Recently I have been reaching out to photographers I admire and asking them to write for our “Why?” series. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but once these talented photographers start trying to express the obvious in words, they tend to get bogged down.
I was once asked “What is so special about Stormtroopers? Why are you using them so often?..” I had literally more than a hundred answers for that one question, all related to their signature presence in Star Wars series. But those were all emotional explanations.
When I began writing this, I went about it all-wrong…
I treated it as an assignment. “Why do I photograph toys…?” Hmmmmm.
I went off on an “artsy-fartsy” tangent and got all philosophical. “I PHOTOGRAPH TOYS BECAUSE THEY ARE THERE!” Or something like, “Well, often times my figures express how I am feeling much more succinctly than I ever could….” Maybe even, “The question that lies at the very core of our existence as human beings may perhaps, be answered by a photo of that ONE action figure, HARUMPH!”
Of course, that’s all absolute nonsense and the answer to the question – WHY – is much more simple than any of that.
When I was growing up, my Father was an Officer in the United States Army. When asked what I wanted to be when I grow up, my answer was always “I wanna be an Army man like my Dad!” I can directly attribute my enormous collection of G.I. Joe figures (yes, the originals with fuzzy beards and Kung-fu grip) and plastic green army men to being raised as an Army Brat. Those figures suffered through unimaginable battles. I’d melt pieces of them out, create a small hole and place shredded cotton, colored red with a marker, in the holes to simulate blood…than take them outside, set them up somewhere and take pictures.
After I’d burn up a roll of Kodak 110, my Mom would take that film to get them developed somewhere…I vaguely remember a shack in the middle of a parking lot off of Highway 440 in Killeen, Texas. Than, what seemed like many years later, we’d get the developed roll back and I’d tear open the envelope to stare at my glorious war scenes I’d recreated! Of course, the photos were terrible, out of focus and blurry. But I had taken an idea I had in my imagination and “made it” real.
Star Wars captured my imagination in 1977 like it did every other kid of my age at the time. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Stormtroopers, Darth Vader…. light sabers, blasters, A DEATH STAR! Let me say that again and this time imagine you’re nine years old, sitting in a movie theater, speechless, and a figure clad in black armor, wearing a helmet that looks like it’s from one of your nightmares, mentions THE DEATH STAR! WHAT ? ! ? My toy photography took off in a new direction…
I spent many, many hours setting up R2-D2 and C-3PO in the playground trying to recreate scenes from Star Wars. Hard to do with the limited number of figures available at the time, but damn if I didn’t try my hardest.
Fast-forward thirty years and toy photography has become my “creative outlet”. I’ve always done it, before there was a name for it and long before social media existed. A few years ago, I was messing around with a clone trooper from the Star Wars saga and on a whim I posted it to Instagram. It wasn’t anything fancy. The trooper was sitting at the end of a beach chair and I was fortunate enough to catch some lens flare. Surprisingly, the picture was a hit with (GASP) other toy photographers!
There were OTHER people that were doing the SAME THING!
My weird little hobby had found a home. I’ve met some incredibly talented people in “IG Land”. I’ve been inspired, amazed and sometimes, literally speechless when scrolling through my feed. So many talented people across the globe, all taking pictures of toys, with the dedication, enthusiasm and achieving the results you’d expect to see in an art museum.
So why do I photograph toys?
I guess because I always have. It’s a part of who I am. I’m always looking for a way to improve my shots and discovering new techniques to employ. I enjoy the entire process. Toy photography is a small and fairly specialized genre… I certainly hope I’m part of it when it’s noticed AND respected for what it is, by a much larger audience.
~ Matt Rohde
We are very happy to announce that starting next week Matt will be posting a weekly feature here at StuckinPlastic and I couldn’t be happier! I have long admired his photography and the (often) poignant stories that accompany them. Matt has been a big inspiration to me and my own toy photography and after reading his “Why?” statement I understand that much better. I hope you will give him a very warm welcome. ~ xxSJC
This post is part of our “Why? series”, where we interview toy photographers around the world and ask them the simple question: Why?
For me, it’s pretty simple. There is a very brief and special moment that sometimes happens in my toy photography. If I’ve done everything correctly, I obtain realism. At least, enough realism to make a viewer pause for a second, look a little closer and ask “how’d he do that?”
I am trying to show dinosaurs in a realistic way. That’s pretty much the only thing I am consistently trying to achieve with my artwork. That is my goal and what I view as most important over everything else. That is my own measure of a successful photograph.
As I see it, there are 6 key components of toy photography to achieve a strong level of realism. They are; perspective, composition, lighting, depth-of-field, contrast and colors. To strike a strong balance between them is difficult to do and rewarding to achieve. I attempt ‘realism’ quite often and feel successful at it frequently enough to keep enjoying the process.
I share my photos on instagram (@dinoczars) and have a number of enthusiastic followers there. I also try to sell prints of my best shots from time to time in art shows and on my easy store (www.etsy.com/shop/Dinoczars). But both the fans on IG and the sales aren’t my biggest motivators, I was shooting dinos before I was on IG and if the app crashed tomorrow, I would still be shooting dinos. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the positive reactions I get from people, and that certainly is a motivator, but ultimately, even if they all stopped paying attention to what I do, I’d still be doing it. Because I love dinosaurs and being able to recreate them in a believable way is a joy for me.
Why do I take photographs of toys?
I guess it boils down to this: I saw Jurassic Park at a very impressionable age and have been trying to bring dinosaurs back to life, in my own way, ever since.
Why do I spend the majority of my free time photographing small pieces of colourful plastic?
I first tried the ultimate answer to any question and realized 42 wouldn’t cut it at all (although going Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxywith LEGO is definitely a challenge I have to visit someday, without panic). At first this question may have seemed easy enough and the answer self evident, but looking deeper, there’s nothing simple about it. What are our personal reasons for taking photographs? The answer is different for all of us. It can be as simple as love, a story that needs to be told, or a way to revisit childhood.
I have only been active in LEGO photography for a year now, and still my reasons have changed during this time.
My wife is a professional photographer and so I have always had her support and knowledge. I have also found many talented and inspiring photographers out there. Even though I have changed the way I photograph, Vesa Lethimäki will always stand as a source of inspiration. I promised always to challenge myself in photography and find new ways to play with these bricks, to cast away the innate limitations and bring them to life, sometimes with the help of the four elements. Especially close to my heart are those pictures involving fire and natural light. It’s about not having control of the situation, acting within a limited time frame with the camera to capture that which is unpredictable, be it fire, wind, water, or earth. What I appreciate about the unpredictable photographs is that they capture a moment in time, impossible or almost impossible to reproduce, triggering a realistic cinematic feeling.
Alexander Rodchenkosaid, “One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again.” There are endless perspectives on the simplest of objects, and all of them tell a different story.
But there are other reasons besides the joy of drowning figures or setting them on fire. The main reason still stands: I am a father of two kids who love playing and being creative with LEGO. Much inspiration is drawn from them; the imaginary mind of the young knows no boundaries.
I found that even though I strive to make all photographic effects in front of the camera, with as little post-processing as possible, my goal now, almost a year later, is to express my emotional response to the scene. This has led me to modify the image captured by the camera. If I did not alter the image, I would be showing what the camera captured, not what I saw and felt in my head. Even so, I still work more with the camera rather than post-production software.
There is a story behind every image, and it is a great feeling when my family and I decide to frame one of them and hang it on the wall. The images may seem uninteresting to people, but to me they are a reminder of what ideas spawned in my mind and what emotion stirred them to life.
So why do I keep doing this, day in and day out, sacrificing sleep and mental health. I think George Bernard Shaw said it best: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” I don’t want to grow old.
Why do I take photographs of Lego? That is a question that took me by surprise a couple of weeks ago. I realized I had never asked myself that question before. Finding the answer was not easy, and it took a brief conversation with my wife for me to see it.
I am photographing Lego because I am a never-was movie director making a living outside the movie industry. That’s what my wife said, and it pretty much sums it up. See, I always loved movies. Star Wars, obviously, was huge, but many others as well, classics and contemporary. As a kid I made some movies myself with my dad’s Super-8 film camera, but film was expensive and my dad did not allow me to hack the camera’s filmport to produce a widescreen format picture. My movies were not very good; a widescreen wouldn’t have improved them, but still. I would build miniature sets and models to shoot, but the miserable camera could not focus on anything, since it had no macro. I grew up watching great movies and reading all about them. As a teenager I subscribed to Starlog, Cinemagic, and Cinefantastique. Cinefex, Premiere and Empire came along a little later. I’m soaked with that stuff; it’s in my DNA. I sometimes dream in 2.39:1.
That was a long time ago.
When I stumbled into photographing Lego Star Wars in 2009, I quickly connected to those times when I dreamed of making movies. I soon incorporated into the photos many of the cinematic ideas I had toyed with in my youth: widescreen, smoke, aerial particles, snow, blizzards, tight closeups and stories — the short stories that I like to write to go with the photos. I think this through via cinema; even my “Leftovers & Alternatives” album in Flickr is allegoric to a DVD “deleted scenes” extra. Lego is a perfect medium for all this. It’s playful, and there’s so much to choose from. You can have a minifigure on a piece of a coloured paper and still make a strong photo with that; yet there’s everything from a coffee cup to the Death Star to add, if you like.
This soon became a sort of creativity outlet, a free turf to express ideas I could not use in my day job as an illustrator. I see my photographs as single-frame plays I can write, produce, direct and shoot, but with characters and concepts I grew up with. In a way, I’m exploring an unfulfilled career path, but with Lego and present day tools, like the DSLR camera. It’s old but it’s new. It’s perfect!
~ Vesa Lehtimäki
“Breaking in the Tauntaun (Revised & Rejected) by Avanaut
Why do I take photographs of small plastic figures?
Well, I’m not doing it to change the world. Neither am I bringing attention to worthy causes, or highlighting injustice with my photographs. I do it for the same reason most people do most things, I do it for me. I want to take the sort of photographs that I’d like to see. I want to look at my photographs and say “that’s cool, I want to hang that on my wall.”
The limitations imposed by LEGO minifigures are a big part of the fun of photography for me. Bernard Suits famously defined a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. That perfectly sums up my approach to LEGO photography. I rarely use anything but standard LEGO smiling faces, or the expressionless helmets of Stormtroopers or Darth Vader. Trying to create an emotive photograph with a barely-posable, inert chunk of plastic is a challenge that I never seem to tire of trying to beat.
I take pleasure in the whole process. Combining ideas together within my own set of rules for what makes a good photograph. Finding angles and interesting lines in the viewfinder. Moving the composition around to balance the scene. Changing the lighting mood as I shoot. Playing with hues and saturation curves to add some life to the clinically clean digital capture. It’s all good.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes everything goes in the trash can. As I make more photographs I’m getting better at knowing when an idea doesn’t translate into a good photograph. Over the years I’ve tried to weed out poor qualities and work out what the essence of a good photograph is to me.
I read an excellent quote from Magnum photographer Constantine Manos today that summed up something I have never been able to eloquently put into words – “Try not to take pictures which simply show what something looks like.”. That’s why I take the photographs I do. To try and take LEGO photography above mere “photos of things” and make a story, evoke an emotion, or at least raise a smile.