This Artist Uses Play-Doh to Meticulously Recreate Famous Photographs

Casey Lesser
May 18, 2018 9:18PM

In the summer of 2013, Eleanor Macnair was handed an odd but fateful challenge: recreate a famous photograph using Play-Doh. It was part of a pub quiz, run by the artist duo MacDonaldStrand, in Brighton, England. As a photography lover who worked in galleries and museums, Macnair found the idea inspirational. The task stuck with her and she tried it again at home. And so began an ongoing project of translating the works of influential photographers—from Diane Arbus to Ren Hang—using the buoyant colors and soft consistency of Play-Doh.

“It was always an experiment,” explained Macnair, who has no formal background in artmaking. She started posting her works on her Tumblr, “Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh” (where she still regularly shares new creations). Over time, she refined her skills, learning to simplify the key forms of iconic photographs and reimagine them with the limited palette of store-bought Play-Doh.

Sally Mann, Untitled, 1983-85, rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair.

Sally Mann
Untitled from the "At Twelve" Series (Page 16)
Jackson Fine Art

The series has been the subject of a book and multiple gallery exhibitions (like a current show at German gallery Kleinschmidt Fine Photographs), and continues to catch the attention of online audiences.

Macnair points to some unexpected training for her career as a Play-Doh artist: writing press releases for art exhibitions, which she continues to do in a freelance capacity. “I’m always thinking when I write press releases, ‘Would my mum understand it?’ It’s a way of translating art,” she said. But her job experience also lent her an understanding of images that people gravitate towards, what Macnair calls “that internet formula—that bright, quirky art that is going to catch your eye.”

Some of the source photographs are her personal favorites—like William Eggleston’s 1975 image of a blissful young redhead laying in a field of grass—and some are photographs that aren’t readily available online. She describes the process of finding her next subject as “being a detective, or Alice in Wonderland.” Led by images she comes across at exhibitions, in books, on Instagram, or elsewhere, she’ll go down proverbial rabbit holes seeking out the most visually compelling options.

Eleanor Macnair
Original photogarph: Frida on bench, New York, 1938 by Nikolas Muray, 2016
Atlas Gallery
Nickolas Muray
Frida on White Bench, New York, 1939
Etherton Gallery

Once Macnair has settled on a photograph to recreate, she selects tubs of Play-Doh from her supply (she uses colors straight out of the tubs, except for skin tones, which she mixes by hand) and readies her tools: a cutting board, a scalpel, toothpicks, and a wine bottle (used as a makeshift rolling pin). She begins by rolling out a thin slab of Play-Doh on the cutting board, then cuts out elements to start the background.

“I want to keep an amateur aesthetic so that it remains accessible,” Macnair explained. “When people see the works, they’re not too slick. When you see a painting, you see the different textures, the brushstrokes—so I like it when you can see my fingerprints.”

Macnair works quickly, creating each piece within 24 hours, before the Play-Doh begins to dry. Once complete, she photographs it using her Nikon camera with a macro lens, lighting the work in a way that echoes its source image. Then, she disassembles the piece and saves the Play-Doh. The project lives on digitally in photographs, as well as prints for sale. Macnair once tried to preserve one of the Play-Doh reliefs with sealant and varnish, but it still shriveled, due to the medium’s high water content.

Diane Arbus, Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962, rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair.

She reuses the Play-Doh and rehydrates it for future works (she’s kept some tubs of the stuff for four or five years). Macnair isn’t just being thrifty; the company tends to change its products. “They’re constantly updating,” she said. “It means that I can’t get some of my favorite colors anymore,” she added, nodding to the bright green she’s been using for years.

Play-Doh isn’t the easiest medium—it can be finicky. “I never work on pieces with more than four figures because I’d never have the time before it all cracks and dries,” Macnair explained, noting that the drying starts after just a couple of hours. Working on small elements, like facial features, requires her hands to be cold, “like a sushi maker.” The colors can easily rub off on one another, and the material picks up dirt very easily (after all, Play-Doh was initially invented in the 1930s as a compound for cleaning wallpaper).

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou Thomas, Citizens of Porto Novo 442, 2012, rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair.

Black Play-Doh, Macnair explained, has always been scarce, and thus expensive (“It’s as rare as rocking-horse poo,” she laughs). Early on, she decided that she would translate black-and-white photographs into color compositions. These works, like interpretations of photographs by Sally Mann or André Kertész, tend to offer some of the most compelling contrasts to the originals. “I know it’s taking a liberty, but no one’s complained yet when I colorize their pictures,” Macnair explained. “Hopefully, they see that it’s not something that’s being snide, that it’s meant to be a positive thing.”

Indeed, Macnair sees it as a tribute to the photography heroes she’s encountered throughout her life. Oftentimes, she’ll choose to work on photographs she’s dreamt of owning, but never could.

While the works may appeal to photography buffs, visitors to Macnair’s Tumblr and Instagram may not necessarily know the photographs being referenced, instead enticed by her charming compositions and the familiar, childlike medium. But Macnair titles each work after the original and links to an image of it, inviting viewers to learn more. It was always her intention to draw more attention to great photographs.

“It’s another way of looking at photography,” Macnair said. “I’m not saying I’m rewriting the canon. I’m playing around with it a bit.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.