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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Ellen Brooks photographed dolls, from 1978 to 1985, as a way of critiquing female and male role models.
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.
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.
And that’s that. Did you know toy photography had such deep roots? Who’s your favorite historical toy photographer?