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How did you discover photography? As a child, I loved poring over magazines with photographs showing places beyond my own narrow suburban world. I first worked with photography by chance, as an intern at a fashion advertising agency in New York. I would handle lots of photographers’ portfolios and do lots of administrative work for shoots. When I moved to London, I found a job at a press office at a photography gallery, which may have been my first intentional step to working in photography. I sometimes describe it as the Good Will Hunting school of art and photography, or just one big continuous act of chance—the wind blew me in this direction.

How did you begin working in Play-Doh? I’m friends with the art duo MacDonaldStrand. One day, I went to a photographic pub quiz they were running, and one of the rounds was to remake a famous photograph using Play-Doh. Then it was just a series of random events which led to the project: I saw some Play-Doh in the local supermarket and thought it might be fun to buy some to entertain on a long work trip I had to take. Then a friend came around, and we both made stuff using the Play-Doh and shared them on Twitter. So, the Play-Doh thing was by chance and the project was never intentional.

What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your style? I didn’t study fine art or photography, so perhaps I am lucky that I’m not clouded by the weight of knowledge, or by being taught how to create in one particular way. My style began as naive, and continues to be so. I also keep my tools amateur—off-the-shelf Play-Doh, an empty wine bottle as a rolling pin, a chopping board, water, cotton wool buds, and a knife—so that my projects have the feeling that anyone could have done this.

It’s essential that my work is accessible, that it’s a bridge between the casual images we devour on our phones and the sometimes closed-off art and photography world. I didn’t visit an art gallery until I was living in New York in my early twenties, so it’s important that my work is for everyone. I didn’t think that art was for me, and I thought that I wasn’t allowed to engage or ask questions about it. Now I know differently, and I want others to feel the same way too.

What are the specific challenges of working with Play-Doh? I find that making profiles and any image with three or more figures is difficult. Since the figures have to be so small, they become fiddly, and it’s hard to get any expression in the faces and not make them look grotesque. I’m also no good at smiles! People have asked if it’s my artistic intent to make my subjects look sad, but truth be told, it’s just technical inability. Also, ironically, for a children’s material, Play-Doh is incredibly difficult to work with. It doesn’t last, as it dries and cracks after a few hours, so you have to work quickly, and you can’t spend too long on a model. It’s also delicate and soft, easily showing all the imperfections and fingerprints.

You liken the process it takes to get from the original subject of the photograph to your work to a “whisper through time.” What is lost in the process? What is added? I think of the work as being like the children’s game Chinese whispers, in which participants stand in a line and the child at one end whispers a message into the next participant’s ear, and it continues down the line. As the message travels, it becomes distorted and often something else entirely. This is similar to my projects’ journeys, from the original subject of the photograph, to the print, to a JPG and the file I find on the internet, to my 3-D Play-Doh model, to my image file, which is then thrown back out into the world. What is gained or lost depends on each image—sometimes it’s a detail, sometimes it’s a color, sometimes an expression. There’s a different distortion each time, taking the image further away from the original. This is linked to how we consume images on the internet. They can become separated from their context, which changes their meaning over time.

I didn’t think that art was for me, and I thought that I wasn’t allowed to engage or ask questions about it. Now I know differently, and I want others to feel the same way too.”

How do you choose which photographs to re-create with Play-Doh? I have a “to do” folder with probably 1,000 images in it—all JPGs I’ve stumbled across or found online in museum collections and obscure blogs. On a simplistic, practical level, I think about the variety of the works on my Instagram account. For example, if I’ve just done a blue “big face” portrait, I may try to do an image with two figures and orange as the predominant color. This way, I can keep the audience engaged and have my account look aesthetically different. I also think about who has taken the photograph. Although my project does include some of the “big hitters,” I also like to find photographers whose work may be off the beaten track so I can intersperse these with the more well-known photographs.

How does re-creating a photograph in Play-Doh affect how you view or consider the original image? After looking at the photograph for a good few hours, I see details that usually go overlooked, like the gesture of a hand, the way a lock of hair is blowing in the wind or a missing button.

When I’m finished, my Play-Doh work becomes unconnected and independent from the original. My works are reinterpretations and not copies, and I tend to view them separately. Each remake is meant to be a tribute or a love letter to the original. I often get asked if photographers mind me reproducing their work. I always credit the source, and I hope they see my work in the spirit in which it is intended.

How has working in communications for photography galleries and publishers influenced how you market your work? Although I do PR as my “day job,” I’ve found that my Play-Doh project is something I’ve never had to do PR for. I make the images and stick them on Instagram and my Tumblr, and then they find their own way into the world. I find it excruciating to do my own PR, so I try to step back with this project. Working in PR, as an admin on the other side of the industry, means that I am organized, efficient, polite and professional. I don’t think people appreciate how important that is. No one wants to work with or go the extra mile for someone who is rude, dismissive or misses deadlines. Also, I think being on the other side has given me a sense of perspective.

Which photographers do you most admire? William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, John Myers and Joseph Szabo. And also, a younger set of photographers that I’ve been lucky enough to work with: Jonas Bendiksen, Rafal Milach, Amak Mahmoodian and Clare Strand, to name a few. I admire them for their work ethic, vision and humor, as well as their work.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career? Buy cheap; buy twice. This quote originally referred to bin bags, but I think it can be used as a metaphor for work. In your work, you may as well do things properly, with both feet forward and wholeheartedly, even if it costs you. Otherwise, what’s the point? You’re like a bin bag with no bottom.

Eleanor Macnair was born in Nottingham, United Kingdom, and studied English literature at the University of Bristol. She began the Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh project on a whim in August 2013, and it quickly reached an international audience. The project was first exhibited at the Atlas Gallery in London in 2015, Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs in Wiesbaden in 2016 and the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles in 2016. Macnair has also created a series of portraits from the National Portrait Gallery collections for a display in its bookshop gallery, as well as work for the exhibitions Sofas, Birds and Knees at Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs and Surrealists Rendered in Play-Doh at Elephant West. She has completed commissions for CULTURED, Cosmopolitan UK and Vogue Bambini. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers like the Guardian, the Telegraph and Vogue Italia, and other media outlets like BBC News and HuffPost. She currently lives and works in London.


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