The History of Miniature & Toy Photography

MMM

Hi everyone,

For today’s edition of My Mini Monday I want to discuss the history of the use of miniatures and toys in photographic works. I’ve seen a lot lately, listing artists from the 2010s as being founders of the field, and while they’re great artists, I think we all need to look back a bit further than the past 6 or 7 years…

The history of art, photography, staged/fabricated photography, etc. is a long and winding one. Each artist/creator comes to the field with a different background and moves forward on a different path. To find artists working in your field there’s modern day movements with social media (namely instagram as far as toy photography is concerned), but there’s still the old school route of galleries, museums and publications. Just because an artist is well known and inspirational to you, doesn’t make them the first of their kind. That said, newer toy photographers may very well make history, but it’s not going to be because they were the father of or founder of the field, it’s going to have to be because they had a niche or working process that revolutionized something.


*If you see something in quotation marks below that has not been cited with a link, it is from the 1987 publication, Fabrications by Anne H. Hoy.

To begin, photography came into being in 1800, with the first known surviving photograph being from 1826 or 27 (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 1960 or so “fine photography restricted itself to exacting descriptions of things…” This began to change in the early 1960s. The formal definitions of art began to be dissoved by artists and it’s then “[they restored] narrative to camera art.” Fabricated photography was then brought to the forefront of the medium in the 1970s. That said “Staged photographs are almost as old as the medium: as early as 1843 the American daguerrotypist John Edwin Mayall made photo-illustrations of the Lord’s prayer, and in the mid-1840s, the Scottish calotypists David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson posed and photographed scenes from Sir Walter Scott.”

#4 of 5 - Cottingly's Fairies from the early 1920s
#4 of 5 – Cottingly’s Fairies from the early 1920s

Within fabricated photography is tableau, portraiture, and still life. Within tableau photography is toy photography.

Some definitions:

  • Fabricated Photography is the opposite of documentary photography, in it, the photographer creates what he or she photographs, rather than finding it organically
  • Staged Photography is essentially the same as fabricated photography. Within it, the photographer sets up a scene to be photographed.
  • Tableau Photography is a type of fabrication. Taken from the idea of theater, a tableau is a still story or narrative.
  • Toy Photography is the photographing of toy figures and objects, often in narrative form.

“With any means available, [tableau photographers] create photographs intended to convey their philosophic and moral views of the world and themselves – their place in the cosmos, society, and family; their relation to popular and high culture; their emotional and sexual identities.”


Above all, I want to highlight the photographers below. You’ve probably seen their work before, whether you’ve realized it or not. Each of them helped shape the history and developing narrative of photography, and you are for sure to see them discussed in photo textbooks.

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.

Visit his website here.

from Wild West, 2012
from Wild West, 2012
from Hitler Moves East, 1972-1975
from Hitler Moves East, 1972-1975
from XXX, 2000-2001
from XXX, 2000-2001

 

Laurie Simmons

If you don’t know the name Laurie Simmons from her photographic work, you may still know it from the connection with celebrity daughter Lena Dunham. Her work was also alluded to in Lena Dunham’s 2010 film Tiny Furniture, of which Laurie Simmons starred in.

Laurie began working with miniatures in 1976. While she does not work exclusively with miniatures, you will see through her site that she’s been working with them consistently from the 1970s til now. Some of her most recognizable early work are her Early Color Interiors (1978 – 1979) which serve as a commentary on domestic life. You can read a more in depth look at those images here.

“[At this time] Various women were exploiting photographs in different ways…and in so doing they pushed photography further toward the center of the contemporary art world.” – The New York Times

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

Visit her website here.

from Early Color Interiors, 1978-1979
from Early Color Interiors, 1978-1979
from Kaleidoscope House, 2000-2001
from Kaleidoscope House, 2000-2001
from Tourism, 1983-1984
from Tourism, 1983-1984

Arthur Tress

Arthur Tress began photographing in the 1970s. However, in the 1980s he created The Teapot Opera – skillful conglomerations of toys and cutouts posed in a Victorian Child’s Stage. Visit his website here.

from The Teapot Opera, 1980s
from The Teapot Opera, 1980s
from Fishtank Sonata, 1990s
from Fishtank Sonata, 1990s

Ellen Brooks

From 1978 to 1985 Ellen Brooks photographed dolls. “stock figures [which] more clearly critique today’s definitions of female and male role models.” Visit her website here.

from Tableaux, 1978-1985
from Tableaux, 1978-1985
from Tableaux, 1978-1985

You may also want to check out:


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