We like to throw around the idea that we’re “telling stories” with our toy photographs, at least that’s what I’ve been telling people when they ask why I take photographs. However, analysing that statement critically, it doesn’t really make sense.

What I’m doing with my photographs is allowing the viewer to conjure up a backstory from the elements I’ve added to the scene and the emotions I’ve tried to suggest. This is obviously incredibly subjective and likely to be different for each viewer. I’m trying to imply a story, but this is quite different to actually telling a story. A story needs a start, a middle, and an end, and with a static medium like photography, that’s rather difficult to show.

The very existence of narrative photography is still in question, and searches for examples tend to lead to series’ of photographs rather than an individual image. So if I’m not partaking in narrative photography with my photos, what am I doing, exactly?

Most of the time toy photography would technically fall into the “Still Life” category, but it’s obviously much more than that. I strive to create scenes, either emotional or action-packed, that feel like they capture a slice of time from a living world. Photographing constructed scenes is not particularly common outside of toy photography, it seems.

Having done a bit of reading around the subject of artistic genres there are a couple that come close: “genre art”, which is normally reserved for paintings of everyday scenes, and “tableau” which is probably the closest to what we toy photographer tend to do. Cindy Sherman’s “untitled film stills” from the late 70s are the most famous example I can find of this genre.

I like the term “vignette” to describe small constructed scenes (which is almost impossible to Google when looking for photographic examples due to the lens effect that shares the name). I’ve seen it used in the LEGO community for a small self-contained scene, and it seems to suit the type of photography I do.

Creating “emotive vignettes” in LEGO is what I do. It doesn’t quite sound as romantic as “storytelling”, but it’s more descriptive, and correct, for me.

I feel there’s probably quite a lot more to be said about toy photography as a genre, and if you can tell a story in a single image. Feel free to contribute to the discussion in the comments. :)

There a also quite a few previous Stuck in Plastic posts on storytelling, for example:

The importance of stories – Shelly

Everybody has a story – Captain Kaos

Style, Influence and Storytelling – Chris McVeigh

No story implied. It’s just a robot reading a book about robots :)

– Mike

15 Replies to “Storytelling”

  1. Very timely post Mike, I was thinking of this very subject earlier today. I was thinking how I need a story line to move forward, I seem to be scattered with shooting. I’d like to see some comments on this subject, maybe that will help me come up with some ideas on a project for 2016.

    I must admit as I perused my 2015 photos for the “Best of” Challenge I felt I didn’t have a cohesive thread… Something I’d like to accomplish going forward.

  2. Great post, Mike! And what PERFECT image to coincide with this post. I’ve always admired (and, admittedly, tried to emulate) your ability to tell stories with these “emotional vignettes.” You always manage to get so much character and emotion out of your little creations and Stormtroopers.

    I too have long wondered what kind of genre my personal photography fits into. I often run into the problem when trying to classify my photography on sites where I sell prints. I am often asked to pick a genre for my photography, and am forced to choose between either highly limited or very broad options like “mixed media,” “pop art,” etc.

    On the subject of vignettes, it’s not just that it’s hard to distinguish between the short scene you’re talking about, and the lens effect. In the LEGO photographer community, I’ve noticed that “vignettes” also refer to scenes that conform to a set of rules, typically by building a scene on an 8×8 base. Chris McVeigh himself plays around with it, though he’s far braver than most and limits himself to a 6×6 square.

    My point is that, like the toy photography genre itself, it’s hard to narrow down or convey one’s own method or “genre” of photography. Perhaps it’s just because we LEGO lovers are a highly creative, inventive bunch!

    1. Ah yes, the ever troublesome categorisation on photo sites. I think only DeviantART has done it right so far, there’s a specific “still life – dolls and figures” category.

      I didn’t realise “vignette” had such a specific meaning in the LEGO community! That’s what comes from not being much of a builder I suppose. Shame, I much prefer vignette to “emotive tableau”, the latter sounds far too pretentious for my tastes :)

  3. I think exactly as Margaret do. For the last few weeks I have tried finding a way to improve my storytelling across my work. This post and Shelly’s previous one on Influences when she mentioned Kristina’s notion of “red thread” are excellent reminder of what I want to improve in the upcoming year.

    Each time I go through my own photostream I am bothered by the fact it just looks like a bunch of random picture with no theme to glue each pictures. I come to realize that the common characteristics of my favorite toy photographers is that they are excellent storytellers. I am definitely looking for ways to to improve that skill.

    1. I think this happens to everyone. If you look at people’s photos over time and they tend to converge on a distinct style, or a couple of specific styles. Having a story first, and letting that lead a photo, or series of photos is a good way of getting consistency.

      My backstories generally come from my own thoughts and moods at the time which makes my photography sort of “seasonal”. I find it difficult to take summery photos in the winter even though I’m quite capable of setting up a scene to look like summer. I’m sure it’s a different process for everyone.

    2. @Balakov : This robot picture is fantastic !

      I feel pretty much like you do Reiterlied, I also feel like watching random picture when looking at my 500px account. I find it hard to convey a message, story or anything when I take shots.

      Actually I guess that, when you care about telling a story, it means you reach the point at which you’re not disturbed by your lack of technique anymore.

      Last night, I was trying to make a few shots of a trooper in the snow. I was so concerned about snow, light, framing, camera settings that, in the end, I got a picture like I wanted, but only technically speaking. There was no story at all in my photograph…

      So… back to work :) …I mean fun ;)

      1. Overall looking at your photo feed I don’t really feel that your pictures do not tell (individually) a story. I think some/most of them, like your last one with snow, have at least a rather loose story that invites the viewer to invent part of that story. But I do understand that i can be frustrating when there is almost nothing to bind those pictures together.

        My advice would be try not to focus too much on technical aspects of photography if you want to improve your storytelling. I know it can be hard, especially if you are used to work on technical activities. Some of the toy photographers that inspire me the most don’t have the amazing technical skills that others have, but IMO they have the best storytelling skills. On the other hand it’s true it’s easier and more rewarding when you have the ability to master both technique and storytelling but I think we can only get them after time and work ;-)

        1. Thank you, I appreciate the comments and advices !

          Yeah somehow, sometimes, they give a little bit of story, but when I look at this robot picture, it’s just amazing.

          I don’t know how to explain but, when looking a very nice lego photographs, you understand the picture without even thinking about it… You know what I mean ? You don’t have to look for the story, it jumps right into your face… I guess, when you lack the storytelling skills, people need to find the story in the image and it turns the image into a “Yeah.” image. The kind of image on which you simply go “Yeah.” when looking at it :)

          Let’s go back to work :) Thanks so much for your feedback. Can’t wait to see your work with snow ;)

  4. I definitely think a photograph, also a toy photograph, can tell a story – they do say that a picture is worth 1000 words, after all. But, you’re also right that our toy photos often evoke emotions. I think it’s somehow linked with this question of “what is MY look?” – can you see, just by looking, who took the photo? I think, in the instances of those who have honed their craft, definitely. For those of us who are still experimenting or are less disciplined about it (e.g. me), I’m not sure we have developed our look, or our story, if you will.

    For me, this delightful little robot reading I, Robot, tells a story of a search for identity and someone to relate to…and as such, underlines your question beautifully…

    1. I think my favourite images are the ones where I’ve had a story in mind when photographing. I’m quite fond of some of my dramatic portraits (Darth Vader silhouetted against flames springs to mind), but I much more consistent with the story-backed photos.

      Sometimes I buy a figure from Bricklink because they look cool, or decide that I should take more photos of Boba Fett, but without a story to go with the figure I really struggle to get good photos. Having the story drive the photo is a much more successful way to photograph, for me anyway. Your milage may vary :)

  5. I think you hit a nerve with this post. Telling a story, or more to the point, hinting at a story is what we all try to do. By creating a vignette, tableau, or a still life, that does not have a set beginning, middle or end is more conducive to engaging the viewer. You are allowing the viewer to bring themselves to the photo, to engage with the photo, to create their own story. Is the Robot reading I, Robot to find his identity, reading about his ancestors for his upcoming history class, or is he wondering what the three rules of robotics are so he can overthrow his overlords? So many stories can be created from one beautiful photograph. Why should we limit the imagination of our readers by giving them an ending?

    Great post Mike!

    1. Shelly, the more I think about it the more I see two distinct stories in each photograph: the story that generated the inspiration for the photograph vs. the story that the viewer reads into it. Nothing says those two stories have to be related at all, and that’s certainly a good thing. You’ve come up with a much richer backstory to my robot image that I had in mind when taking it. I think that’s my point about me not actually “telling” stories, if I managed to communicate exactly what I thought that little robot was thinking the photo would be worse for it!

  6. An interesting read. I only discovered the toy photography genre earlier in the year. I liked the “stories” they could tell with an image. But the more i do and see i find that for me the good images fall into two categories, they either evoke an emotional response as I can associate it to something in my own life story or they are a retelling of a story i already know. Either way they are still great photos.

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