It was a simple pub quiz round that unexpectedly led British artist Eleanor Macnair to her creative winning formula—recreating famous photographs in Play-Doh. After making her first Play-Doh photo recreation for a quiz a few years ago, she decided to make some more and shared them on a Tumblr page for fun. “Within two or three weeks it had hit somebody’s blog as one of the best new Tumblrs,” she told me, when we spoke a couple of years ago. Her images are as accurate as they could be in Play-Doh, full of life and often picking up on the most characterful elements of a photograph: the look in the subjects eye; the flick of a hand.
“I’m interested in the journey of images; from the photobooth, to Breton’s studio, they’ve ended up all over the world”
Now, the British artist is bringing her humorous, highly observative images to Elephant West, with a series of large-scale works depicting surrealists rendered in Play-Doh. They are taken from small black and white snaps from Parisian photobooths. “It’s been a bit of detective work” gathering the source material together, she tells me. The original series of images hit the headlines in 2003, when items from the André Breton collection went to auction, revealing photobooth (or photomaton, as the source of these “automatic photos” was known in Paris) shots of Max Ernst, Suzanne Muzard, Yves Tanguy and more.
“When I started doing the Play-Doh project, I was doing random photographs here and there,” Macnair tells me, “and when I did my most recent show in Germany, I decided I needed to structure it a bit more. So I did an exhibition called Sofas, Birds and Knees, which was exactly what it sounds like: pictures with sofas, birds and knees in them. So for this show I decided these nine works would work nicely together. I had made one at that point already, the [Jacques-Andre] Bouffard, which I think is one of my favourites I’ve ever done. On a very practical level, the head is a very good size for doing a Play-Doh work.”
The artist will be playing around with scale in the exhibition at Elephant West, which opens tonight. As well as six images that will each be larger than two metres, she has printed some works to a smaller size. “There are also much smaller prints, in my usual size, and there is another set which is photo booth size,” she tells me. “I think it’s funny that the main criticism of contemporary photography is that it’s often just big colourful photographs that you blow up really big and put a high price tag on them. So it’s playing around with that a bit. And I’m also interested in the journey of images; from the photobooth, to Breton’s studio, they’ve ended up all over the world, and then in my living room and now blown up really big and really small. It changes in each state.”
“I think the eyes in the pictures I do can make or break them”
In the selection of nine portraits on show, Breton is seen straightening his classes, Boiffard puffs casually on a cigarette and Muzard conceals half her face with the dead fox that is draped over her shoulder. The Play-Doh makes them appear as though they really are caught in motion—not only because the material calls to mind the expressive movements of stop-frame animation figures—and somehow, even more than photographs of real-life, three-dimension people, they seem to pop from the image. “I make them between two and three dimensions,” Macnair tells me, “and it’s strange how they always look much more three-dimensional in the photo.”
There is a subtly of expression in all of them that belies their simple construction and materials. “I’m in my slightly less naive phase now,” the artist tells me. “There’s no way it can ever not be slightly naive but you have to work very quickly. It spoils very quickly. If you touch it too much… so they’re always only going to be like sketches, but I think that’s nice. I think the eyes in the pictures I do can make or break them. And often in the images I do the eyes are closed. And it’s about whether I can still get some expression in there.”
As well as the nine portraits, the exhibition will be full of photographs of Play-Doh eyes—in a nod to both the surrealist exploration of the eye itself and to the subjects in all her previous works. Macnair has created wallpaper that is collaged with a multitude of eyes from her archive. This will serve as the backdrop to her new series of portraits. “It seemed a perfect opportunity, almost like a retrospective of all my works,” she says. “I think I shot around 160 pairs of eyes, and it seemed like a way of drawing back on the archive. Also the motif of the eye and seeing and the unconscious was so important in surrealism. Often in a portrait, the thing I spend the longest time thinking about is the eyes. When I shoot them I always try to get eye contact.”
Macnair’s practice hinges on both an extensive knowledge of and love for photography, and a broad accessibility. At Elephant West she will be running workshops for both children and adults, inviting them to take self-portraits in a purpose-built photomaton, which can then be recreated in Play-Doh. “For the kids workshops, it’s very much getting them to think about it as an interpretation, not a copy. So thinking about the composition and the background. And thinking about the things that are important: whether you can get a certain gesture with a hand. Also, getting them to enjoy it. There’s no right or wrong. With the adults, I was thinking along the lines of the colouring books that were very popular. It’s a very meditative thing. You can really get focussed.”
Eleanor Macnair: Surrealists Rendered in Play-Doh
Until 5 January at Elephant West, LondonVISIT WEBSITE