“What kind of photography do we do?” has been a question we have been discussing for the last few months here at the Stuck in Plastic collective. We have been asking ourselves “How do we describe toy photography to others?” and “How does toy photography fit into the larger world of photography?” as we attempt to define your collective. After our experience working with a gallery, we now realize how important it is to know the answers to these questions so that we can tell our own story.
In that light we have been working on a manifesto. The discussion has been spirited, many ideas (both large and small) have been considered and a document is under way. But one of the huge sticking points has been what kind of photography do we do? We have considered both still life photography and tableau vivant as two likely contenders, but I am here to propose a third.
In my search for answers and ideas about photography I picked up a new book yesterday: Why It Does Not Have To Be in Focus: modern photography explained by Jackie Higgins. This informative book about photography in the 20th Century breaks down photographs into six basic genres: Portraits / Smile, Document / Snap, Still Life / Freezes, Narrative / Action, Landscapes / Look and Abstracts / Dissolve. Each of these chapters uses a variety of famous and influential photographers to illustrate how these genres, and art photography itself, is being redefined.
First I looked at the chapter on Still Life / Freezes, since it has been a hot topic and the idea that has been favored in our discussions. But one look through the examples given in this book and I see how we don’t fit into this category. As a collective we aren’t referencing traditional still life in our work, we aren’t focusing our cameras on light (and only light) and creating new ways to capture it and we aren’t interested in early photographic processes and how to reinvent / reinterpret them. While we may be staging elaborate scenes to photograph, which look like a still life, it appears there’s more to still life photography than subject matter.
While the chapter on Still Life / Freezes seemed unfamiliar, the next chapter, Narrative / Action, seemed astoundingly familiar.
“This chapter explores the use of storytelling in contemporary art photography, a genre now widely known as “staged photography”. In some cases, the artists set a stage on which they themselves perform; others remain strictly behind the camera and mastermind every detail with a movie director’s obsession. In fact, the scenes constructed in certain photographs owe much to the language and look of cinema: Cindy Sherman borrows from the Hollywood film noir era, and Alex Prager admits to being influenced by the golden age of Hollywood. By contrast, Anna Gaskell looks to classic literature fables, and fairy tales for her inspiration. Other artists mimic and hijack the codes and conventions of established photographic conventions… Jeff Wall has coined the term “near documentary” to describe tableaux artfully staged to emulate reality.” ~ Jackie Higgins
So while the term tableau vivant was suggested by one of our members, it was a term too narrowly defined and too archaic to really help plainly explain what we as toy photographers do. Yet it seems this term, which is clearly covered by Narrative / Action, is probably closest to what we do, we just need to broaden our definition to cover all of the different ways we approach toy photography.
One of the points we diverge upon is whether the toys are alive. (Seriously only a group of toy photographers would even think this was a valid discussion!) It doesn’t matter whether we think our toys are only inert bits of plastic or that we believe they are alive, we are all asking our viewers to believe that they’re alive. The stories we tell are of a narrative quality, we are asking our viewers to believe a story we have created and photographed; we are asking them to interpret the story; we are asking them to ask questions of the image and of themselves. At its best, we are posing a series of questions to the viewer that will engage him or her and create a dialogue.
After reading about these other artists and their intent, I feel that toy photography has more in common with other photographers creating work that is classified as Narrative / Action than Still Life / Freeze.
What kind of photography do you think we do?
I realize that this is a pretty esoteric discussion for the average toy photographer. I know that for most of the people in this community the simple act of taking a toy photograph and sharing it with friends is enough. But I also know there are a few like minded people in this community that would like to see their work acknowledged. To make that happen, we have to know who we are, what we do, who we emulate, who we’re reacting against and above all…know the right words to make this understood by both the artistic establishment and the general public alike. This post is one step in that journey.