The smell of Play-Doh is the smell of childhood. I loved sniffing it, matting it into the carpet and squelching the colours together to make puke-coloured monster figures with that stringy Mr. Potato Head hair (I’m sorry but I have to flag this up – a new Star Wars Mr. Potato Head is called Luke Frywalker. I mean ....just yes). I would still enjoy doing all these things if I didn’t have to pretend to be a grown-up and tap tap tap on the laptop all day to corroborate this misconception.

Artist Eleanor Macnair (@eleanormacnair) is far more structured in her use of Play-Doh. Her series of Giclée prints ‘Photographs rendered in Play-Doh’ capture well-known photographers work, such as from Nan Goldin, Martin Parr and Ansel Adams, in the colourful flour, salt and water mixture which was originally marketed as a wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s.

“Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh” says Macnair, “Started on a whim in August 2013 following a photo pub quiz run by artists in Brighton. One of the rounds was to make a reproduction of a famous photograph using Play-Doh. It is said that you only need one good idea in life. I didn’t have one, so, in the spirit of post-modern re-appropriation, I used theirs.”

Eleanor Macnair.  Original photograph:   Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J.,   1967 by Diane Arbus

Eleanor Macnair. Original photograph: Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967 by Diane Arbus

Macnair began to receive attention from the London press when she opened an exhibition of this work at Atlas Gallery in 2015 accompanied by a book. This exhibition has now toured to Germany where it is currently on show at Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs, Wiesbaden.

Today the range of products associated with Play-Doh (and the many copy-cat ‘Play-Doh’ products) is enormous. The old standard is still, of course, the single-coloured doh tubs but the focus of the product is now on themed project or playsets where you can create cupcake towers, style and beautify unicorn/pony-type creatures or build a Star Wars Millennium Falcon. Each kit comes with special tools to squeeze, mould, ‘bake’ or stamp out the Play-Doh.

Macnair, however, keeps things simple, “My tools are amateur. Play-Doh, a chopping board, a scalpel and an empty wine bottle as a rolling pin. The work is accessible, easy and inexpensive to make.” she says, “I have few rules for the project, the main ones being no pornography and no dead people - those subjects just don’t seem appropriate in Play-Doh. I also don’t like to render photographs that photographers have requested of their own work.”

Eleanor Macnair. Original photograph:  New Brighton from ‘The Last Resort’  by Martin Parr

Eleanor Macnair. Original photograph: New Brighton from ‘The Last Resort’ by Martin Parr

Although the images have a great attention to detail (loving the tiny yellow triangles of the ice-cream cones in Martin Parr’s New Brighton), the process of making the Play-Doh renderings is fairly quick. “Each photograph I remake takes a couple of hours. This time is spent looking at the image, studying its composition and lighting, and deciding which bits to highlight and which to leave out. It’s a chance to slow down, look and to really examine a picture. On the surface, photographs can condense complex ideas and present them in a straightforward visual language. I take this a step further and pare them down to almost nothing, just form and colour only.”

Eleanor Macnair. Original photograph:  Julia Jackson,  1867 by Julia Margaret Cameron

Eleanor Macnair. Original photograph: Julia Jackson, 1867 by Julia Margaret Cameron

Macnair favours rendering photographs that include people or face as the principle subject matter; Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1867 portrait of Julia Jackson, for example, or Walker Evan’s 1938 Subway Portrait. Sometimes, however, the prints that focus on a more landscape-driven or abstract subject matter are the more interesting. When the (necessarily) cartoon-like eyes, noses and mouths are taken out of the equation, a different atmosphere and result begins to emerge. One of the most successful images is the rendering of Ansel Adams Aspens, Northern New Mexico (1958). The white lines amongst the trees and white triangles of leaves capture Adam’s original flash-lit forest but the image also seems to suggest a scene from an animation set. The green triangles of the foliage flutters up from the forest floor like birds, the black of the forest interior, dead voidy black.

Eleanor Macnair. Original photograph:  Aspens, Northern New Mexico , 1958 by Ansel Adams

Eleanor Macnair. Original photograph: Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958 by Ansel Adams

Macnair’s physical Play-Doh rendering do not have a long shelf. “After I have finished a work I shoot it and immediately take it apart, returning the Play-Doh to respective colour pots to re-use.” She says, “The green dress in the Nan Goldin became the jumpsuit in the Alec Soth, the foliage in the Tom Hunter and the blanket in the Henri Cartier-Bresson. The works no longer exist, they become ephemeral, and I am usually the only one who has ever seen them in their three-dimensional state. I like the idea of a Chinese whisper through time - from the original subject of the photograph, the photographer’s print, a digital file on the internet, a Play-Doh model on my table, my digital file on the internet and now the works on a gallery wall. What is lost and what remains? I never said it was serious. They are what they are. Sometimes things are more special in life because they are fleeting and you know you don’t have them for long,” she explains. “It’s nice to do something in life that isn’t money driven, and ‘just because’ really. Also, I don’t know where I would put nearly 150 Play-Doh renderings in my small flat.”

Eleanor Macnair. Original Photograph:  A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) , 1993 by Jeff Wall

Eleanor Macnair. Original Photograph: A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993 by Jeff Wall

Macnair does not see herself as a photographer “I’m not a photographer myself. I’ve never studied art, and didn’t visit an art gallery until I was 21,” she says “What I know about photography and art is what I’ve picked up through osmosis along the way—looking, thinking and seeing—I like to think of it as the Good Will Hunting school of art education.” And why not? And who cares anyway… Of course this project is probably not going to show up in Obrist’s next Biennale but Macnair’s images are enjoyable and funny and good and good-bad all at the same time. I like to look at them. If we want to be wanky about it we can chuck in some references to the cultivation of children as consumer decision-makers in the Western toy industry; or issues around so called Outsider Art. Blah Blah. Let’s not. I hope Macnair soon finds her next ‘just because’.

'Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh' runs at Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs until 22 April. Macnair will also be showing at Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles from 18 March to 16 April.

An accompanying publication to the project, published by MacDonaldStrand, can be bought/found here.

You can see more images from Eleanor Macnair on Tumblr

AuthorSacha Waldron