A Window on a Tiny World: Photographer Shelly Corbett Transforms LEGO Figures into Creative Works of Art

©Shelly Corbett

A long time Seattle art photographer, Shelly Corbett’s work was primarily focused on the human figure. Corbett was recently introduced to the photo social media site Instagram, and (through a quirk of fate) was drawn into the world of toy photography.

She quickly became inspired by the clever and imaginative ways that her fellow toy photographers were able to bring their tiny playthings to life. Corbett’s husband and children are huge LEGO fans and their collection of bricks is vast (and still growing)—so integrating the love of photography with her family’s favorite hobby was a natural fit.

Even though the current models are mostly yellow (and just 1.5 inches tall), Corbett can't escape her photographic past or those who have influenced her previous work. Voyeurism has always been a consistent theme, and this photo series is no different, as her goal is to reveal the hidden (secret) life of these popular toys.

Her photos encourage viewers to make up their own stories about the mini figures shown in each image. Check out our interview with Corbett below to learn more.

©Shelly Corbett

Shutterbug: Please give us some background on your photography career.

Corbett: When I graduated with a BFA in Photography from The University of Washington in 1987, I was exploring the female figure in an underwater setting. I loved doing that style of work and pursued it for nearly 20 years, exhibiting in galleries and art fairs throughout the United States. When photography was transitioning from film to digital, I stepped back from photography. It was nearly five years until I picked up my camera again, this time to shoot rock bands and eventually videoing them as well.

During this time of reconnecting with photography I realized that the profession had changed dramatically. With the rise of social media sites like Instagram, I felt a new drive to re-learn my craft and figure out how I fit into this new digital, online realm.  While I was experimenting with toys and Instagram, I stumbled across the toy photography community and I was hooked. It wasn't long before I became a moderator for a feed that features only LEGO toy photography, BrickCentral.

In 2014, I co-founded StuckinPlastic, an arts collective that promotes the toy photography community as well as the work of our five members. StuckinPlastic’s mission is to bring like-minded individuals together for toy photography meet-ups, foster information sharing, participation and collaboration.

©Shelly Corbett

Shutterbug: Your images of LEGO characters are extremely fun and creative. How did you get the idea to use them as your subject matter and how do you come up with each scene?

Corbett: Thank you! I often joke that I have no sense of humor, because in the world of toy photography, my work often comes across as fairly serious. I think shooting LEGO was an opportunity of convenience; they were plentiful and I needed a subject. My entire family is heavily into LEGO. At some point, I got tired of sorting their bricks and used the LEGO mini figure as my way of dealing with the LEGO insanity that is my house. The similarity of a mini figure to a model underwater in a swimming pool is eerily similar.

Back when I was shooting live models underwater, there was a certain voyeuristic element to the work. I was always watching, and there was very little interaction with the models. This same relationship plays out when I’m shooting the mini figures. I try to get inside their little plastic heads and figure out what they would be doing, where they would be going, what they are thinking, and that’s what I capture that with my camera. When we go out into the field, my mini figs and I, the combination of their personalities and the surrounding terrain dictates the entire photo experience.

©Shelly Corbett

Shutterbug: How do you choose (or alter) the background in order to make the figure fit the space and seem larger?

Corbett: I choose locations where I can get below the mini figure. I often tell myself that if it doesn’t hurt, then I haven’t gone low enough. At times, such as when I’m shooting around water, I have to improvise. In the sand, I’ll dig myself in, and in a pond I look for variations in terrain that will help me get into a vantage point where my camera is pointing upwards, giving the mini figs a monumental feel. I look for interesting vegetation, and like all photographers, good light. As I often advise other outdoor toy photographers, you’re not photographing the toy, you’re photographing the light.

©Shelly Corbett

Shutterbug: How do you capture the images? What gear do you use and do you enhance the shots with Photoshop?

Corbett: I shoot with my trusty Canon 5D Mark III with Canon’s 100mm EF L macro lens. I don’t use a tripod, which can be problematic for the slow shutter speeds I’m often aiming for. But after years of being able to move around a model in a 360-degree space, I hate to tie myself down to just one view. I do very little post-production in Photoshop. I consider myself an old-school photographer in that I try to get what I am searching for within the camera. There’s something special to me about seeing the image in the view finder and knowing that’s the one.

©Shelly Corbett

Shutterbug: Are you an avid LEGO collector? How many sets and figures do you own?

Corbett: I wouldn't categorize myself as an avid collector, because when I look at sets, I look at them purely for their photographic potential. “How can I use this piece, that house, that vehicle or those mini figures?” However, I do own more mini figures than I care to admit, and the collection continues to expand. I’m extremely intrigued by the new world of 3D printing and the custom parts that are being created for the LEGO mini figure. There are some artists in the toy community that are using the mini figure as a platform that same way that builders use the basic LEGO brick. It’s been amazing to watch this niche community grow and expand in so many unexpected ways.

©Shelly Corbett

Shutterbug: What advice would you give others who want to use small toys to create images?

Corbett: Above all, I believe that toys should be played with. There is nothing sadder than a toy left in a box or on a shelf gathering dust. There’s just something very magical about bringing your toys to life. You don’t need any special equipment, any mobile camera or basic DSLR will do the trick. Having macro capabilities is a plus, but it certainly isn’t necessary. I say, take your toys outside, lay down on the ground and start shooting. If you don’t feel comfortable getting down and dirty, look for park benches, fences, walls, etc. to set up a scene and start shooting. You can use the original backstories of your toys (Star Wars is very popular place to start) or make up your own amazing adventures. There are no rules when shooting toys—just a willingness to use your imagination and remember its ok to play.

©Shelly Corbett

Shutterbug: What other projects you working on these days?

Corbett: I enjoy staying focused (no pun intended) so I am concentrating purely on LEGO photography. There is so much I want to explore within this world, and I enjoy being a part of the online toy photography community. Currently I have a group show with three other members of the StuckinPlastic collective: Boris Vanrillaer, Mike Stimpson and Kristina Alexanderson. The show is open now until December 12, 2015 at the Bryan Ohno Gallery in Seattle.

In the next few months, I’ll be creating images based on a classic children’s book, designing my own custom parts and producing them using a 3D printer. When I’m not photographing toys, I shoot video bands for my local radio station—KEXP. Shooting video re-energizes me creatively, adding an interesting dimension to my personal work. I’m also in the beginning stages of planning the next US toy photographers meet-up with Stuckinplastic, and we are look forward to sponsoring our second European meet-up in the summer of 2016.

(See more of Corbett's work on her website.)

©Shelly Corbett

©Shelly Corbett