Doll Photographer Sharon Marie Wright Brings Her Subjects to Life

All images by Sharon Marie Wright. Used with permission. “They either think I’m crazy or are fascinated and we end up chatting,” explains Sharon Marie Wright as we discuss the response people have to her art. “I’m okay with either scenario: you have to be if you are in public playing with dolls, right?” Doll photography may be quite a niche, but for Sharon, it has become her bread and butter. Through her powerful and creative photography, she has managed to bring her dolls to life. She makes them part of a story, gives them a narrative, and allows the viewer to be fully immersed in the fantasy. Her series, Zombies + Dolls = Your Worst Nightmare, is a surreal take on blood and gore. She has taken a child’s plaything and turned it into a monster – and we love it!

Sharon very kindly agreed to put her dolls down for a moment in order to feed the curiosity we had about the world of doll photography.

Phoblographer: Hey Sharon, what’s your main focus photographically right now?

SMW: I’m kind of all over the place right now. I’ve been doing a lot of behind the scenes work for a new show premiering later this year on TLC as well as a couple of movies. I do a lot of real estate photography and then I’ve been doing a lot of travel stuff. Oddly enough, I haven’t been shooting dolls for a while lately. But, the ebb and flow usually swings me back that way, you know how it goes.

“I was HOOKED! They became my models.”

Phoblographer: Before we get into the series, please can you tell us how your interest in dolls first came about?

SMW: I actually learned photography by using dolls. My husband and I had been shooting a web series just for fun during hiatus between seasons of his show. We had all the gear and would just have people come run it all for us or we would try to fumble through on our own.  I had always loved taking photos so I decided that I should try to learn how to use the camera (it was a Lumix GH1.) My neighbor, at the time, collected these really high-end fashion dolls by Integrity Toys. They are super articulated with really exquisitely made fashions and accessories. Anyway, she would go out and snap photos of them and I asked if I could come play too.  I was HOOKED! They became my models. I could work with them to learn. They always showed up, never complained, and didn’t spend half their time on their phones! I never really played with Barbies growing up, I always hated how stiff they were – but these, man, I could pose them like people. It was great.

Phoblographer: How does a doll photographer get started in the industry? What methods did you use to get clients to listen to your creative ideas?

SMW: I just stumbled into it, honestly. I didn’t even know it was a ‘thing’. I put some shots up on social media the first time I played with them and people freaked out – in a good way, so that encouraged me to keep going. I was shooting them like people, not dolls, so it sort of created a story in an image. I just got really good at it and I was doing it in a way that people had not seen before. One of the people who followed my work had submitted a short article about me to one of the larger doll magazines and asked if he could use a few of my images. I had NO IDEA what it was for – until I got the magazine and opened it up and was like “I have a shot just like that – wait a second – THAT’S MINE!” I was absolutely floored. It was incredible to see shots that I had done splattered all over the magazine. I guess I became (and I HATE this word) an influencer (sigh.) But, people wanted to see their work in my images. Everything from dolls to fashions and accessories. They would allow me to create whatever I wanted and I would credit them and bring them more exposure. I worked with many artists and manufacturers from all around the world.

“The details on them were so fantastic and grotesque…”

My work process has always just been spur of the moment. Whatever I was feeling or seeing in the moment. Even when I was working with Phicen, they gave me the freedom to just do whatever I wanted as long as it was in character for the figure I was working with. So I have never actually had to sell an idea or pre-plan outside of a broad theme.

Phoblographer: Zombies and Dolls is a whole new level of creepy. How did the project come to life?

SMW: One of the artists I had worked with was Bo Bergemann. She reached out to me with this project. She and her son had created these zombies from her own bjds (ball jointed dolls) and did an art talk at San Diego Comic Con. She is from Hawaii and since they were stateside, she wanted to ship this container full of everything to me from San Diego and have me shoot them for her. I sat with the container for quite a while. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to shoot them or what I would do with them at all. The details on them were so fantastic and grotesque and I knew it would have to be something in the lines of The Walking Dead – which was huge at the time. I just had no idea how to pull it off, lol! The first shoot I did was just in my darkened hallway, the whole “nightmare dolls come to life” thing, and it was fine. It got a good response but I knew it needed to be bigger, and badder. In the crate was a large utility vehicle that had been beaten and distressed and so I decided I wanted to create the invasion. We had the “Hunters” and the “zombies” so I would stage the fight around the truck. I ended up shooting this series on the corner of my house during golden hour and just went nuts with no forethought beyond it being a fight or some sort. It was spur of the moment and I just kept changing things around and shooting with the hope that it would all turn out okay. I usually opt for a rich cinematic feel and the 50mm 1.8 lens was perfect for this shoot and really allowed me to get that shallow depth of field I love and added a lot of drama in many of the shots.

Phoblographer: What are your methods for designing your scenes and building the visual story?

SMW: I always prefer natural light and also prefer to incorporate subjects into our world as much as possible. So I enjoy taking them out and shooting them on streets and in buildings. I like to bring benches and plants or trash cans – whatever I can that will help sell the story. If I am creating a diorama then I try to make it look as real as possible. I’m a fairly cluttered person so you’ll notice in most of my work that there will be clutter as well. But, honestly, I just go in the moment and do whatever feels right. There is rarely a plan or a shot already in my head with anything I do.

“…if I just show them a photo gallery they usually are quite intrigued and impressed by it.”

Phoblographer: There’s plenty of violence and gore in these photographs. Is that something you’re into or something you developed through the project?

SMW: While I am not opposed to violence or gore, it was not something that was planned. It literally just showed up at my door, lol. I had not ever done anything like that before, but, we did watch The Walking Dead, so I had a decent concept of what I could do. Well, actually, I guess I had done something in the vein of violence and gore prior to that shoot…I skinned a sex doll, lol! For real. So, I guess it wasn’t completely new.

Phoblographer: You know the conversation: “Oh you’re a photographer, show me some of your work.” What tends to be the response from people when you show them this kind of photography?

SMW: Well, I have learned to not try to explain it, lol. If I start the conversation with “I shoot dolls” people immediately picture s*itty Barbie photos. But, if I just show them a photo gallery they usually are quite intrigued and impressed by it.

“I am still a storyteller and like to express my emotions and thoughts through them.”

Phoblographer: In terms of your set up, please would give us an insight into how you light your dolls and what gear is used in order to give them a larger than life feel?

SMW: I use natural light 90% of the time. Whenever possible. Working with things that are plastic or resin you have to be hyper-aware of lighting. From glares on eyes and foreheads or on the props and accessories – you have to be quite detail oriented. Hair and dust is another nightmare. When you are shooting that small everything becomes larger than life. I currently shoot on Sony a7ii. I usually shoot my subjects with either a 50mm or an 85mm lens. I have never used a flash in any of the images I create. I have some small flexible Ikea lights and a couple of small LED panels I can use but most of the time it’s all natural light bounced around if needed with some strategically positioned mirrors. I also create some lighting in post, depending on the shot.

Phoblographer: You’re a very versatile photographer; making quality work in a range of genres. Which genre of photography do you fully feel your creative self – the genre that makes you say, “I could shoot this for the rest of my life?”

SMW: Obviously, since I learned by shooting dolls and figures it is where I am most confident and creative. I ebb and flow to a variety of things but I always seem to swing back to dolls as I am still a storyteller and like to express my emotions and thoughts through them.

Finally, what’s the one piece of advice you would give to a new photographer wanting to do doll photography?

SMW: Just start. That’s all there is to it. There is no right or wrong way. It’s not what camera or lens you have. I started with no clue about any of it. I will say, the biggest mistake that most people make is not getting down to their level. I will literally be flat out rolling around on a sidewalk taking pictures in public! People will stop their cars or come over to me to see if I am having a health problem LMAO! But then they see the camera and a doll. You can see more of Sharon’s work by visiting her website.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host professional photographers within the industry.