When I was a kid, drawing and building stuff were among my favorite things to do. Plastic scale model kits were widely popular then, offering a variety of appealing subjects for young boys. My favorites were dinosaurs, movie monsters, and airplanes. Aurora’s Allosaurus (pictured above) was one of my favorite models as a kid. The picture on the box mesmerized me, historical inaccuracy notwithstanding.
After graduate school, I began to attend contests and swap meets hosted by local modeling clubs. I went to purchase inexpensive, secondhand kits to use for an idea I had for an art project. Browsing the contest portion of the event, I marveled at the precision and intricacy of the work displayed. It was a far cry from the to-like models I built as a kid. Soon, I was building models again, both for my art projects, and just to see if I could build as nice a model as I had admired.
Eventually, I became friendly with a few guys I would see at these contests, and even starting entering my own work. Before long, I was a bona fide member of this community of men who enjoy building scale models.
There is a common stereotype of adult model builders: Odd and awkward loners who relate best to imaginary worlds, and who sometimes have a fascination with military violence. But I have found most modelers to be thoughtful and complex men. Most do not consider themselves artists, but their work could be considered a contemporary vein of traditional art-making practices, especially those intended as tribute. And many modelers have a deftness of hand that rivals the most talented artists I know.
As a photographer, it was natural to consider scale modelers for a project. But it took me several years to muster the courage to ask if I could take their portraits, partly because I was influenced by the stereotypes: I expected modelers to take a dim view of a project designed to examine the nature of their unorthodox interests.
Nor was I exactly sure what I wanted such portraits to look like. Should I photograph their models? Should I photograph them at their workplace, or with their families, to establish identity beyond the framework of their hobbies?
I wanted to see if I could make a picture where a model could be a visual cue as to the personality of the modeler, while still having the image function as portrait, rather than a tableaux, or still-life, or as something approaching a surrealistic illusion.
My friend Dai is both an excellent modeler and a fellow artist. He could appreciate that my project would range into territory unfamiliar to most hobbyists. He agreed to be my first subject, proving both agreeable to the occasional odd direction, and an insightful critic in those crucial early stages.
I photographed Dai on a few occasions, as we worked out exactly what these images might look like. Soon I dared ask another friend, a cop who makes some of the most exquisite models I have ever seen, to pose for a portrait.
As I continued to makes portraits, I saw that the strongest among them seemed to be when the modelers were themselves regarding their work, rather than merely presenting it for the viewer to consider.
For me, it activated an emotional dimension of the portraits, suggesting idealization and adoration. I realized what I had set out to make: pictures of people who made things to fulfill their—our—inexplicable passions.