The Secret Life of Dolls

When I was 12, I decided to photograph my barbie dolls having sex, driving fast, smoking, and dancing on lighted mirrors that doubled as a dance floors. Dolls were never just dolls to me, they were a way to “live through” reproductions. When I first saw this collector’s photographs, I was amazed at how well she captured a girl`s secret life with dolls. Because we were never just dressing our dolls and braiding their hair, we were making them human.

*Have you always been interested in dolls?

Not really. A lot of my collecting acquaintances were early enthusiasts and kept their dolls pristine, but I wasn’t like that. Unfortunately, I was one of those children who drew on her dolls and pulled their heads off, or so my mother tells me. I liked them, but only as much as I liked my other toys. I just wasn’t a born collector. I didn’t start collecting until I was about 15. I was always interested in reading and drawing, though. I liked avatars, myths, metaphors, and other ways of recreating the world. I think that’s where it came from.

*What was the first doll that you owned?

Probably a load of fashion dolls that my older sister kept in a shoe box on top of the wardrobe. She didn’t want me to wreck them. I was allowed supervised play with them then back they went. Or maybe all of the chubby tween dolls that I inherited from my cousins — they had hair that grew in rows which appalled me. My cousin’s parrot had chewed holes in their heels. I called them all Susan, probably after Susan in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”. I didn’t like her very much. I have vivid memories of my only childhood Barbie — “Pretty Changes”. I still have her.

*Did you view your dolls as more human and less toy?

As a child, I didn’t distinguish much between people and things. For instance, the curtains in my parent’s bedroom had a personality, so toys were always going to be pretty real to me. I think most children are like that it’s just that adults often forget how that felt. Actually, I still don’t make a clear distinction between people and things… although I don’t mean that in a “my dolls come alive when I’m asleep” way. It’s not something that I can rationalize myself all the way out of and I’m not interested in trying. Anyway, if you give a thing a face and a name, I think you must be slightly psychopathic if you are capable of viewing it entirely as an object. I’m very suspicious of Barbie torture artists.

*How do you seemingly capture human like interactions with barbie dolls?

To pose dolls, you need to be aware of how the human body bends and how it differs from a doll body. One of the main mistakes I see people make when they photograph dolls is to turn the head too far to the side. Humans can only comfortably turn their heads to just in front of their shoulder. It looks unnatural to take it further than that. It’s an empathy exercise.  I think like… “How would it feel to hold myself like that?”

*Are any of your photographs replicas of people that you’ve known or observed?

There are many different reasons why people take doll photos. You could simply be showing off your collection or mimicking high fashion shoots/showing off clothes, illustrating something special and unique about a particular doll, expressing an emotion that you’re currently feeling, telling a story, trying to make the best photograph that you can, or showing something that has happened to you. I have photographed a few scenes from my life using dolls. It was a strange experience and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t do it often.

In my doll sharing circle, people (including me) have developed a habit of choosing doll avatars to represent friends in photographs. Mostly, they are people who live far away and won’t get to meet in person. It’s a different way of integrating someone you consider to a be a friend into your life. I think it’s cute.

*Dolls cannot change facial expression so how do you capture emotion without the human element of expression?

Well, that’s a challenge isn’t it!  I love seeing how other people tackle this issue. You can do a lot with lighting, body language, camera angle, context and scene setting. Some doll head sculpts are more versatile than others.  A lot of collector/photographers opt for non-smiling or half smiling dolls because it’s easier to assign multiple emotions to them. My favourite head sculpt is Mattel’s Mona Lisa faced “Lea”. I think Lea can easily be made to look triumphant, amused, sarcastic, angry, or wistful. It just depends on how you approach the picture.

*Would you like to see more “true -to -life” dolls?

No. If I was interested in true-to-life dolls, I would be a BJD collector. Some of those things practically breathe. I am always interested in improved articulation and I like looking at realistic dolls but I don’t collect them – not at the moment, anyway. Stylised, even cartoonish dolls are a more obviously an interpretation of reality rather than a replica and they say something about the concept of beauty at the time they were made… which I find interesting. Just because a Picasso isn’t a Titian or Vermeer, doesn’t mean it’s less enjoyable to look at.

*What is your favorite childhood memory of dolls?

I have a couple. One that makes me laugh: When I was about seven, I made a bikini out of red Easter egg foil for my Pretty Changes doll. It was quite risque because I wanted to see how my mother would react. She was good about it. I remember her first saying “That’s very nice dear, but isn’t it a bit brief?”

The one I think has the most bearing on how I ended up: I remember being in a department store at twilight on a cold day, just as all the lights were coming on outside. I was standing in front of this huge display  of pink doll boxes, a tower of them three times the height of my head. It was breathtaking.

*Have you ever considered marketing your photographs as album covers or art?

Selling them? I don’t know about that. Some people fund or part-fund their collecting habit by selling a particular skill they have – making clothes, repainting doll faces in an attractive way, or re-rooting ( giving dolls new hair). Some people buy up doll stock from shops when they think a certain doll will be popular and try to sell it for profit but that is financially risky. Very, very few people make a living from their doll hobby, and there are a lot of driven and amazingly talented people out there so it’s a competitive field. I’m not a real photographer, I don’t even own a camera. I just take pictures of dolls and mess about them. If somebody approached me to do any of those things, I’d certainly consider it, but I doubt that will ever happen. Plus, you have to remember that Mattel, (the manufacturer of the dolls) have a fiercely overprotective legal department, so I’d probably get sued.

*What would you like to photograph in the future?

I’m just on the brink of getting my first doll room, which is a pretty big thing for a collector. This means that I can finally build permanent dioramas so I can take pictures of dolls in indoor scenes. This will mean that in the future, I will probably be doing more work on my “character dolls”-  dolls with backstories and relationships. I’m quite excited about that!

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