The History of Toy Photography, A Timeline
The history of photography dates back to the 1800s, 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…” (1) 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.” (1) 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.” (1)
Within fabricated photography is tableau, portraiture, and still life. Within tableau photography is toy photography.
- 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.” (1)
Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths began to create the images, later referred to as the Cottingley Fairies in 1917. These photos of cardboard fairies captured the public’s attention as proof of the existence of fairy creatures when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used them to illustrate a story in 1920. The truth behind the photos, while it had been questioned, was not revealed until the early 1980s.
Edward Weston, considered a master of photography and one of the most influential 20th centery photographers, once photographed Mexican toys in 1925.
“The most extraordinary photographs ever taken of air flights in war.” (The Illustrated London News) were some 50 images compiled in the book ‘Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot‘ (a book still available for purchase today) published in 1933. These images however were of model planes and created by model maker Wesley David Archer. Examined and believed to be of models, by a CIA photo expert in the early 1950s, deemed as fake by Time-Life Laboratory in 1979, these photos were not officially proven false until after Archer’s death, when some of his belongings were given to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1984, over 50 years after their publication.
The most famous photo of the Loch Ness Monster was captured in 1934 by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson. This photo however was actually of a 14 inch toy submarine with an attached serpent head. This was not revealed however for another 60 years, when one of the men involved confessed on his deathbed.
Dare Wright published The Lonely Doll books from 1957 to 1981. While she both wrote and illustrated the stories, her illustrations were posed photographs of a doll, Edith and her bear friends. She also published a fairy tale story of Lona, another featured doll, in 1963.
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.
It is in the 1970s that toy and miniature photography gained traction as fabricated photography came to the forefront of the photographic medium. It is because of this that David Levinthal can be called the father of miniature photography.
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 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.
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.
1990s and Beyond
In 1992 the first I SPY book was published, and those books continued to be published up through 2012. While we’ve all heard of them, did you ever think about who set up and photographed all those toy arrangements? Walter Wick is the man responsible and is still currently a working photographer.
Referring to herself as a faux landscape photographer, Lori Nix is known best for her still photos of small scale post apocalyptic worlds. She bagan photographing small worlds in the 1990s, but is still active today in her work with Kathleen Gerber.
Michael Paul Smith, a diverse model maker, who began posting his work to flickr in 2003, photographed his model cars outdoors in the real world with forced perspective. While he’s received online media attention, going viral in 2010, he had been photographing toys for over 25 years.
In modern day, there are plenty of us who create images with toys and miniatures. Some have gotten bigger in the internet limelight than others, but overall toy photography’s history is still developing, and has a long and winding way to go.
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