Billy Ellmore Combines Play-Doh and 80’s Nostalgia in His Self Portraits

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All images by Elkfoot. Used with permission

It was in a bar that I first met the photographer known as Elkfoot–Billy Ellmore legally. We got to talking about photography, and he showed me a number of projects he had worked on. Initially, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at it, but a quickly learned that he was taking portraits of himself in a number of different modes. Whether it was play-doh, figurines or clever work in Photoshop, Elkfoot managed to deconstruct the self-portrait and combine that with his nostalgia. Here, we interview Elkfoot about his work, approach and technique.

Check out more of Elkfoot’s work on his website and Instagram.

Phoblographer: How did the idea for these self-portraits come about?

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Elkfoot: I guess this whole thing got started by accident, really. And as cliché as that may sound, I can come up with no better explanation. I was cleaning up after a shoot in which I had used Play-Doh when I decided to make a sculpture of myself. Call it narcissism if you want, but something about making that mini version of myself made me giddy. I was so happy with the results, but I knew the sculpture wouldn’t last. As you may already be aware, Play-Doh dries and crumbles relatively quickly. So, I needed a photograph.

After that initial photograph, I knew I needed to make more. The original concept was to make self-portraits with toys and crafting supplies reminiscent of my own childhood, but I soon found that to be very limiting. This is when I decided to broaden the project by incorporating digital compositing, nostalgic pop culture references, and actual images of myself along with what I had already been doing. It has been a lot of fun.

“I have what I believe to be an undiagnosed psychological disorder in which I am completely consumed by my nostalgia. Sometimes, if I can’t sleep, I will watch clips of 80s toy commercials on youtube.”

Phoblographer: Tell us about the technical aspects. How do you set these up and what do you shoot with?

Elkfoot: At this point, I have made every image in this series with my Nikon D90. Most of the time I am using the kit lens (18-105mm) because it does the trick and I can’t really afford a large assortment of lenses. As far as lighting is concerned, it all depends on what I am shooting. If my subject is a miniature tableau with sculptures or toys, I will be using a combination of Speedlights and LED flashlights. If I am personally in the image, the lighting is usually a simple two strobe setup. It’s nothing complicated or fancy, but I make do with what I have.

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Phoblographer: How did you first get into photography?

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Elkfoot: Like any other high school slacker, I took a photography class because it seemed like an easy A. For that class, I used a 35mm SLR that I had picked up at a local Goodwill. I actually cared about the work I was making. But alas, I was a stupid teenager and decided to pawn that camera to pay for Pantera tickets or something similar. I really regretted that. I had pawned a number of things prior to this, but the camera is the only item I ever tried to get back. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen and I didn’t start taking pictures seriously again for several years.

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In my mid-twenties, a friend of mine got me a job as a writer for an online toy retailer he was making videos for. After a few months of my employment with this company, a new job opportunity presented itself. The product photographer was moving out of state and my bosses were looking for someone to fill those shoes. I immediately volunteered and was given a shot. It took a number of months for me to teach myself studio product photography and digital technology, but I ended up making a lot of images I was very proud of. This is when I started getting serious about photography again and I began making personal work in addition to my commercial imagery.

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I moved to NYC in 2012 to work toward a BFA in photography at SVA. Initially, I wanted nothing more than to network and make connections, but I soon found that art school was very beneficial to my work. If it wasn’t for the education I have received thus far, I don’t think my work would have headed in the direction that it is currently.

Phoblographer: What are you trying to express with these photographs?

Elkfoot: I have what I believe to be an undiagnosed psychological disorder in which I am completely consumed by my nostalgia. Sometimes, if I can’t sleep, I will watch clips of 80s toy commercials on youtube. I am aware that this is probably unhealthy, but everybody has their quirks. My photography is a means for me to share this unusual obsession with a larger audience. It’s almost like group therapy. Although this self-portrait series may appear to be the creation of an overgrown child, I’d like to think there is more to it than that. My photographs are meant to be fun—they are meant to rekindle a nostalgic feeling for my audience. In a world where much of the photography is serious, I would rather make something playful. I want you to smile. I want you to laugh.

Phoblographer: How do you come up with each image, and have there been any that didn’t work out?

Elkfoot: A lot of the time, I come up with a silly title before I actually make an image. I have a notebook filled with these title-driven ideas. If I can come up with goofy wordplay that combines something from my youth with my art pseudonym or even my real name, I write it down. Then I get to work on the image. For example, when I came up with the title “JurassELK Park”, I had no clue how I was going to make the photo. I just knew that the title made me laugh. I toyed around with a few ideas (like dressing up as Dr. Ian Malcolm), but landed on hatching a dinosaur version of myself from an egg. On the other hand, sometimes I come up with an image I would like to make, but I lack a clever title. In such cases, I put the ideas on the backburner until I come up with something. Is that weird?

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Phoblographer: Tell us about other projects your work more broadly. What inspires you, and what do you like to photograph?

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Elkfoot: Whether or not I am doing self-portraiture, my work is still about nostalgia. I have another series of photographs that depict mash-up references of 80s/90s pop culture. These, again, are created by using toys and handmade sculptures as my subjects. Most recently, I’ve begun making work to express how out of touch I feel with today’s celebrity. So far, I have created one image for that project in which a doll of Madonna changes the dirty diaper of a Lady Gaga doll. The older I get, the more I realize that I could have helped raise some of our world’s current icons. So, I’m making work about that now.

Phoblographer: What advice do you have for beginning portrait photographers?

Elkfoot: Honestly, the only advice I can give is another cliché: take pictures that make you happy. Otherwise, what’s the point? If you are passionate about what you are creating, a personal flair and style will likely emerge in the images. And personal style is what makes you stand out from the crowd.