Eleanor Macnair, from 'Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,' original photograph: from Akira Sato's 'Woman' (1971)

Eleanor Macnair, from ‘Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,’ original photograph: from Akira Sato’s ‘Woman’ (1971)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Eleanor Macnair’s Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh are serious fun. Whether on Tumblr, where her re-imagined photographs first appeared, or in her recently published book of the same name, their cartoonish colors and shapes dazzle the eye. There’s also a wicked absurdity in seeing iconic images reproduced in a medium that we associate with childhood. (Most of us can probably remember exactly what the stuff tastes like.)

It’s precisely this reimagining that points to what’s profound about Macnair’s creations. They produce careful and sympathetic understandings of their source photographs, urging viewers to disengage from the hundreds of images that they see every day “on phones, computers, through adverts, on billboards and in newspapers.” We all need “to slow down,” as Macnair puts it in the book, “and to re-engage with familiar works as well as discover the unfamiliar ones.”

The project reminds me of John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. I don’t make that comparison lightly. Szarkowski’s brief, jewel-like essays provided convincing historical and aesthetic analyses of the photographs that he discussed. Macnair’s creations offer a different kind of knowledge — the renderings speak to our emotions and senses, leading us to understandings that go beyond words. They send us back to the original photographs with new eyes and insights.

Eleanor Macnair, from 'Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,' original photograph: Malick Sidibe, "Nuit de Noël" (1963)

Eleanor Macnair, from ‘Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,’ original photograph: Malick Sidibe, “Nuit de Noël” (1963)

Macnair began to post her renderings on Tumblr in 2013. From the beginning she attracted a strong fan base among professional photographers and photographic curators, some of whom suggested images for her to re-create. Yet most of her tens of thousands of Tumblr followers aren’t members of the photographic industry; perhaps because the renderings don’t rely on words to communicate their meaning, her reach has been global. The blog has regular visitors from places as diverse as Congo, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Iceland.

Macnair’s rules for the project are simple. She avoids pornography and photographs that have dead subjects in them. She declines requests from photographers to have their own work rendered. She always links to the original photograph, and she has fun.

*   *   *

John Edwin Mason: Let me begin by asking you how you got started. To put it another way, what put such an implausible idea into your head?

Eleanor Macnair: It all started on a whim at a photo pub quiz run by artists MacDonaldStrand, in Brighton [England], in August 2013. One of the rounds was to make a reproduction of a famous photograph using Play-Doh. As I say in the text in the book, it is said that you only need one good idea in life; I didn’t have one, so I used MacDonaldStrand’s idea — I just took it a step (or several steps) further.

I wanted to do something that wasn’t pretentious, that everyone could enjoy. Even after working in the art and photography world I sometimes find it exclusive and inaccessible. I didn’t study fine art or go to art school and didn’t have the right background or initially the right connections. So I think subconsciously I wanted to create something where that didn’t matter, either for me or the audience.

I’m still surprised by the popularity of the project. I’ve never had a plan, but I did think it would be interesting to see where it goes.

Eleanor Macnair, from 'Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,' original photograph: Martin Bogren, "Skane, Sweden" (2011–12) from the series 'Tractor Boys'

Eleanor Macnair, from ‘Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,’ original photograph: Martin Bogren, “Skane, Sweden” (2011–12) from the series ‘Tractor Boys’

JEM: These renderings are artistic creations in their own right. They’re not only well crafted, but they somehow manage to convey emotion. Have you studied art, or were you teaching yourself as you went along?

EM: I gave up art at the age of 13 or 14 at school. The art teacher gave me a really low grade, and so I just gave it up. You could say that I have a Good Will Hunting style of art education; maybe the fact that I don’t have a formal art education is an advantage. I’m not consciously over-thinking what I’m doing — I’m just simply recreating what I see.

The first ones really weren’t very good at all, and I do think if anyone had taken the time to make over one hundred images in Play-Doh, they would also have improved. This may be another reason people like the blog. It’s approachable, and they could have done it too. Play-Doh is cheap, about £1 a pot from the supermarket. People ask why I don’t make my own dough, but I think that would defeat the object — it would become too intentional as an “art project.” It amazes me that I just bought some Play-Doh from the supermarket, a chopping board, used an old knife and a glass as a rolling pin, and just over a year later, here I am with a book.

JEM: What are you thinking about or feeling as you work on a rendering?

EM: For the past 10 years I’ve been writing press releases for a living. When writing a press release I always assume that the reader has no previous knowledge of the artist or photographer, and doesn’t have the image in front of them. I use this as a starting point to ensure that there is an accurate visual description and really try to communicate what is important in a few words of straightforward language. I think, in some ways, I am doing the same thing with the Play-Doh.

I usually have the radio on, late at night, when I make the images and try to see what strikes me about the image and to try to capture this in limited colors. I try to pick out the details that really make the photograph — for example, a hand gesture or the fold on an item of clothing. Play-Doh is not a subtle medium.

Eleanor Macnair, from 'Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,' original photograph: "Doe Eye" Vogue Cover, January 1, 1950, model: Jean Patchett by Erwin Blumenfeld (click to enlarge)

Eleanor Macnair, from ‘Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,’ original photograph: “Doe Eye” Vogue Cover, January 1, 1950, model: Jean Patchett by Erwin Blumenfeld (click to enlarge)

JEM: Did you know that you wanted to make the renderings public on Tumblr from the beginning, or did that come later? 

EM: The Tumblr came very early on. I’d been working on a Tumblr for a museum to show more of their collections, and it seemed like an easy way to share the renderings with a few people I knew would enjoy them. I never imagined that the project would be so popular. Part of the blog’s success is due to the quirky art-on-the-internet factor. In some ways I realized I could utilize this but make it something more interesting. For example, I could have rendered Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “The Kiss” or Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl,” but I felt this would just be to get more views. Once I realized I had an audience I wanted to bring attention to photographs or projects that maybe they would otherwise never see. I’ve never wanted it to be obvious.

I do have favorite photographers — Joseph Szabo, Colin Jones, William Eggleston, Bruce Davidson, and Chris Killip, among others — which is an indication of my instinctive taste. But this isn’t at the exclusion of everything else. I wanted the Tumblr to try and capture the diversity of photography as a medium — early photographs, documentary, anonymous, fashion, conceptual. Some styles of photography just work better in Play-Doh.

I’ve tried to get some diversity, especially internationally. The problem is, though, that it’s mainly American, European, and perhaps Japanese photography I come across and draw from — which I admit is a downfall of the blog. I’m also aware that there is a lot of amazing work by older or marginalized photographers that just hasn’t been digitized. It worries me that this work will be passed by entirely in the future and disappear because it doesn’t have a strong digital presence.

Eleanor Macnair, from 'Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,' original photograph: Josef Koudelka, "Gypsy, Lourdes, France" (1971)

Eleanor Macnair, from ‘Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,’ original photograph: Josef Koudelka, “Gypsy, Lourdes, France” (1971)

JEM: In some cases, you’ve had to render black-and-white photographs in vividly colorful Play-Doh. Did you ever hesitate to transform a black-and-white image into color? That is, did it ever seem to be a step too far? And, once you made that step, how did you decide what colors to use?

EM: It’s extremely hard to get black Play-Doh in the UK (although not as hard in the US, I believe) and white Play-Doh gets dirty quickly. So, much of the decision to render black-and-white photographs in color was due to practicalities and just using the Play-Doh I had at my disposal. If I had been able to just use black-and-white Play-Doh I’d have had to mix many shades of grey to try to replicate and differentiate between any details in the photograph. As I had color at my disposal, I just used color instead. One of my self-imposed rules is not to mix the colors, apart from the flesh tones — so that the final pictures remain as “out of the packet” as possible.

When I make a black-and-white photograph in color I have to both imagine the colors in the original photograph and decide which of the limited colors I do have will work well together. I like to describe it as a Chinese whisper — from the original scene and subject, to the photographic print, to the digital file I find on the internet to use as a source, to the three-dimensional image in Play-Doh, to the digital file which is used on the blog, and now to the printed book. At each stage it gets further and further away from the subject, so I just hope I retain something of the original.

Eleanor Macnair, from 'Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,' original photograph: Seydou Keita "Self-portrait" (click to enlarge)

Eleanor Macnair, from ‘Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh,’ original photograph: Seydou Keita “Self-portrait” (click to enlarge)

JEM: One last question. Do you have as much fun making the renderings as people have looking at them? This must be the case, since you can’t seem to stop.

EM: Yes, I do enjoy it, and the moment I no longer enjoy it I’ll stop. When I hear about people who have discovered new photography, or become interested in photography full stop, through the blog, this gives me a reason to continue.

The great thing about this project is that I don’t have to comment on the photographs I chose or pass judgment. It’s as if I can just say “here, see this” and lead viewers somewhere interesting, to something I think is worth seeing.

Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh can be found on Tumblr. The book is available from MacDonaldStrand.

John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. He is writing a critical study about Gordon Parks's photo-essays.