Eleanor Macnair’s Renderings of Famous Magnum Photos in Play-Doh

All images used with permission from Eleanor Macnair.

Many readers are fans of the work produced by the photographers over at Magnum Photos, and these very cool photos from the agency rendered in Play Doh are also surely worth your time. Years ago, artist Eleanor Macnair got started with producing images rendered in Play-Doh. That gave way to a Tumblr she started called Photographs Renders in Play Doh which received a fair amount of fame. A book was published in October 2014 and the work was exhibited in a number of places.

Just in time for the Magnum Photos 70th anniversary, Eleanor has collaborated with Magnum Photos to create a series highlighting some of the photos shot by their photographers but rendered in Play Doh.

Original photograph: Tricia and Curtis, Canada 2005 from ‘NIAGRA’ by Alec Soth rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Phoblographer: How did this project even come about?

Eleanor: In August 2013 I attended a photographic pub quiz run by artists MacDonaldStrand and one of the rounds was to make a photograph in Play-Doh. As a result, on a whim, I started a tumblr blog as an experiment recreating photographs in Play-Doh, almost a joke between friends and the project quickly took on a life on its own. I was aware of the formula for a successful internet based project – bright quirky art – but wanted to use the momentum of this to perhaps do something more interesting in the choices of the photographs I chose to recreate.

I wanted to lead the audience to relook at well-known photographs and to highlight lesser-known photographs from museum archives or contemporary photographers. We all see so many images every day that it was my attempt to encourage people to slow down, really look and consider the photographs. It’s also important to me to make art and photography accessible to an audience who feels that art isn’t for them. I’m also keen to return to the simple, naive joy of just looking at and enjoying photography.

Original photograph: The Necklace, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1999 by Alessandra Sanguinetti rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Magnum Photos were aware of the project and after initial conversations I pulled together a proposal and we decided it would be a novel way to celebrate their 70th anniversary.

Phoblographer: What made you choose the specific photos to re-render in Play-Doh?

Eleanor: The choices for this project were overwhelming – there are hundreds of thousands of images in the Magnum archives. I don’t like to recreate images of conflict or subjects which just aren’t appropriate in Play-Doh so this narrowed down the choice. Play-Doh isn’t a subtle medium and so where the strength of an image was in the lighting, or a landscape, then these images just wouldn’t have worked. I wanted to choose a range of images from the early days of Magnum through to contemporary photographers working today.

My choices aren’t meant to be definitive, nor the ‘best’ of Magnum, but instead very personal choices of photographs which mean something to me.

Original photograph: Southend, England 1977. From ‘The Teds’ by Chris Steele-Perkins rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Phoblographer: Many of the photos are color images but then there are exceptions like the Empire State Building Photo by Erwitt. So when you went about imagining this scene, why did you choose color vs black and white/shades of gray for the Play-Doh creation? How did you go about even considering what colors would be used?

Eleanor: There is a practical reason behind colourising the images. Black Play-Doh is pretty difficult to get hold of in large quantities and also the white gets spoilt and dirty really quickly (Play-Doh was originally a wallpaper cleaner) but coloured Play-Doh is abundant. There is also something about the Play-Doh colours – so bright, vulgar and playful. I’m interested to see what I can do with these and if I can translate something of the original into these colours, what is lost and what remains.

In choosing the colours I pull out the tubs before I start, imagining what the colours in the original photograph may have been. It’s like having a puzzle in front of you and trying to solve it. I mix flesh colours but apart from that I use the colours straight from the pots to keep the project as off the shelf as possible.

Original photograph: Empire State Building, New York City, 1955 by Elliott Erwitt rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Phoblographer: When you were creating the scenes, you’d photograph them and then the Play-Doh was put back to be used for future projects. But was there ever a moment where you feel like you may have left a detail out or something like that? The creation process must’ve been painstaking let alone getting the lighting right such as in the Davidson photo from the subway.

Eleanor: I’m always looking back in retrospect and seeing a detail I don’t like or a blade of grass that’s distracting. I try not to think of it too much as the models I make are like sketches, interpretations and not copies. I hope that the imperfections help to keep that handmade quality. There is something I did miss out from one of the Magnum project photographs which is bugging me but I hope that no-one will notice! At the end of the day, they are what they are, simply photographs rendered in Play-Doh.

Original photograph: Prized Possession (#2). Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa, 2008 by Jim Goldberg rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

The images start to dry, crack and fall apart very quickly and so even if I did want to keep them, it just wouldn’t be practical. But in some ways I like this – it echoes how disposable and throwaway imagery can be on the internet.

I shoot the models in natural light and try to reproduce the angle from which the original photograph was lit but it would be impossible to get the lighting just right – an image of a 3d Play-Doh model on a household chopping board could never replicate the lighting of Bruce Davidson’s Subway series – and I hope that viewers forgive this.

Phoblographer: Which one was personally your favorite to create?

Eleanor: This would be like choosing my favourite person. With each image I recreate it feels like a bit of privilege to spend significant time looking at and studying the photograph. I did enjoy recreating the sea in the Newsha Tavakolian, the figures in the Alessandra Sanguinetti and the Chris Steele-Perkins, and the lovers in the Bruce Davidson. They are all tributes to the original photographs and I find that when I really love the original photograph, I just seem to do a better job.

Original photograph: New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’, 1983-85 by Martin Parr rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Original photograph: Imaginary CD cover for Sahar. Caspian Sea, Mahmoudabad, Iran, 2011 by Newsha Tavakolian rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Original photograph: Robert F Kennedy Funeral Train, 1968 by Paul Fusco rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Original photograph: Girl with balloons, Grozny, Chechnya, Russia, March 2002 by Thomas Dworzak rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair

Check out the series on Magnum’s website. But also be sure to visit the shop.


Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.