Why do we like playing with toys? A look into how and why people use toys in art, photography and film making.
I photograph toys; I have been fascinated by how they can be used in photography for a while. In my research I found many others who photography toys too, and this got me interested in the reasons behind why people use toys to grab audiences and to portray their messages. I wanted to research many different uses of toys, and hopefully understand why my fascination with toys better. I started off researching David Levinthal because he was the inspiration that started me off working with toys.
David Levinthal was born in San Francisco California in 1949. His work contains hints at iconic symbols of American culture, especially his Barbie series and Baseball series. He works mainly on large format Polaroid’s photographing toys and railway figures. He creates all of his sets by hand, and lights them to achieve the atmosphere he requires for his image. He first became interested in using this aesthetic when he started cutting up a cardboard box and foam board then joined them together with tape. He realised he had an enthusiasm for this type of work when he noticed he was creating a room, which turned into an office, a hotel room or a corridor depending on how he looked at it, he was creating something that could tell a story. So he started to cut windows into the building he had made, letting the light shine through at different angles, creating brightly lit scenes, that could showcase everyday activities or dull scenes which gave the viewer an eerie, mysterious and voyeuristic feel. The scenes were not perfect in their manufacture; he had made them to look good enough to be photographed, wanting to transform them into narrative using lights and figures placed within the frame. His spaces were only parts of a suggested larger place, one the viewer of the photograph can only imagine when they look at his images. Levinthal says of his work ‘I began to realize that by carefully selecting the depth of field and making it narrow, I could create a sense of movement and reality that was in fact not there.’
Hobby shops contained everything Levinthal needed to create his scenes. He would buy mini sheets of wall paper for his rooms, using many designs in his different creations. This attention to detail shows in the atmosphere created by his images, sometimes the depth of field was so small in his images that you can’t see the detail in the background, but it is there, just out of view for us to imagine.
When he was photographing these scenes he worked in the dark, needing to focus on the lighting of each set. He used doll house lamps with hidden pin lights inside them to give them a dull light-bulb glow, adding an even further sense of realism to his work. Pin lights could be hidden in any area of the photograph to draw your attention to that area of the picture. He would shine lights through his modelled windows, to simulate natural light. Each scene needed a different atmosphere so Levinthal would create it using the lights, to show the drama and story in each photograph. He would use tape on the windows to simulate the light shining through blinds, making his sets fool our eye into believing they are real, or at least making us look twice at his images. He used coloured acetate to enhance his images, red and orange could give a room warmth, while blue and green could create an eerie cold atmosphere. Levinthal knew how to manipulate each part of the lighting in his sets to achieve the atmosphere he wanted. He imitated the shine of neon lights on pavements, the welcoming warmth of light from an open door, and the dull, green hue of distant alleyways. The places he created always seemed to be hiding something, he manipulated the light in such a way that he could turn a toy figure in a photograph into something you have to look at for a long period of time wondering whether it is real or not. Toys always had interested Levinthal; he said about them “Ever since I began working with toys, I have been intrigued with the idea that these seemingly benign objects could take on such incredible power and personality simply by the way they were photographed”. This is how I feel about the use of toys; you can change the image and the story by photographing them in different ways.
David Levinthal works with mini figures intended for use on adult’s model railways, they are less than an inch tall but very detailed. The most detailed and highly coloured ones Levinthal likes to use are made by a German company called Preiser. Preiser offers a large selection of figures in many different poses and for many different purposes. They are all hand painted, which helps the colours stand out even in the dull lighting Levinthal likes to use. Even looking at the new figures Preiser has released recently I can imagine Levinthal using them in one of his photographs; the figures still have the same aesthetic today.
To photograph his elaborate sets he used large format Polaroid’s, this was so he could achieve the short depth of field his images are so well-known for today. The short depth of field gives the photographs even more mystery because the background is removed from the image, turned into blurs of colour by the camera. This adds to the realism of the photograph, especially because the shot is blurry focused on one small part of the image, which suggests movement with in the frame. He uses lighting that brings out the colour but also takes some of the detail away, so that it is even harder for the viewer to decide if the image is real. Take this image for example, from his Wild West series, it is number nineteen. The orange-yellow colours Levinthal has used in the background really bring an image of the Wild West into any viewers mind, and not being able to see the detail adds to this illusion. The short depth of field has blurred the background and the horse, giving the image the sense of movement. We imagine the horse is galloping into the distant, that the cowboy on the horse gun drawn, in is pursuit of something or someone.
David Levinthal uses figures because he can manipulate them to show what he wants, he can also build a set around them, using lights to create the atmosphere he desires for the narrative. Using figures also took him back to his childhood, the times he would spend dreaming and creating stories with his toys. Levinthal’s love of toys followed him from his childhood into his college years and it was this love of toys, especially toy figures that he found again as an adult. I find it fascinating to find out that the photographer I find most inspiring enjoys taking photographs of figures and toys for the same reason I do. We both like to manipulate them to tell a story, creating the sets takes as much work as finding real life sets, we just work in miniature, enjoying being able to manipulate the light and setting more to achieve the atmosphere we want.
David Levinthal’s most recent body of work entitled Attack of the Bricks, a Star Wars Series. The series is comprised of photographs of Star Wars Lego mini figures, mainly on their own, with dark atmospheric lighting. Take his photograph of a Stormtrooper aiming his gun, I do like this image because of its small depth of field, your eyes are focused wholly on the mini-figure. This small depth of field also blurs the background which gives the image a sense of mystery, anything could be happening just behind the Stormtrooper but we can never find out what. To me what makes the images stand out as being David Levinthal photographs, is the small depth of field he uses to blur the background and how sharp the mini-figure is. The images remind me of his Wild West series of photographs, how they were focused just on the figure, but the small depth of field would make the figure look like it was moving, so for a second when you looked at the image you though it was of a real person.
Mike Stimpson is a photographer who says ‘I seem to take a lot of photographs of toys. I also like messing about with light.’ (http://www.mikestimpson.com/photography/page_bio.html)
His work can be mainly seen on flickr on his Balakov flickr page, or on his website. His work is as detailed as David Levinthal’s but he uses his sets and props in a different way. Stimpson like Levinthal has used Star Wars Lego Stormtrooper mini figures in his images, but he has used them to tell a new story or re-create an image. In Levinthal’s images I think he trying to tell the Star Wars story, and highlight the different characters. Stimpson such in this image entitled ‘Desire’ uses the figures to create a surreal story; he also uses handmade props and sets to enhance the narrative in the photograph. Stimpson’s Stormtrooper images went into a book entitled ‘Stormtroopers We Love You’ a collection of all of his Stormtrooper images. It also contains this image called ‘Raintrooper’ this image stood out at me firstly because it reminds me of David Levinthal’s work but also because with the movement in the water it tricks your eyes into believing the toy is real for a few seconds. I could almost imagine this image being a still from the Star Wars films, until you notice the figure is made of Lego. The small depth of field connects this piece of work with David Levinthal’s work showing it is one of the best ways to create images of toys that are mysterious and fool the viewer’s eyes into thinking they are real.
Mike Stimpson also re-creates famous photographs out of Lego, such as this image here entitled ‘Dali Atomicus’, I always look at this image and wonder how he managed it, wondering if he used strings for the figures and photo shopped them out after wards, and asking what he used to get the splash of water across the frame. This photograph shows how easy it is to manipulate Lego into the images you want, this is one of the main reasons I like to use Lego, because I can manipulate it and get it into the position I want before I take the shot. I can position lights around it and make sure everything is perfect, compared to shooting live subjects or time sensitive events, Lego won’t move unless you move it.
Toys can be seen in many different areas of art and media, showing that people do enjoy using them in different ways and to portray different messages. Like in this advert for a video game Halo, toys have been used here to show the realism of the game, a strange concept, but they have made the toys look almost real with their use of lighting. The people filming the piece would have needed to make choices over which figures to use to achieve this realistic look. This film in my opinion really shows the game to be immersive, even the emotions on the action figures faces show me that when playing the game you will feel the emotions of the people on the screen. Using the tagline ‘Believe’ for the video acts as something to get viewers thinking, do we believe that the toys are real, or do we believe the characters are real when we are playing the game. This is a way to get us to feel for the characters in the film and game, and hopefully keep people playing the game. Using toys may be seen by some people as a bad way to advertise a video game, but this film proves it can work. So why use toys in a video game advert, I think this is because toys are versatile tools to use, they can be positioned to play out any scene you want, and with clever uses of camera angles fool your mind into thinking what you are seeing is real and put the message of the piece across.
When thinking about films using toys to put a message across everybody thinks of the movie Toy Story. It uses CGI toys to portray 3 stories, in Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. This creates a charming movie for any age of viewer, the reason behind this is because anyone can relate to toys, and we were all children once and can remember creating the imaginary scenes that we see Andy creating in the film. In Toy Story 3 we re-visit Andy when he is moving away to college; this film especially resonated with me having just moved away to university myself. The use of toys in this film helped us connect to the characters and feel the emotions they were feeling. Using toys gives us something to connect to, we have to learn a lot about a human character in a film before we can connect to them, but with toys this is instant so we can connect with what’s going on. I think this is one of the big reasons why the Toy Story franchise is so popular with people of all ages, because we were all children once so can imagine the toys being real like when we created imaginary stories with our toys. Toys are so versatile that they have the ability to become almost human in our eyes, when watching Toy Story we forget we are watching a story about toys, and get sucked into the story. Toys can be used to put across many different messages, and can be manipulated into what you want them to be. A toy can be placed into any scene and a story will be played out. In films they use toys, especially in toy story to help us connect to the story and the characters easily.
These are the same reasons photographers use toys in their images. Film and photography are similar in many ways, using toys to grab their audience and keep them and manipulating the toys to portray a message to the viewers. But films use toys to trick us into believing they are real, or to make us forget we are watching toys and really feel for the characters. This is still true with David Levinthal’s early work, but looking at the filckr photographers of today, and people who photograph Lego mini-figures, they don’t really want to make the scenes look real, the want to create a fully fictional scene from toys. Then again there are photographers like Mike Stimpson, who like to recreate films and photographs from Lego, so this could be seen as fooling your eye into believing what you see is real. It seems everybody uses toys in a different way to achieve their project, but then this is the nature of a toy. Even if a child had the same toy as the one next to him, he would not be playing out the same imaginary story with his toy as the child next to him. This is showing the power of the imagination and how it can inspire people to create art, films and photographs. The fact that toys can be manipulated into any message, create any scene and tell any story is one of the main reasons people choose to use them. I certainly use them to portray a message and to keep my audience hooked onto my images as they remember playing with the shown toys as a child. Researching how many other people have used toys in their work, has really helped me understand why I like using toys to tell my stories, it is something we can all relate to, and toys can be manipulated to tell any story I want. I can light the scene in many different ways to change the atmosphere of the story, so I can tell any story, or let the viewer imagine their own narrative like children do when they play with toys. Charles Baudelaire described artistic creativity in The Painter of Modern Life as “nothing more or less than childhood recovered at will.” And I believe you do have to have a sort of playfulness when creating art, an innocence, so you can stop look around and see the beauty that has always been around you, you just have to look with your imagination like a child would and create something new.