Why do we like playing with toys? A look into how and why people use toys in art, photography and film making.
Charles Baudelaire described artistic creativity in The Painter of Modern Life as “nothing more or less than childhood recovered at will.” (1 http://www.davidlevinthal.com) 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. I like many photographers before me 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 photograph 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 my fascination with toys better. I started off researching David Levinthal because he was the first photographer I looked at that started my fascination with using toys in my photography.
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.’ (2 exposurecompensation.com)
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 background would be almost obscured by how blurry it was, but it has been changed into blurred colours for us to image what is there.
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.
He used large format Polaroid’s to photograph his sets, so he could achieve the short depth of field his images are so well-known for today. The shallow depth of field, meaning the blurred background and small centre of focus, 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, number nineteen from his Wild West series. 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.
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”. (3 http://www.exposurecompensation.com) 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’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 shallow depth of field, your eyes are focused wholly on the mini-figure. This 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 blurred background and how sharp the mini-figure is. Although I find I don’t like these photographs as much as his old work, because they lack the creativity and realism of old Levinthal works. I remember looking at some of his baseball series photographs and spending a while trying to work out what I was really looking at, I didn’t believe they were toys. With the Star Wars photographs, I know straight away that I am looking at Lego mini-figures; there is no mystery, nothing to make me look twice at the images. The images being blurred hinting at movement does relate to his early work, but they don’t have the same uncanny realism that fooled your mind when you first looked at them.
Mike Stimpson is a photographer who says ‘I seem to take a lot of photographs of toys. I also like messing about with light.’ (4 http://www.mikestimpson.com/photography.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 think back to when Dali was trying to capture the image, how it took many shots to get the photograph right. Dali had someone throw the cats and a bucket of water into the frame, and looking at this image I appreciate how long it would have taken to create the original image, and this re-creation of it. This photograph shows how easy it is to manipulate Lego to tell any story 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. I can create large sets to encompass the Lego and add to the narrative shown in the image. There are also photographers who use toys as a way to portray their desires or feelings.
Hans Bellmer created abstract doll-like figures that were photographed erotically. His work is said to be from his unconscious mind, and his sexual desire for younger women. Hans Bellmer’s dolls are very different to the works of David Levinthal and Mike Stimpson because his images are uncanny and creepy. I find myself turning away from them, like I don’t want to look at them. They are so disfigured that our eyes can’t comprehend what we are looking at. We see limbs and sometimes faces, and start to imagine nightmares. The uncanny is when something can be familiar but foreign to us at the same time, we can be attracted to an uncanny image but also repulsed by it at the same time, causing us to because confused and slightly frightened by the image. Someone looking at Bellmer’s work wouldn’t know if what they were looking at was a real manipulated person, or a doll. The figures are twisted and grotesque, but what makes the images interesting is that they are a projection of Bellmer’s mind, I can’t even fathom what he was thinking when creating them, and looking at the figures, I don’t think I want to. But there is something creepy about dolls, they sit with their big staring eyes unmoving until you may catch a glimpse from the corner of your eye and believe that it moved.
This is used to an advantage in horror films such as the Child’s Play franchise, the doll Chucky is used as the main adversary in all of the films. This makes the film seem even scarier because most people would have had a doll or figure sitting in their room at one point while they slept. The association with dolls and horror is now accepted, but Hans Bellmer’s figures still shock and repulse today. I think this is party to do with the sexual connotations the figures have, but also because they are so abstract that we must turn away before we look too closely and see something we didn’t want to see. Toys have been used in many different types of films not just horror, they can be used to tell a story or even as a tool to suggest realism.
This advert is for a video game called 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 game, and hopefully keep people playing it. 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.
A good example of the image of toys being used to film is the Toy Story franchise, true they are computer animated toys, but they still have the aesthetic of toys. Using toys means we can relate to the characters straight away, we take a while to connect to a human character on the screen, but with toys we all remember them from our childhood, and memories help us connect to the toys on-screen. This made the films resonate with children and adults because everyone can enjoy watching a story being played out by toys. Films can use toys to help the audience connect to the characters easily so more time can be spent on the main story than on character development.
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. Films use toys to make us forget we are watching toys and really feel for the characters. This is similar to David Levinthal’s early work where you had to spend a while really looking to see if he photographed people or toy figures, but looking at the Flickr 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 another child, 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.
Baudelaire says ‘A child sees everything in a state of newness, he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and colour’. (5 http://www.columbia.edu/itc/architecture/ockman/pdfs/dossier_4/Baudelaire.pdf Page8) This relates to how photographers take a photograph, they work with light looking for the colours and shadows it produces.
Children are fascinated by everything, because it is all new to them, and if a photographer can look at the world with that philosophy his practice can only benefit. Baudelaire would describe this as ‘a person who is never for a moment without the genius of childhood, a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale.’ (6 http://www.columbia.edu/itc/architecture/ockman/pdfs/dossier_4/Baudelaire.pdf)
The nature of play and toys means every time you pick them up a new scene can be made, a new story played out. We may lose this as we move into adulthood, but your inner child is still inside you.
Walter Benjamin said in Old Toys “When the urge to play overcomes an adult, this is not simply a regression to childhood. To be sure, play is always liberating. Surrounded by a world of giants, children use play to create a world appropriate to their size. But the adult, who finds himself, threatened by the real world and can find no escape, removes its sting by playing with its image in reduced form.’ (7 Walter Benjamin Old Toys Page 100) The photographers and artists who use toys in their work may use them because they find solace and security in what the toys represent, a way to hide from the world. Toys can be used in many different ways, to intrigue, amaze and repulse the viewer. Toys are so versatile that they can become anything, this is the nature of a toy, and how you use your imagination to create stories with them. Photographers use them because of this quality, how versatile they are, and they can be used in any situation. I use toys not to hide from the world or portray any hidden need; I have now realized I use toys because I enjoy building them into scenes and using my adult knowledge to make them into something more than just toys.