First published by T Magazine, with photography, on 1 May 2017
The artist Eleanor Macnair is an expert on the subject of Play-Doh. Different colors have different textures, she explains: “The whites are usually very soft; the black’s quite oily.” The children who play with the modeling clay probably haven’t noticed, but Play-Doh is Macnair’s palette: She uses it to recreate her favorite images from the world of documentary photography, then captures her versions on camera.
She’s been working in the medium for four years, and published a book — “Photographs Rendered In Play-Doh” — in 2014. Now, she’s produced a new series for the agency Magnum Photos, in honor of its 70th anniversary. Her limited-edition prints, which go on sale today, are her interpretations of images from the agency’s enormous archive, including Elliott Erwitt’s 1955 shot of a solitary figure gazing at the Empire State Building, and Newsha Tavakolian’s 2011 photograph of an Iranian woman emerging from the sea.
Macnair’s colorful, three-dimensional homages are a labor of love: building one takes up to seven hours. The human figures are modeled as nudes first, then covered with clothes to give them a lifelike shape. “It’s a bit like when you’re a child and you have the cutout dressing-up dolls,” Macnair says. She creates the Play-Doh image late at night, then leaves it under a cloth while she sleeps. With the morning light, she begins to photograph. “I’m totally working against the clock. The edges start to crack and dry, even within three or four hours, and the colors start to fade.” Once she has what she needs, she immediately dismantles it, saving as much clay as possible to be used again.
The project, she says, is partly about making art feel less rarefied and more democratic. “I didn’t go to an art gallery until I was 21 or 22 — and so that whole world just wasn’t accessible to me,” she says. “Even though I’ve worked in galleries and museums, sometimes I still feel like I can’t have an opinion because I didn’t go to art school. And so this is a way of bringing photography to a wide audience and saying, ‘Yeah, you can be interested in this too.’” The fact that Play-Doh is cheap, she says, that its colors are bold and naïve and that her images sometimes include visible imperfections, is all part of the appeal.
Macnair has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of photography, but has found that working in this way has given her an unintended new perspective. “I end up looking at photos in a completely different way,” she says. “‘Could I do that in Play-Doh? Would it work?’”