Playing with dolls

2017-04-04 23.09.15

I recently purchased the above figurine. I suspect that this is linked to my (relatively new found) love of Kawaii – a Japanese word meaning “cute” and something that encompasses the very child-like simplicity of fun, bright colours and happiness.  If you’ve not heard of this before, I suggest you type the word into Google – and unlike some things that could produce ‘interesting’ responses through web searches, this one is quite nice.

Since I started properly studying the psychology of happiness – and possibly also the introduction of the “Friends” theme to Lego, my paint palette has started to draw in the wider colours of the rainbow; flesh tones and pinks now sit happily with the primary and secondary earth colours.  Of course, all this is to justify why my toy box now has Unicorns, Unicorno and other similar characters, such as the one above.

In a more reflective moment, I did wonder what it was that had drawn me to this figure in particular; it’s not like I’ve a collection of My Little Pony (honest).  From an artistic point of view, I am aware that your surroundings can enable a particular mind-set – and this figure was quite cute making it much easier to think ‘Kawaii’.  Being articulated meant that this will be a useful toy from a photography view as I can introduce some posability to the pictures.

I did undertake some research into both child development psychology, doll history and toy photography as well – I wondered if the boundaries for toys was as “hard lined” as I perceived; the post title came from an offhand comment said towards me when I was setting up for some toy photography a few years ago.  Although it was meant in jest (I hope), it was something that stuck…


Child psychology – or rather, Development Psychology as it is now called as it has a far wider age range engagement – was first identified by Jean Jacques Rousseau back in the mid-18th Century and highlighted stages of development.  Probably the most famous development was that determined by Jean Piaget who suggested that children learn by hands-on experience.  Whilst his suggestion focused on the adult’s role in helping children to learn by questioning and reflecting on what they were doing, what this effectively leads to is learning through play.  It is through this that we start to see the educational benefits of using toys, and why toys become more challenging and detailed as they work for older age ranges.  It also explains why toys were broadly designed as they were (and why toy manufacturers now might engage people with developmental psychology qualifications when designing new ones).  From a toy photography perspective (especially with the adult mind) the focus is often not “just of a toy” but as a mechanism to convey a feeling, opinion or situation, telling a story in a single image. The psychology behind each image is fascinating when you dip into it.

Toy dolls have been documented as far back as 100AD in Greece; although they had been around since before then.  For children they were used to teach or entertain – however I suspect that by “entertain” this is also learning about the world around them and allowing the children (typically girls) prepare for the jobs that they would have to undertake.  For boys it would seem that toy dolls really didn’t exist until 1964 when Hasbro released their GI Joe figure (and used the term Action Figure), but there were toy soldiers and these have been found in Egyptian tombs.  Again though, these would be “educational” – teaching the art of war rather than play as we know it today.

Toy photography however has a more elusive past and in my opinion owes much to the development of “fine art photography”.  Although photographic devices had been around for many years, the costs of using these devices (or rather producing the pictures) would have been high for what may have been considered “flippant” reasons (rather than photographing things as they are).  It’s not like there were places everywhere that you could drop your films off to be developed, most would have had their own darkrooms. I would suggest that one of the earliest examples of toy photography would be the Cottingly’s Fairies photographs back in the 1920’s – although whether they used toys, or just drawings is still not clear.  In Jennifer Nichole Wells blog she identifies what I think may be the best proper example – David Levintal photographs Barbie dolls in 1972.  But I would suggest that it was only really when digital photography took off and was affordable that toy photography moved from the fine artist and into the hands of the Everyman – and with websites such as Flickr allowing image sharing the medium of Toy photography really became a thing.  Of course, this is more focused on proper toys, rather than say model railways.

Kawaii came into existence in some form back in the 1970’s,  but it wasn’t until the vinyl toy manufacturers of the 1980’s that it really took off – and it seems that in the last five to ten years that it hit global awareness (and came under my radar).

So does this answer why I chose to buy this figure?  Probably not… I know why I bought it – when I saw it I could see the potential for some fun, happy images… and whilst I may be of a particular age and gender, I believe that sharing happiness through my images should not be limited to only age/gender appropriate toys and drawings.  And if that inspires me to be happy and I can use that to inspire someone else, then everyone wins.



  1. My dolls were central to my storytelling and play acting when I was a child. I knew I was going to be a writer when I found myself ‘editing’ my acting out – “No, she wouldn’t have said that!” or “No, no, that’s not going to work out!” I think when we stop playing, when we stop anthropomorphising just about everything that moves, will be a sad day for our creativity. All the world’s a stage, as someone said.

    • Thanks Nikki, and for myself I can recall being asked if I wanted to have a nap by my grandma when she saw me laying on the ground playing… when I was actually getting the best sighting angle … predating my interest in toy photography! And yes, I think when we stop playing we lose that creativity and that is a sad thing.

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