!

    One of my later favourites was Wesley David Archer. While akin to Levintahl’s, and especially Wright’s and Griffiths’ work, Archer’s 1933 antics perhaps falls outside the strict definition of toyphotography. Yet, it is amazing for the time they were created in: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2721233/How-dramatic-images-WWI-dogfights-skies-Europe-FAKED-conman-just-looking-make-money.html

    1. Thank you for this insight! I think Wesley Archer’s work definitely fits into the realm of toy photography – only I’m just now learning about it from your comment.

      I do wonder as well what photos of toys were made by consumers. Without the internet, and regular everyday folks not archiving their works, it’s quite hard to pin point.

  2. I will have to confess that my favorite on this list is Mark Hogencamp. I loved the documentary Marwencol. Mark’s story touched my deeply. When I read through the book of the same name, his personal struggle is all the more profound. I love the story he tells, the powerful women, how he mixes his real life and his fantasy life – it’s really touching.

    I also have a soft spot for War Toys.

    Thank you Jennifer for sharing these awesome photographers with us and putting the idea of toy photography into a larger context. Great work!

  3. Thank you for this post! I had no idea that toy photography had such a diverse and long history. For some reason I thought it was a new endeavor.

    Thank you for taking the time to research and share your findings!

  4. Interesting article – I corresponded with David Leventhal whilst I was at University and he was an absolute gentleman. I came to toy photography by accident. I needed subjects for a studio assignment and was at a bit of a loose end. I thought I could practice miniature lighting setups on my kitchen table using whatever I could find in my son’s toy box. And thats how a pretty long and involving project began. I did some research around the subject and up popped Mr Leventhal. I emailed him and he was generous with advice and time. I sent him some examples of work which he kindly critiqued – considering I was the email equivalent of a cold caller he was excellent.

    1. He is so wonderful. I corresponded with him while in college as well. Amazing to have had the opportunity to talk to him briefly. I can’t imagine how beneficial it was to have him critique your work. A wonderful world you fell into.

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