L’Oeil de la Photographie, or The Eye of Photography—the highly respected online photography magazine founded by Jean-Jacques Naudet, a onetime editor in chief of French PHOTO magazine and the editor at large at American Photo—recently published a thought-provoking essay on Matthew Rolston‘s Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits. The fine-art portrait series and monograph, which have been featured by media outlets ranging from CNN and CBS News to ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal, center on the curious population of vintage ventriloquist dummies housed at the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky.
In “Matthew Rolston, Dummies’ Dreams Fulfilled,” art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp ruminates on the inspiration for the portrait series:
“Each photograph is five feet by five feet in size, a larger-than-life square format of considerable significance. They are neither conventional vertical portraits nor horizontal still lifes but an intentional combination of both. Rolston sees these ventriloquists’ dummies as subjects, their individual personalities revealed by their hair and eye color, eyebrows, the shape of their noses and mouths, even the size of their ears.
The same characteristics that fascinate Rolston when he photographs fashion models, celebrities, and entertainers, encouraged him to make the canny decision to depict these handcrafted entertainers as though they were living beings, which is not so hard to imagine. … Certainly empathy was one reason that drove Rolston to expend time and resources in pursuit of this project. He created these pictures for one of the defining reasons used by artists throughout history: he liked the way they looked and wanted to see if he could influence how they would be seen, how they could become part of the larger visual culture.”
Drohojowska-Philp goes on to explore the art-historical references that the portraits conjure:
“Using a wide-angle lens to accentuate facial features, Rolston took each photograph from a slightly low angle to emphasize monumentality. We are virtually forced into the compositions, since many of the heads are cropped across the top, a device used to great effect by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. These photographers were early influences on Rolston, who grew up looking at images by them in the glossy pages of his mother’s Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.
The tightly cropped face was used as well by Andy Warhol, who gave Rolston his first break, asking him to photograph Steven Spielberg for Interview magazine. Warhol remained a guiding light, and the square format of his celebrity portraits surely influenced Rolston’s choice for this work. Compare Warhol’s silkscreen portrait of Marilyn Monroe and Rolston’s photograph of Powers Girl, both with slashes of pale blue eye shadow. In acknowledgment of the iconic Warhol picture, Rolston closely cropped Powers Girl, cutting off the top of her blonde hair and eliminating her shoulders, isolating the mask of the face. The barely visible green scarf around her neck is nearly the same shade as the background of the Marilyn image. However, the goggly eyes of the dummy lend it both a comic and tragic air.”
Warhol’s influence can also be detected in Rolston’s Anonyma Boy. A famous Richard Avedon portrait of the Pop Artist finds him wearing an expression not unlike that of the vintage ventriloquist dummy, thereby bringing Rolston’s two greatest artistic inspirations—Warhol and Avedon—together in one work. “It’s such an amazing coincidence,” notes Rolston.
Perhaps because of his notable history as a celebrity photographer, Rolston treats his subjects with great empathy and not—as Drohojowska-Philp notes—as objects. “In these extraordinary photographs [the ventriloquist dummies] appear to us as entertainers brought out of retirement for one last show,” she writes. “We imagine their pride and elation as they face a new audience.”
Read the complete essay here.
For more on Talking Heads, please visit matthewrolstontalkingheads.com.
To learn about the making of the project, please click here or on the video below.