Two years ago I was given the opportunity of writing for the magazine Bricks Culture; a privilege which continues still. This was my first article written for the publication, and featured in Issue 1 back in April 2015. I’m still fond of the piece and its argument that draws the disciplines of building with LEGO and photographing LEGO together. Print copies of the magazine, which features a whole host of other interesting articles, can be purchased here.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to interview Bjarne Tveskov [i], the iconic LEGO designer responsible for the creation of the much-loved Blacktron and Futron space ranges. He was talking to me about the process designers went through to create the alternative models shown on the back of the LEGO boxes during the 1980s. This is what he had to say about the Blacktron Alienator (6876): “Also I like how the box design guys made the footprints on the space surface for the image on the back of the box, even though the model isn’t actually able to lift its feet from the ground!”
What caught my attention in Tveskov’s statement was that LEGO’s merchandising of their product ranges often-exceeded direct representations of the toys. Creating through set design and photography believable worlds, places where for example the Blacktron Alienator really could walk. These photographs encouraged imaginative responses, where the truth, or limitations of the toys were put secondary to the stories, ideas and aspirations they conjured up.
Undoubtedly, the relationship between LEGO and its photographic representation is much more than a point and click affair. Here is a company that understood some 30 years ago that to sell successfully you needed to offer your audience a world that triggers and sustains the imagination. A product has to work as both a toy and as a work of art: as an image that demands and rewards repeated investigation.
The space ranges, such as Blacktron, developed through the dioramas and aptly focused lunar lighting a specific iconography. The yellow sandy dunes, undulating craters and starry sky, looking to all extent and purpose like every six-year-old’s romantic idealisation of outer space. More so than the individual box-art images, the collective catalogue spread photographs, where whole ranges were presented together, fully realised LEGO as a living and breathing environment. Looking back at space imagery from the early 1980s, those simple sets in situ still inspire awe.
The other ranges that LEGO ran at the time were of course subject to the same treatment. Castles were situated in perspective-angled hills so as to exaggerate scale. Pirates exchanged cannon blasts across choppy seas. And possibly my favourite photographed diorama, this magnificent town display replete with Space Shuttle launch, captured an undisclosed Florida cityscape and NASA test site.
Whilst these endeavours were clearly driven by a marketing strategy, one that has to be acknowledged as highly successful during the 1980s and early 1990s, it also challenged the way future generations and returning adult builders would come to interact with LEGO. Even if we remain partially blinded to the fact, all of us now consume LEGO, not only through the process of building LEGO sets or creations of our own, but also through the proliferation of photographic images of LEGO we are exposed to.
I can personally link this shift, where I embraced the LEGO photograph, back to a very specific moment, one I’m sure many fans of LEGO, young or old, will identify with. The six-year old me was tucked up in bed with the new LEGO catalogue. By torchlight, deep under the covers I reviewed, examined and absorbed all those images of the current LEGO ranges. At one level this was driven by a consumer urge. Mentally I selected the big yellow castle as something that had to make it onto the Christmas list, but at another level the idea of possession was far from my mind. Ranges like Fabuland, Scala and the large train sets, which either were beyond financial reach or clearly not aimed at my demographic, garnered an equal focus as the magnificent new space sets.
LEGO realised quite wisely that no child would likely ever own all the sets in its ranges, nor were they likely to want to. So whilst the product instilled an inclination to collect themes or sets, as a totality the product range encouraged selection and choice. And whilst the ownership of actual sets might be limited, the aesthetic engagement with the full scope of possibilities did not have to be so. By taking the time to present its products, through artful photography, it created a secondary free product. Wonderful images which enthralled in their own right.
This investment in the photograph is most clearly seen in LEGO’s support of photographic imagery beyond the obvious merchandising points. Yes, we find some of the best LEGO imagery on box fronts, in catalogues and adverts, but places such as the back of boxes (unlikely to obtain more than a fleeting glance on the shop floor) and the published Ideas books also took extraordinary lengths to produce the highest quality photographs.
Tveskov brings home the point in the same interview I referred to earlier. He describes the alternative builds, and in fact the whole presentation of the reverse of the LEGO boxes, as a place where the designers, box artists and photographers could have fun. For the smaller sets, the possibility of reverse engineering the alternative builds was a real possibility, but not a necessity. On the larger sets, a task only really achievable by the more skilled and experienced builders. As such, the alternative builds were never considered as actual models one would make. Other sets, such as the Technic models included instructions when the alternative was thought of in this manner. Instead the alternative build was always to be considered as an image, as a photograph. Perhaps it is for this reason too, that the quirky impossible presentation of the Alienator, with its duck feet imprints also becomes a secondary image, one for the back of the box.
The idea of consuming LEGO as idea or an image, so as to inspire rather than to be made was most expertly realised in the Ideas books. These publications allowed the LEGO designers free range to work with elements currently available in the company’s sets. The books came with limited instructions for a few of the smaller builds, but ostensibly were glossy photographic catalogues of what you could do if you only had enough bricks. Taking up what the catalogues had introduced through the commercial need to sell, the Ideas books gave the child a selection of mind-expanding marvels that could be achieved in LEGO without subtext. For many of us these might have been our first art books, collections of the most stunning photography. A small chance to aesthetically reflect and expand our building ambitions.
I would argue that once cut loose from the necessity of neat, polished commercial products, the most fully realised examples of some of LEGO’s early genre experiments came to fruition in the photographs of the builds in these books. Compare the sprawling web of sci-fi wonderment presented in the Ideas book, to the space catalogue entries of the same period, and we are immediately struck by a shift in experimentation, complexity and scope.
Leaving the past behind, it seems clear that LEGO and photography had very quickly found a symbiotic relationship, one which now seems hard to disentangle. What importantly is revealed is that a sophisticated relationship to LEGO is never just about the craft and skill of building. It also includes a desire to express or show something through the process of making, and equally an enjoyment and value in reflecting on a LEGO creation as a realised image. LEGO when photographed fulfils both of these criteria. By distancing itself from its process of creation, the builder is able to identify what they wish to show: and the viewer removed from the context of the bricks, as components that can be dissembled, is able to concentrate on the creation itself.
The understanding of this particular interdisciplinary relationship further helps to refute certain myths about LEGO. Whether it can be an art form or not, and whether the creative or building experience constitutes its most authentic expression.
I have recently written on the question of LEGO’s authenticity[ii] and whether or not it is inextricably linked to creative activity . In this article I challenged the views of the blogger Chris Swan [iii], that were taken up by the BBC journalist Justin Parkinson in his controversial article ‘ Has the imagination disappeared from LEGO?’ [iv] Swan’s argument hinged on the principle that the authentic condition for LEGO is always found in the moments we experience when building. Once complete, the correct response to a LEGO construction is to dismantle it and begin the creative process once more.
What Swan missed, and which this discussion relating to photography opens, is that the moment following the completion of a build, where the builder’s first impulse is to show what has been built, is as significant as the building experience itself. That joyful moment when the child runs to Mum or Dad, and exclaims “Look! Look what I have made!” Clearly in a creative act, as imperative as the desire to build is the desire to show. And by proxy we accept that there is something to reflect upon, something for an audience to see and feel.
LEGO cannot be perceived of as art if it must remain ideally as Swan argues an exclusively creative act, it must also be a showing, a site for reflection.
The problem for the child is that following the creation of a LEGO model they reach a troubling state of affairs. One we can all recall from our childhood. The need to show what has been made, and the desire to explore a new project, to show something else; both are valid positions, but cannot be mutually sustained. Enter photography to the rescue!
The potential ephemerality of the LEGO build is rescued by the possibility of its presentation as an image. The photography of LEGO allows us to both dismantle that which has been built and continue to show and reflect on what was made. LEGO’s engagement with its audience fostered this understanding at an early age, and I believe presents the possibility of a construction toy becoming an artistic medium shared by a creative community.
Returning once again to personal experience, I can pinpoint the second occasion in which photographs impacted profoundly on my engagement with LEGO. During the summer of 2003 I stumbled through a nostalgic Google search for classic space LEGO into the world of the nascent LEGO fan scene. Suddenly, before my eyes were hundreds of photographs of amazing fan-built spaceships. The expectation of seeing photographs of those old, but still wonderful sets from my childhood was supplanted by the thrill of so many new and fascinating images. The six year-old me had climbed back under the duvet and found a new multi-volume copy of the LEGO Ideas book, one that I had never known existed. To say I was excited was an understatement.
I consider this day, rather than the day I actually started building again, as the end of the so called dark ages, that period of life where you cease to engage with LEGO. I became a lurker on many of the main sharing sites, sporadically dropping in and seeing what new and amazing creations people were building. During this period that lasted some 8 or 9 years, I barely touched an actual LEGO brick or even saw one in the plastic as it were. My engagement with LEGO occurred via the Internet and the photographs I found shared there.
At first the photos I found were of a limited quality, often in low resolution, framed by the domestic clutter of dining room tables, carpets and bed spreads. However, as technology advanced, digital camera resolution increased and broadband Internet connections became commonplace, these photos increased in quantity and quality,
As I followed this growing scene I came more and more to see that photography was transforming what the LEGO experience meant. Rather than a bedroom hobby, an insular building experience, where completed models might be shared with close friends and family, it was transforming into a collective enterprise, where the raison d’être for building was to share what one had made. More and more the projects being completed were not made simply for the thrill of creative building, but as something explicitly to be photographed. Where photography had once rescued the builder from the dilemma, whether to dismantle or not, this question held less and less importance; the photograph was the conclusion of the building process and not the build.
Photographs of LEGO were creating in the words of the French novelist and theorist André Malraux, a ‘museum without walls’, the phrase also being the title of his seminal work on the relationship of photography and the museum[v]. In this book he referred to the way in which a public comes to view and consume the great works of art in the age photography, and how this would in fact alter the art world as a result.
Malraux’s theory begins by noting that in the 19th Century, even the most read and prolific writers, Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine, did not have full access to the artistic treasures of the world. Even if they travelled, the paintings of El Greco, Titian and Michelangelo may only be viewed once in a lifetime and then committed to the vagaries of memory. In contrast, through the ability to photograph these works, the archive of paintings, sculptures and monuments is made immediately available to us. No longer do we need a museum with walls to house these works, only our own curatorial imagination, which selects as it wishes works that interest and inspire as required. And in turn each of us imagines our own ideal museum.
When it comes to a new and emerging art form such as LEGO, which has no cultural heritage, no monuments, no churches or museums, the concept of the creation of a museum without walls becomes even more important than it was for the traditional arts.
The LEGO community’s emergence from a shared archival project, in the form of vast online folios of work, marks perhaps one of the first truly democratized art forms. An art where traditions are formed by the sharing and cultural connections of those who make and create the images, and not deep-set cultural institutions, academia, the museum and big business funding. Beginning from a humble origin, a toy that denies no one access based on training or craft, shared by the people’s medium of the camera, is created the unique artistic event that is currently happening on our doorstep.
In a spectacular synchronisation of technologies, these photographs presented within the photo sharing sites and social media applications, gives the individual via like-buttons, shared links and folders, the tools they need to articulate these archives as their ideal museum.
It came as no surprise to me having watched these developments, that when I took up the bricks as a creative medium, from the outset I thought about creating models that would be photographed and shared online. I was intentionally knocking on the door of the museum without walls with my bundle of digital image. And the sense of achievement I felt as I saw my work ‘liked’ and commented upon, taking its place in so many peoples’ ideal museums, explains a great deal about why LEGO as a creative hobby continues to grow.
This is where LEGO’s relationship with photography pushes beyond Malraux’s theory. It is not an archive that we passively engage with. To be a LEGO builder and photographer is to be part of a grand artistic experiment, a shared living breathing museum, which we influence, change and evolve with each new photograph we add to it. The museum ceasing to be just a receptacle for culture, becoming instead a greenhouse, a hothouse environment for creative experiment and growth.
As with all successful interdisciplinary relationships, LEGO’s embracing of photography changes what both art forms can be. LEGO builders recalling those first constructed catalogue vistas started to take on the LEGO box and photographers’ roles as well as the designers’.
We see this happen right across the LEGO community, where photographs are staged and organised to present theatrical and believable worlds. Some seek to replicate in their photos the work of those original box designers, however at the extreme end of the spectrum you find builders like El Barto[vi], who has taken this relationship to grand heights in his ongoing alternative Basttlestar Galactica saga and representations of Homer’s Odyssey. Through the uses of stage lighting, carefully ordered scenes and photo-shopped backgrounds he treats each and everyone of his builds as stills from an ongoing film. This is not simply a way of recording a building process, but the genuine combination of two art forms.
Other builders, such as Tim Clark [vii], have used the translation of a LEGO build into a photograph as a way of accessing the toolkits available in photo editing software. The result, a further interdisciplinary encounter between illustration and LEGO, as found in images like his stunning City on the Undiri Moon.
The conclusions found in these new hybrid ventures are the inevitable creation of builds that actively exploit photographic structures in order to exist. Forced perspective building being one growing and popular genre of building/photography. Chris Maddison’s [viii] rolling farmland exemplifying what can be achieved when we use the camera to trick the eye.
Matt Rowntree’s [ix] recent reproduction of John Carpenter’s memorable film poster for the film The Thing again evidences a build that is completed through its photograph. Built on a glass table, so as to incorporate an iridescent effect, the conceit explores aspects of lighting central to the build that can only truly be seen in its photographic representation.
Where there is no doubt that photography is changing and expanding the creative possibilities open to LEGO, it equally brings a further levelling effect to the archive. As Malraux noted in his study, photography gave new emphasis to works of art that often went unnoticed in the gallery. Small intricate pieces could be enlarged so as to stand side by side with large frescos, and difficult to view art forms such as tapestries could be better displayed. The photography of LEGO does something similar, allowing smaller and unexpected genres to compete and attain the recognition they deserve against the huge and piece intensive creations, which ordinarily demand attention when physically displayed.
Another of the unexpected results of the ongoing relationship between LEGO and photography comes from the influence it is having on the discipline of photography itself. The scale of LEGO creates a unique subject for the creation of images. When mini figures or recognisable LEGO parts are situated in the world they alter the ratios we ordinarily expect to find. Snow becomes the harshest blizzard, water’s reflective details are magnified and a vista, which for a human might seem everyday and ordinary, becomes sublime when viewed from the perspective of a mini-figures eyes.
The seriousness with which this work is taken has found photographers who focus on LEGO being accepted into the gallery on the merit of this work alone. The recent exhibition at the Brian Ohno Gallery [x] in Seattle collected together some of the best work in this field from talented photographers like Shelly Corbett [xi], Boris Vanrillaer [xii] and Vesa Lehtimäki [xiii].
Even in this briefest of summaries, the way in which LEGO and photography have grown from a relationship founded in the marketing strategies invested in 30-40 years ago, to become the essential presentational medium it is today cannot be denied. So successful has the relationship been it now seems almost impossible to separate the two art forms. LEGO as a community, as an artwork, as an archive and a site for experiment has been benefited form its correspondence with photography. So much so, that when we talk about LEGO as a cultural phenomenon we really ought to say ‘LEGO and photography’.
[ii] David Alexander Smith, ‘Authentic/Inauthentic LEGO or what’s the right way to build?’
[iii] Chris Swan, ‘The Perils of Modern LEGO’ Chris Swan’s Weblog (26 November 2014) http://blog.thestateofme.com/2013/01/01/the-perils-of-modern-LEGO/ (accessed 13 March 2015).
[V] André Malraux, Museum Without Walls, Martin, Secker & Warburg, London (1967).
[x] In LEGO, We Connect, Brian Ohno Gallery, Seattle, March 2015.
[xi] See Shelly Corbett’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.
[xii] See Boris Vanrillaer’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.
[xiii] See Vesa Lehtimäki’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/lehtimaki/index.html.