What is it about ventriloquist dummies that scares us and makes us feel uncomfortable? Matthew Rolstons series Talking Heads will try to decipher that particular feeling.
There’s an undeniable creepiness in ventriloquist dummies that can leave most of us scarred for life. Perhaps it’s the exaggerated way in which their features are carved, the big rounded eyes staring directly at us as if they were trying to figure out our deepest secrets and fears, or maybe it’s their strangely-shaped lips, capable of voicing the most embarrassing truths about us. Or perhaps, as photographer Matthew Rolston sees them, it's how deeply human they are.
As part of his project Talking Heads, Rolston visited the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, which has more than 700 dummies on display (that date back from the 1820s to the 1980s) to photograph them the best way he knows how. As a celebrity photographer, his area of expertise is face portraiture, so he decided to treat the dummies as he would any of his clients. Through a very thorough selection, he ended up with one hundred models to transfer that unique humanity onto paper.
His monumental portraits were done in a studio he set inside the museum and were all photographed in the same style, a square format with a monochromatic background. They measure 5 by 5 feet. As he mentioned, in a way, this proyect was his own way of creating art, specifically, of creating his very own type of paintings. How come? The portraits were printed on a cotton rag paper that gives the photographs a very unique finish that looks like really vibrant and bright watercolors.
Rolston, who was hired in the seventies by the one and only Andy Warhol as an assistant when he was only an art student, learned all the master’s techniques of portraiture. Throughout all the process, he wanted to evoke the style and vision of his mentor. The specific focus and angle of the camera with the bright colors are in a way a homage to Warhol’s own art and love for American folk and popular art.
But besides the homage and the peculiar protagonists of his project, what did Rolson wanted to portray with his Talking Heads? For him, as we mentioned at the beginning, these ventriloquist dummies are much more than just pieces for entertainment; they are, in his own words, “classic tropes of Pygmalion." For him, that underlined humanity expressed in their painted and carved features show that life is given to the inanimate object, or it could be seen as the creator’s own life being poured into their creation, a reflection of their own humanity and existence. As he mentions, he was “thrilled at the human energy coming off the objects. They’re steeped in humanity.”
Besides that, for Rolston, dummies have a huge historical importance that dates back to ancient forms of art and sculpture, like in ancient theatrical masks of the Greeks or the unique Egyptian sculptures we all admire in museums. Ventriloquist dummies have become part of humanity’s quest for entertainment and leisure but also an interesting and relevant current in the art that’s often forgotten.
Yes, there’s something eerie about ventriloquist dummies that makes us fear inanimate dolls, but it’s precisely our own human reflections we see in them. These portraits add much more to that idea, considering that Rolston actually treated them as he would any of his living subjects. He put them in poses and facial expressions we find attractive and alluring in human models to enhance that particular humanity he wanted to portray. Personally, I find these portraits fascinating and quite captivating, but at the same time they do convey something eerie and disturbing that’s quite impossible to keep out of the mind. Perhaps next time you see a vintage dummy you might find that what freaks you out is actually your own humanity reflected on it.
You can see more of Rolston’s work on his Instagram: @matthewrolstonstudio
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