Interview with London photographer Anne O’Hara
When did you begin photographing mannequins and dolls?
O’Hara: I started photographing dolls and mannequins in particular about eighteen months ago. I was taking photos of still life before that – vintage vases, handbags, perfume bottles and the odd figurine or statue, but I owned a few vintage dolls, a china clown and a soft toy with a rabbit’s face and when I took some photos of them one day, I was struck by how photogenic they were and knew I’d want to take more.
How do you find the mannequins and dolls you photograph?
Quite a few of the dolls are given to me by family or friends, either on loan or to keep, others are discovered at charity shops or car boot sales and I also look at auction or on eBay. Then there are commissions where someone asks me to photograph their doll and I have to give these back. In January, I was given five vintage mannequins from a college design faculty which was an incredible gift. Getting them home by car in London rush hour traffic was great fun. I’m still not sure we’d have been able to explain all the limbs and body parts if we’d been pulled over by the police.
The lighting makes the dolls/mannequins seem incredibly alive. How do you go about lighting them?
I’m so pleased you think that. I’m not at all technical as a photographer and would never pretend to be, but if someone says the mannequin or doll looks alive, I’m genuinely thrilled, because that’s all I set out to do – to bring it to life.
When it comes to lighting a subject, I first had the idea of using natural sunlight when I noticed the sun shining through a bottle of my violet perfume and casting a fantastic blue shadow all the way up the wall behind it. I took a photo of the shadow without the flash on and liked the effect. I’d also been watching a 70’s Italian horror film called Macchie Solari and there’s a character in the film who explains how he’d wait hours for the sun to illuminate a building or statue before he had the perfect light to photograph it and I thought, yeah, that’s the idea!
Macchie Solari means ‘sun spots’ in Italian and that’s what I’d discovered on my wall that day. I built myself a small portable studio which is essentially a black backdrop and I follow the sunlight round the walls or surfaces in the rooms and take photos wherever the sun goes next.
Is there any particular music you listen to while creating your work?
There is and I tend to listen to the same albums over and over again while I’m working. It’s mainly Patrick Wolf, a lot of Rowland S. Howard stuff like Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, and The Associates too. One note of Billy Mackenzie’s voice and I’m off and inspired for hours.
Why use natural light for your work instead of artificial? You incorporate shadows into the photos a lot as well.
In a professional studio environment you can create stunning lighting effects and make sure everything is set up exactly how you want, but sunlight is completely unpredictable. You can’t control it or position it, you have to move around and adapt a lot which actually makes the whole process quite magical.
I like to use shadow because it can change a doll or mannequin’s features or expression entirely. For instance, the sun can hide behind a cloud one minute and it all looks a bit flat and unexciting and then 30 seconds later, the sun’s back out, it hits the mannequin’s face at a certain angle and what you see through the camera now looks totally different than if you were standing back looking at the mannequin yourself. Even their skin tone, hair and eyes can change colour.
I know it’s just the shadow playing tricks and the effect could be created with artificial light too, but when the sun comes out and I look through the lens, I feel like I’ve been allowed into this secret world or portal where the doll or mannequin’s personality literally lights up and I’m shown a glimpse of the ‘real’ them.
If you could photograph someone from the past, who would you like to?
Hmmm, there’s so many to choose from, but it would probably be the Italian actor Alessio Orano who was in lots of European films in the 70’s, like Lisa and the Devil and The Killer Must Kill Again. He has the most exquisite face and ability to look angelic one minute and a real villain the next, so he was often cast as these really suave or insane characters and I’ve always imagined he’d be a joy to photograph.
Otherwise, if you put me in a room full of original Pierre Iman’s wax mannequins, I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d be terrified using the sunlight though, in case they all melted.
You are very involved in the art world, what is your favorite medium to use and see?
Well, I grew up surrounded by a lot of photographers and writers, both in my family and family friends and photography is something I’ve always been interested in. I studied drama at school and university so I love dance and theatre too. Ventriloquism is also something I’m drawn towards and because of Jim Henson and growing up with TV programs like The Muppets, I’ve always loved puppetry and animation. In fact, animation is something I’d like to explore with the dolls in the future.
Paul, Val, Kenny and Moses are based in a fantasy world.
This is no doubt Jim Henson’s fault too. The type of fantasy-rich children’s programs we watched in the 70s like The Clangers or Bagpuss, meant that, to me, a talking cloth cat was quite normal and I can’t ever remember watching Bagpuss or Miss Piggy or Kermit and thinking they were surreal or odd, they were just great characters and I loved them.
My mum says I was a very anthropomorphic child and had a very vivid imagination though and I do remember reading that all inanimate objects have an inner life and this stuck with me from an early age. Obviously, as an adult, I know the dolls are dolls and aren’t real, but I still enjoy inventing little histories for them, and on my website there’s a profile for each of them which no one ever seems to read, but I enjoy updating anyway. I write short stories too, and again, this is an avenue I’d love to involve the dolls in, either story boards or short films.
What period of dolls is your favorite?
My favourite period is definitely the 1950s and 60s. Dolls are very life-like or educational now and these ultra realistic “Reborn dolls” that look exactly like a human baby and weigh the same are probably the way doll design is moving forward, but I don’t quite see the appeal myself, even though they’re obviously extraordinary.
Vintage dolls are so colourful and cartoon-y and are often beautifully crafted and can stand the test of time. I can see why a 1950s teddy with a grinning clown or animal face might be seen as surreal, sinister or a bit child unfriendly nowadays, but they have so much character and are especially quirky and interesting to photograph.
Your work spreads over different cultures, what is your strongest influence?
I draw on lots of different cultures really including art and music and film. I’ve been a fan of Italian horror and Giallo since I was about twelve or whenever we first bought a video and there were often mannequin and doll motifs in the films, especially Mario Bava’s films, which I adore. But I’m also influenced by photographers like Andres Serrano. His subject matter couldn’t be more different of course, but his formal approach to his subjects and the simple backdrops have inspired me a lot.
You say dolls have different personalities that are better expressed in natural sunlight.
Sunlight can make a doll look like it’s smiling in one photo and sad in the next and although I sometimes think I’m imagining it or only I can see the transformation, I’ve lost count of the times friends have seen one of the dolls or mannequins ‘in person’ and said “but she looks so different!” This is especially true of the mannequins because I don’t leave wigs on them at home so no one recognizes them ‘off duty.’
I’ve tried photographing friends using the sunlight technique but it’s almost impossible as none of us can cope with direct sun in our eyes for more than a few seconds. The dolls obviously can though and they never complain.
Has there ever been a personality that scared you or was difficult to photograph?
The night I got back from the college with the five mannequins in tow was a bit unnerving and I did sleep with the lights on just in case they started moving about or putting the kettle on or something, but apart from that, I’ve never been frightened by a doll I’ve photographed, not yet anyway. That said the dolls can be difficult to pose sometimes. I’ve had ones that don’t sit up very well or are floppy and have slipped forward and brought the whole backdrop crashing down on top of them, me and the camera. I’ve caught a few toppling mannequins just in the nick of time too.
Do you come up with the names for the dolls?
Most of the time, I do, but friends have started getting in on the act and suggesting names too. If the dolls are loaned to me, they’ll usually have a name already and its lovely finding out where the name comes from. I like old fashioned names, but I swear, a name will occasionally pop into my head and I haven’t got a clue why I said it – like my ‘muse,’ Barbara. It wasn’t the most obvious choice for a sultry 1960s French mannequin but it fits her perfectly now.
How many do you have in your personal collection?
Quite a few. I’m trying to focus on commissions these days so I don’t bond with them all and insist on keeping them. I currently have eleven mannequins at home – four full sized girls while the rest are half torsos. They actually blend in quite nicely with the cream walls though and I honestly don’t notice them that much anymore.
The sweet mask-face dolls I collect are fairly small and don’t take up much room. My argument is that after forty or fifty years in a loft or a suitcase, they’re happy to find themselves in a safe new home, with a little family of dolls just like them.
Growing up, did you have a doll that you were particularly attached to?
Not as I recall. I was a very performance-orientated child and liked putting on puppet shows and productions with my toys, but I didn’t have a favourite I don’t think. I’ll have to ask my parents and see if they tell a different story, but the only toys I can remember carrying around with me was a green Greedo figure from Star Wars and Maximilian from The Black Hole.
What was the first doll you photographed?
In terms of what I’m doing now, it was probably Paul, my china clown or Moses, the walking rabbit. I had those long before I started my website. The first mannequin I photographed was Erin, a vintage swan neck model who I’d had in my old flat for years and who probably inadvertently started my mannequin fixation off.
What type of camera do you use and how much is digital versus film?
I use digital cameras all the time now and all of the photos on my website were taken with a Samsung or a Canon camera. My dream is to take a series of photos using a vintage camera made and sold the same year as the doll and that’s a project I’m working towards later next year hopefully, and possibly for an exhibition.
What has been an interesting experience while shooting?
I enjoy every shoot and the fact that they’re never the same twice, even if it’s the same doll I’m shooting. It’s hard to explain, but there’s always a point about half way through a photo shoot where I think I’ve tried every angle and there may be one or two shots that are ok, and it’s almost like the mannequin hears me and thinks, “Oh, she’s finishing up, I’ll give it another go” and that’s when the sun will appear, her face will light up completely and I end up getting hundreds of shots.
I’d best describe what I do as taking formal portraits of dolls and mannequins with the added complication and stubborn insistence on my own part of using only sunlight to do so. If I have one aim with the photos, it’s that, in a parallel universe, the dolls or mannequins would want to hang the photos on their own walls and look back on them one day with pride.