Chris McVeigh didn’t reach paid photography through any of the usual routes. He didn’t study photography, didn’t work as an assistant and he didn’t even have photography as a goal. His background was in writing for technology magazines and providing illustrations and animation for online advertising. It was only when the economic downturn left him with less demand from his regular employers, and more free time for creative experimentation, that he turned towards picture-taking. His images have since become regular additions to Gizmodo, they’re sold on RedBubble and Society6, and Lucasfilms has even put one of his photos on the front page of StarWars.com.
His success has been helped by the fact that Chris skirted around the competition for landscape photographs and wedding shoots. He produces a nearly unique set of pictures that he calls “toy photography.” He creates sets out of Lego figures and uses them to illustrate scenes.
Chris’s interest in Lego started as suddenly as his interest in photography. Like most people, Chris had left playing with plastic bricks in his childhood. Some friends, though, bought him some Star Wars Lego sets for Christmas… which he then ignored for about a year before assembling them.
“When I did finally break open the boxes and put them together, it was like a spark ignited within me,” Chris recalls. “However, it would be another few years and a dozen Star Wars sets before I was really hooked again.”
At the same time, Chris was playing around on Flickr, creating a series of comical self-portraits as part of a daily photo challenge. That series built an audience, won plaudits and gave him the confidence to buy his first DSLR.
Photography: Chris McVeigh
Each Set Takes Two to Three Weeks to Build
It wasn’t long before his growing interest in photography met the fun he was then having with Hasbro Star Wars figures. Lego, though, offered a more flexible platform, with parts that were interchangeable, allowing Chris to reuse pieces from any Lego theme from Batman to Harry Potter.
The props might be toys but creating the images isn’t child’s play. Chris usually has plenty of ideas but he starts designing using a Lego CAD app called Lego Digital Designer. That allows him to experiment with the build without spreading all the bricks in front of him. Once he’s happy with the design, he creates a test build in the real world then works to optimize the parts usage.
Some designs, he says, take as little as 24 hours but most require a development of two to three weeks before they’re ready to be photographed.
The shoot is a whole different challenge. Legos’s bricks are highly reflective, especially the darker colors, says Chris, so he has to be very careful about how he uses light and where he positions his panels. It’s no surprise that he typically builds and photographs new models just once a month at the moment, although he might produce a number of models concurrently and photograph them at the same time.
The result is a mixture of whimsy and smart photography. Scenes include a version of American Gothic, a reconstruction of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video (complete with dancing zombies) and a bowl of milk filled with floating stormtrooper heads. Reconstructions of early technology, including a Leica M9-P Hermes and a (sort of) working Polaroid Land Camera are popular too.
Chris’s intention when he began creating and photographing his models was little more than to enjoy some creative experimentation. But when he uploaded them to Flickr, the pictures continued to win attention, including from buyers.
“One of Gizmodo’s editors was a contact of mine on Flickr, and was impressed both with my capacity to design my own models and my ability to present those models with my photography,” Chris said. “So he contacted me through Flickr to see if I’d be interested in contributing to Gizmodo.”
From Lego to Kozik’s Mongers Menthols
The technology website has published dozens of Chris’s pictures using them to illustrate articles about water pressure as well as explanations of the difference between GSM and CDMA. The site made a point of linking to Chris’s Web pages and even mentioned that he was able for commissioned work.
His work for Lucasfilms also came about as a result of his presence on Yahoo’s photo sharing site. Bonnie Burton, formally of the Official Star Wars blog, contacted Chris on Flickr after seeing his Star Wars action figure/chipmunk photography on Digg.
Chris isn’t the only photographer who has managed to make money setting up toys and taking their picture. Ryan Roberts paints with a slightly different canvas, using collectible figures from Japan and China’s urban vinyl toy culture that was popular in the 1990s. They might include the Kozik’s Mongers Menthols series that contained a smoking pile of poop, Domo’s Acid Sweeties, or Pete Fowler’s Monsterism.
“These figures went way beyond my childhood toys with so much color and attitude,” says Ryan on his website. “They were already tiny works of art by giant artists from other genres such as painting, illustration, silk screening, and street art.”
Ryan’s broader choice of figures gives his scenes a greater freedom of expression even if the models themselves are less familiar than the Lego characters used by Chris McVeigh. He sells his prints from his websites, has a DVD of toy-based shorts and markets a calendar of his images that costs $45.
What both these photographers have in common is the combination of a passion for a hobby — in this case a particular kind of children’s toy — and a knowledge of photography. Bring those two together and add the kind of photography-loving networking that can still be found on sites like Flickr and while you might not find yourself traveling down the usual route taken by professional photographers, you could well find yourself winning commissions, landing sales making some money doing a photo-based activity you love.