Original photograph: from ‘Woman’ 1971 by Akira Sato rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Spiraea aruncus (Tyrol) 1881-1884 (cyanotype) by Anna Atkins rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: From Sentimental Journey, 1971 by Nobuyoshi Araki rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Untitled # 20, 2000-03, by Bill Henson rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Doe Eye Vogue Cover, January 1, 1950, model: Jean Patchett by Erwin Blumenfeld rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Portrait with Blue Hair, 2013 by Daniel Gordon rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Child with toy grenade, NYC, 1962 by Diane Arbus rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Patti Smith, 1979 by Robert Mapplethorpe rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Bar Girl in a Brothel in the Red Light District, Havana, 1954 by Eve Arnold rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Leonard (Red) Jackson, Harlem, 1948 by Gordon Parks rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Untitled, 1977 by Guy Bourdin rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Romania, 1975 by Henri-Cartier Bresson rendered in play-doh rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Gypsy, Lourdes, France, 1971 by Josef Koudelka rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Nuit de Noël, 1963 by Malick Sidibe rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Original photograph: Self-portrait by Seydou Keita rendered in play-doh © Eleanor Macnair
Eleanor Macnair began the tumblr blog Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh in August 2013 on a whim in response to a photographic pub quiz run by artists MacDonaldStrand. The project was published in book form in October 2014 and has been featured in The Observer Magazine, theguardian.com, The Telegraph, SEVEN magazine, PDN online, BBC online, Hyperallergic, Huffington Post, AnOther.com, Elephant magazine, Art Info, It’s Nice That, Emaho Magazine and Design Week among others. The work will be exhibited for the first time at Atlas Gallery in London from 2 October – 21 November 2015.
Eleanor Macnair interviewed by Karen Knorr
Karen Knorr: Last year you seemed to burst upon the photographic scene as an artist using play-doh and the camera as your tools. Tell us a bit more about your background. Did you study photography? Is this your first series?
Eleanor Macnair: This is my very first series or project and I think it is perhaps quite unusual in the fact that it started on a whim and without any real intention. I certainly had no idea that it would go as far as it had. The idea for the project came from artists MacDonaldStrand who held a photographic pub quiz, hosted by Miniclick in August 2013. One of the rounds was to reproduce a famous photograph in play-doh and so I stole their idea. I never had a lightbulb moment of I’m going to do this but I series of things just happened, like my local ASDA at the time stocked play-doh which it no longer does.
Quite a few times I’ve thought about stopping the project and that it’s reached its end point and has gone as far as it can go. Then I got offered the book and now an exhibition and I’m interested to see where else the project could take me.
KK: In 2014 your work rendered in Play doh was published by MacDonaldStrand/ Photomonitor. Sean Hagan reviewed the books and you garnered a lot of attention. Please tell me more about how this work began and its processes and its development into a book .
EM: As MacDonaldStrand inspired the project I think they like that I took it a step further, especially as it relates to some of their projects like the Most Popular of All Time. They approached me and asked if I wanted to make a book. I’d always seen it as an internet based experiment but I did like the idea of a book for two reasons. The first is simply that online platforms come and go, and it is an impossible task to archive the online. My original blog was a tumblr and who knows, in 5 years time it may be obsolete, and so a book seemed like a nice way to physically record quite an ephemeral project – ephemeral because the original renderings no longer exist and only I ever see them in their 3-dimensional state. I also like the idea of the images being like a Chinese whisper through time… you have the original subject, the eye of the photographer, the print the photographer made, the digital scan of the print hosted on a gallery or museum or editorial website, my 3-dimensional rendering of the photograph, my digital file on the internet, and then finally the image back in print in a book. I liked the idea of the journey of the image and what was lost, but also added, along the way.
I’ve worked with GOST and a couple of other publishers over the years and although I’m a big fan of self-publishing I have an understanding of the importance of a good editor, especially as the artist/photographer can sometimes be too close to the project to see it clearly. With this in mind I was happy to surrender aspects of the editing to others. In the end we went from the most recent photograph through to the oldest – so again it was like a journey through the history of photography.
Part of my motivation for continuing the project was that I was interested in our consumption of images and how we judge what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ both inside and outside of the art world. It’s been an experiment in how a project is consumed, judged and its reach. I’ve never made any claims about the project being ‘art’ or even any good at all – I’ve just thrown it out there and seen where it’s gone.
KK: How was the book edited? Many photographer now consider the book as the completed work. Is this your opinion?
EM: The works in the book were mainly the earlier ones so I see it as a record of the start of the project. There is a naivety in the works in the book and I like to think that it could stand on its own to a viewer with no knowledge of the internet life of the project, just to be enjoyed. My renderings have moved on quite a bit since the ones in the book so I like how it is a record of the golden age early years of the project!
KK: How do you consider your work in terms of photography and art?
EM: I don’t think of myself as a photographer or an artist – the play-doh thing is just something I do. I’m totally aware of the kitsch and whimsical elements of the project and I’ve never tried to position it as anything else.
I went to see the Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain last year and there was an artist, Mary Linwood, who had made embroideries of old master paintings that were exhibited widely, reached the attention of the Royal Family and Catherine the Great in Russia. In some ways I saw it as a historical precedent to what I was doing – many more people may have seen her renderings of the paintings than those who saw the originals – and she is still, 200 years later, considered to be in the realms of outsider or folk art.
KK: How do you choose which photographs to render and appropriate as your own work?
EM: I’ve often been frustrated by photographs which I love or find interesting which are unseen or unknown as they aren’t at the top of the internet pile nor fashionable, so overlooked for a multitude of reasons.
I wanted to utilise the quirky art on the internet factor but do something different. You get projects like famous photographs remade in lego where you’d get Eisenstadt’s kiss in Time Square, Capa’s Falling Soldier and all the classics. I’ve wanted to try to do something a little more interesting by highlighting perhaps the lesser-known images and leading viewers down a different path. Yes, I do have some from the ‘canon’ of photography in the project but there are many more which are missing.
I also try for visual diversity – colour, form, subject matter. I try to imagine the tiles on my Instagram account and what it will look like if someone sees my account page to make it enticing.
I don’t comment or pass judgement on the images, say ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’ – if I render a photograph it’s merely my way of saying ‘look at this’. On tumblr I link to the original work and always hope that the viewer will go on to explore and discover more work by the photographer. Once every couple of weeks I’ll receive a comment on instagram from a follower thanking me for introducing them to books of photography they didn’t previously know about, and for me this makes it all worthwhile. For me it’s more important to be a facilitator to lead people elsewhere rather than be considered an artist. I think if anyone had made over 200 images in play-doh, they would have reached a certain level of competence, so I hope that part of my selection of which images to feature has contributed to the success of the project.
KK: You worked as press officer at GOST. Has this job in fact given you access to photography or did you formally study it before?
EM: I don’t have a background in photography or the visual arts – in fact I gave up art aged 13 or 14 at school. The visual arts weren’t really part of my life growing up, although I do remember a Lowry print and a painting my granddad did on a bed sheet in POW camp in World War II at my parents house. As a teenager I’d often post up photography I liked from adverts in my room rather than film/music stars so maybe there has always been an interest in looking at interesting photography. I studied English at University and perhaps some of the ideas are transferrable to visual arts, the subtleties of language and multiple interpretations of meaning. I went on to work in fashion advertising in NY for two years as a photo-production assistant and it was when I was there that I first went to an art gallery – before that I just thought it wasn’t for me or didn’t understand the whole industry and world out there. I then moved back to London, studied journalism and ended up working in arts PR.
I was lucky enough to work with Michael Hoppen for four years which gave me a solid grounding in understanding both the photography world and its diversity. I remember there was a quote from a newspaper hanging on the wall in the gallery which read ‘to collect photography is to collect the world’ which has stuck with me. You don’t have to collect prints, you can collect books, or cut out images from newspapers, keep the images in your head or render them in play-doh – all part of collecting the world.
I then worked at the National Portrait Gallery and ended up focusing very much on their photography exhibitions and displays and then I did the press for the launch of Media Space at the Science Museum. I moved to White Cube for a year and in the last year I’ve become freelance so I can focus on working with photography galleries, publishers, organisations and individuals. So in a nutshell, I think I have picked up a knowledge and understanding of photography through osmosis – or a Good Will Hunting style of art education. This may be an advantage as I don’t come with baggage of critical theory about the visual arts and photography – I can view it perhaps with fresher eyes and from the perspective of those who know very little about it – because that was me not too long ago.
I think my day job of communicating art/photography projects has maybe played a role in a project. As a press person you have to take the ideas of an artist and often a curator and pull out the parts that will attract a journalist/editor or the public when you only have their attention for mere seconds. What will make the project stand out amongst so much competition and how do you condense complex visual ideas into language? It turns out, in this instance, the answer is play-doh.
KK: Does photography for you have a social role?
EM: Yes very much so. I’m fascinated by the internet and how images grow and diminish in importance – and also the web of connections and links and ways of discovering or unearthing work. So for me photograph very much has an online social role.
In the real world I also now have lots of friends who work in photography across the spectrum of the industry. I’ve found it to be a very supportive industry – but maybe that’s just my experience. Although when I meet my photography friends we don’t usually talk shop – we often get wrapped up in current affairs and books and history and ideas – again the idea of collecting the world. If we do talk about photography it’s often helping with advice and ideas for projects.
KK: You are about to have a solo show at Atlas. Are you making new work and how are you deciding which ones to exhibit?
EM: I shot the first half of the project so badly (it’s only ever been an amateur project) that I am going back and remaking some of the earlier works that both the gallery and I would like to be included. I think in maybe one out of every four play-doh images I nail it, and the others not so. In the exhibition will be those that I may have nailed. I’m also very keen on showing the diversity of photography through the ages so I wanted to have some early photographs shown alongside more contemporary images. It’s interesting as the gallery’s ideas of which images should be in the exhibition have pretty much tallied with mine.
KK: Being represented by a commercial gallery transforms work into something else as the work may become larger and less intimate. How are you addressing this in your work?
EM: I initially had concerns about this as the works themselves (produced on a chopping board) are small and detailed – but I was surprised at how they were transformed when printed larger. The colours are really strong and I hope that people can enjoy them on the surface just as a decorative image. Perhaps it is refreshing to do this without worrying about the intellectual framework behind a photograph – I hope that the viewer is just able to enjoy them for what they are – photographs rendered in play-doh.
KK: What is your next project?
EM: Life is an ongoing project!
Eleanor Macnair lives and works in London. She studied English at the University of Bristol before working in New York for Toth Brand Imaging. For the past 12 years she has worked in communications for a variety of galleries including Michael Hoppen Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Media Space (Science Museum), Grimaldi Gavin and White Cube. She is currently freelance for GOST Books, Magnum Photos and Future Artefacts alongside promoting projects for individual photographer.