Since the rise of consumer society about 150 years ago, mannequins are an indispensable part of modern city life. Inevitably, they have also become a popular motive for street photographers. Our mute friends figure prominently in Eugène Atget’s pictures of 1920s Paris and in Vivian Maier’s work from mid-twentieth-century New York. Lee Friedlander captured some of them in his self-portraits, and later he even published a whole photobook on the subject – in “Mannequins”, slim bodies are melting with shiny window reflections and the surrounding metropolitan architecture. A very recent example of mannequin photography is provided by dutch Instagramer @fuuji_buddy, whose pictures are more minimalist but also show reflections and architecture – almost like a hypermodern update to Friedlander’s. These are just a few examples – if you google for “street photography mannequin” you will find many more. So what is it about mannequins that attracts so many photographers across decades? Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, authors of the compelling genre-overview “Street Photography Now” describe them as “playful, occasionally grotesque, stand-ins for the human body “ and as “inherently disturbing”. Obviously, there is an ambiguity about mannequins that offers a rich field of possible associations.
Just like the photographers cited above, also I have been attracted by the mystery of mannequins. I didn’t intentionally plan to shoot a series. Rather, I found interesting opportunities to capture mannequins again and again – and at some point I noticed some connections and commonalities in these picture. Thus, I hope to make a small contribution to this long-running visual discourse by concentrating on two aspects that fascinate me especially: The first aspect concerns their bodies, which in photographic history have been depicted as oscillating between perfection and trash. The second aspect concerns qualities of mannequins that invite us to create stories around them – or even provoke stories to automatically pop up in our heads.
Bodies Between Perfection and Trash
At a first sight, the bodies of naked mannequins may remind us of statues of the Greek or Roman antique. Just like ancient statues, mannequins mirror the ideals of beauty of their time. Interestingly, the ideal for the male body seems to be quite constant across the centuries. Male mannequins are shown as compactly build, strong and musculous – just compare the male figure on the right side of the picture below to – let’s say ‘Hermes of Olympia’. On the contrary, the ideal female body seems to have changed: Contemporary female mannequins are extremely slim and of a youth-like body-type, while for example the famous ‘Venus de Milo’ was way curvier.
However, their ancient counterparts were hand-crafted by the most well-versed artists of their time. Greek statues usually consist of rare and expensive materials – bronze or even the finest marble – and they often lasted for 2000 years or even more. And of course, ancient statues often depicted gods or the heroes of tragic stories. While the purpose of ancient statues was to serve religion or to glorify rulers, modern day mannequins are made for more profane economic purposes. And this renders their apparent perfection more ambivalent: On the one hand, mannequins line the windows of noble boutiques in downtown shopping streets all over the world. Their bodies resemble human supermodels and display fine clothes of the most desired fashion brands. They evoke longing in us by letting us imagine ourselves with that noble suit or that fancy new dress.
On the other hand, they are mass-produced in industrial processes, made of fiberglass or even just cheap plastic. And their life span is short. All too often, mannequins are discarded for little reasons. Maybe their plastic bodies show the first signs of abrasion – and anyway, fast fashion longs for newness and replacement all the time. Discarded, worn-down mannequins with missing bodyparts look somehow sad and a bit spooky. In the following picture, this ambiguity is shown – slim bodies and perfect breast forms, but also abrasion, missing fingers and weird socks.
It is exactly this tension that renders mannequins “inherently disturbing” – they make us think about our fast forward consumer culture, and about the evanescence of our own youth, beauty and our lives. This point is illustrated in the next two pictures: The first shows a mannequin lying lost and with a vacant stare in a window of a closed shop.
In the second one, two guys are carrying off the upper body of a discarded mannequin in a shopping cart.
This last picture leads us to the second aspect I want to sketch out – because this picture raises questions and the viewer asks himself: What is happening here?
Mannequins Invite Us to Tell a Story
In the end, mannequins are inanimate things, but they have the build of humans and some have even human-like faces. And in photographs, these differences tend to diminish. This is because in pictures humans and mannequins are frozen alike – and we need to imagine what might have happened before or after a captured scene. Because we are so used to creating little stories around the people we see in a photograph, we might as well imagine mannequins becoming alive and stepping out of their posture. This is illustrated by the picture of the mannequin with the sunglasses, half hiding in the shadow.
We can imagine him to be a man who is waiting for something. Doesn’t he seem to hide something? Maybe he’s a thug waiting to make some trouble or a dealer looking for clients to sell weed to? Or is he just a melancholic guy – standing there alone, lost in thought, philosophizing about the weird world he lives in?
Or look at the picture of the little mannequin hiding behind another. Isn’t this a shy or anxious kid hiding behind her mother, not wanting to say hello to a stranger? Or is there even a deeper story behind it?
Finally, let us take a second look at the first picture in this article, the picture of a lone sitting mannequin looking at a group of standing companions. Also this photograph elicits questions, such as: Is he an outsider longing to be part of the group? Or is he a powerful person sitting on some kind of throne, waiting for lesser ones to come in and speak up? But all actors of this scene are naked – so are we maybe observing a sauna scene?
Of course, mannequins don’t look 100% human. Often they have simplified faces and sometimes no face at all. But this is a good feature because it even widens the space for associations. Don’t these mannequins almost look like the robots in Björks “All is Full of Love” music video? Or imagine them as Replicants from the “Blade Runner” movies. Who knows what they are doing behind our backs? Do they form some kind of parallel society or do they even gather to form a plot against mankind? Who knows…
To sum up – my thesis is that the ‘Mystery of Mannequins’ is rooted in their enormous capabilities to elicit associations, fantasies, stories or even desires. And this is the reason why street photographers across decades have chosen this motive – again and again and again.