We’re thrilled to announce the release of Matthew Rolston’s latest monograph, Talking Heads, The Vent Haven Portraits—his third hardcover book and his first strictly fine-art project ever. The book—which has already been featured by CBS News, The Huffington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Hunger TV—is making its premiere tomorrow night at Art Basel Miami Beach, in an event presented by Fountainebleu and Hendrick’s Gin.
Published by Pointed Leaf Press, Talking Heads features Rolston’s portraits of vintage ventriloquist dummies from the obscure Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Using techniques he has honed over decades of celebrity portraiture, Rolston has captured the inherent humanity in this rarely seen collection of unique entertainment figures.
“I’m known for my work with entertainers, and after seeing images of the figures at Vent Haven, I couldn’t wait to ‘meet’ them,” he recalls. “I love faces, and this was without a doubt one of the greatest casting calls I’ve ever seen, and with some of the most fascinating hair, makeup and wardrobe of all time.”
An evolution of Rolston’s career in celebrity photography, Talking Heads was more than three years in the making. After reading a story about the Vent Haven Museum (the world’s only museum dedicated to the art of ventriloquism) by New York Times critic-at-large Edward Rothstein in the summer of 2009, Rolston was curious to see this unusual archive in person.
With nearly 750 dummies on display, some dating back to the 1800s, the Vent Haven Museum did not disappoint. Rolston’s several visits to Vent Haven inspired research into the history of this form of entertainment, and what it means to create and give life to an inanimate object. After multiple meetings at Vent Haven with curator Jennifer Dawson, Rolston was granted unprecedented access.
“Many people seem to look on ventriloquist figures in a negative light, and it took some time before the museum’s curator and board of directors felt comfortable with my approach, and understood that I genuinely find these figures to be endearing and deeply moving,” he notes.
Rolston painstakingly selected the faces he was most drawn to and in particular those that conveyed a sense of character through pronounced aging, exaggerated features, and ornately painted faces. Approaching the process from a purely visual standpoint, he placed more emphasis on what the figures looked like rather than their historical significance.
And he kept his photographic style rigorously simple. “A certain formality seemed preferable given the natural flamboyance of the subject matter,” said Rolston.
All of the portraits are shot on a plain white background using a hard single-source light. Rolston’s objective was to show the humanity and living history of each figure in the highest resolution possible. Working with the latest Hasselblad digital SLR and its new P65+ back and utilizing extremely high-powered photographic strobe lighting, Rolston was able to render each exquisite detail in high relief.
“The formal approach helped me reach my goal: iconic, unforgettable, and powerful portraiture, no gimmicks,” he said.
Complementing the book will be an exhibition of the images from Talking Heads, which will be presented in an impressively large format: The richly colored pigment prints, on Canon’s exclusive 100 percent cotton rag fine-art natural paper, measure 5 x 5 feet square.
“Big isn’t always better, but in this case it was so interesting to view a micro world on a macro scale,” observed Rolston. “The images take on a totemic quality. For me, they induce a trance-like state of meditation, as I stare at the faces and lose myself in the rich surface textures, eccentric details, and individual identities.”
Pointed Leaf Press’s production is oversized, though not on the scale of the exhibition prints. Maintaining the images’ square format, the book measures a generous 12.5 x 12.5 inches, offering a slightly more intimate experience.
Space is also devoted to the history of the Vent Haven Museum and its collections, including archival photographs of many of the figures in Rolston’s portraits.