Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Magnum Photos, artist Eleanor Macnair recreates photographs from the photo agency’s history in colorful clay sculptures
Eleanor Macnair is the founder of the ever-popular and much-lauded project, Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh, where she re-creates photographic icons in clay, and publishes the resulting sculptures to the internet. This year, to celebrate Magnum’s 70th anniversary, she has turned her attention to the Magnum archive, and selected 10 images to re-interpret in her signature playful style, using colorful clays to create temporary 3D sculptures of 2D images. This special project will also be available as an exclusive print series on the Magnum Shop.
More than whimsy, Macnair has been credited with helping to raise awareness of photography across the board, and her Play-Doh project has been published as a book and exhibited globally, with a new show opening at the National Portrait Gallery in London in May 2017. “My hope is that in recreating these images, I encourage those familiar with Magnum to look again at well-known photographs, and for those who are new to the history of the agency to discover these images the first time… and perhaps go on to find favourites of their own,” she says.
A self-taught artist, Macnair’s tools are amateur – off the shelf Play-Doh, a chopping board, a scalpel and an empty wine bottle as a rolling pin. After each sculpture is shot it is disassembled and the Play-Doh returned to respective pots to be used again for future renderings. In these images, the dark blue skyscrapers from the Elliot Erwitt became the waves in the sea in the Newsha Tavakolian, the background wall from the Chris-Steele Perkins became the handrail in the Bruce Davidson and the yellow balloon in the Thomas Dworzak became the blonde hair of the girl in the Martin Parr. The models no longer exist and the photographs are all that remain.
Here we explore the 10 images created by Macnair, and her very personal reasons for re-creating each, and, at the bottom of the page, we feature a slideshow of the original images which inspired her work.
Original photograph: Empire State Building, New York City, 1955, by Elliott Erwitt
I lived in New York for a couple of years when I was young and this image has always summed up some of my feelings about the city, its vastness, romance and possibilities. But also the loneliness. Rather than depicting the city with its sea of people, Elliott photographs a lone figure with the city as the backdrop rising through the fog. The image is originally black and white and one of the challenges of translating into colour is to make this work without drawing too much attention to the change. I chose to make the hat red, marking the individuality of the human figure against the muted tones of the cityscape.
Original photograph: New Brighton, from The Last Resort, 1983-85, by Martin Parr
Growing up in the UK and remembering seaside holidays, this image by Martin Parr has always made me smile. The children are so engrossed in the world around them that there is a trail of ice cream down their legs and on the road. The original photograph seemed perfect for Play-Doh as the colours mimicked that of an ice cream – the pink of the paving slabs and the pastel blue of the children’s clothes.
Original photograph: Prized Possession (#2), Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa, 2008, by Jim Goldberg
When I was growing up I had a mint green radio cassette player which was a prized possession, and this is why I have always been drawn to this image. Although mine was to listen to music, Wembe, in this photograph by Jim Goldberg, used to climb to the hill outside Mugunga refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his radio to listen for good news. I like to hope that Wembe still has his radio and that he got the good news he hoped for.
Original photograph: Girl with balloons, Grozny, Chechnya, Russia, March 2002, by Thomas Dworzak
This photograph, by Thomas Dworzak, was taken in the centre of Grozny in 2002, where little had been rebuilt in the years since the two recent wars. For me, what is striking about this photograph is the contrast between the signs of conflict in the landscape and girl’s colourful balloons. I’m fascinated by the ambiguity of the girl’s gesture of covering her face with her hands… is this a gesture of horror and upset, or a playful response of shyness, attempting to hide her face from the photographer?
Original photograph: RFK funeral train, 1968, by Paul Fusco
‘Funeral train’ is one of my favorite photographic series. Rather than showing the obvious—the stately funeral, formal mourning relatives—Fusco has turned the other way to portray a nation in mourning. The series is like a journey through the backyards of America and I love the sense of movement and the light, something which is impossible to replicate in Play-Doh. I chose this photograph due to the gesture of the two boys with their hands raised in solemn salute: a gesture on a sun-dappled idyllic day that Robert F Kennedy would never see, immortalised in this image.
Original photograph: The Necklace, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1999 by Alessandra Sanguinetti
Alessandra Sanguinetti’s series The Adventures of Guille and Belinda has always enchanted me. It speaks to me of those intense, close friendships you can only have as children, where the imaginary co-exists with reality. I love the pride in Belinda’s face as she stares directly at, yet through, the camera and I knew that I had to try to nail this when recreating it in Play-Doh, or the image just wouldn’t work at all.
Original photograph: Imaginary CD cover for Sahar, Caspian Sea, Mahmoudabad, Iran, 2011 by Newsha Tavakolian
This image intrigued me – why is the figure in the sea and what is she looking at? I wasn’t, at first, aware of the context of this series by Newsha Tavakolian, which focuses on women singers who are not allowed to perform solo nor produce their own CDs due to Islamic regulations in Iran, and this image is an imaginary CD cover for the singer, Sahar. Even without this context I was drawn to this image as it seemed timeless; the lone siren in the sea, a symbol of both beauty and danger.
Original photograph: Tricia and Curtis, Canada, 2005, by Alec Soth
I’m a big fan of Alec Soth but many of his photographs – landscapes and interiors – have a subtlety that wouldn’t translate into Play-Doh. It is not a subtle medium. In this image, from his Niagara project, I was first struck by the perspective, looking down at the couple, but more than that, although the setting in the grass is idyllic and they look to be in love, there is an inherent sadness, or perhaps a world-weariness, in their gaze.
Original photograph: Southend, England, 1977, by Chris Steele-Perkins
I’ve always loved photographs documenting sub-cultures and Chris Steele-Perkins The Teds is one of the best. This isn’t one of his best-known photographs from this project but I love its simplicity—it highlights the fashion and style, and most importantly, the attitude.
Original photograph: Subway, NYC, 1980, by Bruce Davidson
At first glance, Bruce Davidson’s Subway series shows a dark and dangerous side of New York in the early 1980s—you can almost hear, smell and feel the subway through these images. I was interested to see if there was some way to translate the extreme contrasts of shadow and color into Play-Doh. I chose to try to remake this photograph of two young lovers… a glimpse of tenderness and humanity amongst the grit and the noise of the subway.
The full collection of Magnum Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh is available as a special collector’s set of limited edition prints on the Magnum Shop today, and can be viewed here.
The original photographs which inspired Macnair’s clay interpretations can be viewed in the slideshow below.