Brian McCarty Gets His Hands Dirty

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Brian McCarty spends a lot of time on his knees. Get your mind out of the gutter, perv–he's just taking photos. Then again, these aren't just any portraits; they're painstaking, crisp, beautifully colored fairytales featuring very small, very still protagonists.

McCarty's work gives context and humor to the often lifeless world of collectible vinyl and plush. He's re-imagined Toren Orzeck's Furilla toy running wild through the desert, James Jarvis' cartoon hooligans Harvey and Jubs about to cause trouble outside the Wonder Bread factory, and set Santa Inoue's ruffneck Merra figurine (from the Tokyo Tribes series) against the graffiti-emblazoned background of L.A.'s abandoned Red Line subway tunnel.

"The majority of the time I start with the toy and imagine where they would go, and what they would do," writes McCarty from his home in West Hollywood. "On other projects I'll begin with a narrative concept and seek out characters to illustrate it." A project with Rockstar Games' Vice City figurines, for example, demanded shooting in Miami's seedier neighborhoods, while posing Biddies characters breakdancing and standing outside of strip clubs was his own idea.

McCarty, who admires photographer Robert Frank and likes to work with everything from Paul Simon to Panjabi MC playing in the background, says that equipment is relatively unimportant compared to inspiration. "[The camera] is really just there to record what you see," he says.

XLR8R: Describe the moment when you realized that you should shoot toys.

Brian McCarty: Honestly, I always thought I should shoot toys. About the time I was supposed to grow up and stop playing with them, toys transitioned into the focus of my early, fumbling experiments with photography.

But if you're looking for the a-ha "Take On Me" moment, it probably came as a freshman at Parsons [School of Design]. I had started moving away from toys and had begun photographing all the stuff I thought real photographers shot–landscapes, fashion, documentary–and none of it was exciting me. I randomly shot this super-rough miniseries with a plastic Shriners figure that followed the Talking Heads song "Mr. Jones." It was so much fun and felt so right in contrast to what I was supposed to do, that it sealed the deal. I knew that's all I wanted to shoot.

Are any of the toys "difficult"?

[It's] so tempting to crack jokes, but some of them really are. The biggest challenge I face is scale and perspective–working with anything under four inches tall is an extreme challenge. I've gotten pretty good at overcoming it, but shot choices are severely limited.

Of the photos seen here, which was the most complicated to stage?
Tough one–a lot of them were very complex. Top choice would probably be the photo of Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. In the shot, he's floating in the middle of the pool at the Las Vegas Palms Casino with the lovely "Palms Girls" in the background.

For starters, the toy doesn't float–at least not upright. Even if it did, the wind gusting to 30mph kinda made that moot. Since this was the one and only time I had access to the pool, we rigged up this crazy fishing line system. Next came time to get Ruth and Ryan (the Palms Girls) sorted out. I could see they just weren't digging on the prospect of climbing into the pool for some pale loser with a toy, so I told them to just laugh their asses off at Shake and me. The motivation perhaps came too easy for them.

Between the crazy wind that kept messing up their hair, blowing away the reflectors, and making Shake look like the SS Minnow, I managed to get a shot I'm very happy with.

How old are you?

It freaks me out that I still remember sixth graders as being soooo old. Being 28 would have just blown my little mind; the fact I'm 32, even more so.

Random side story that relates to my age: When I was at Parsons I got hold of Douglas Coupland's fax number through a friend at his publishing company. If memory serves, this was around the time when his second book was about to come out. I faxed him a few times, and the guy was nice enough to reply to the random fanboy that I was. One of things he said really stuck with me. He talked about how happy he was to be through his 20s, and that he knew far better who he was at 32. Being there now, I gotta agree with the guy.

What was the first toy you ever really loved?

A stuffed Snoopy. Still got him, complete with a bunch of his outfits. The pilot one rules all.

What do you do when you're feeling uninspired?

Music is a really, really big thing for me. And not to be all brainy and shit, but I'm a closet fan of a number of poets. There's a great Orson Welles quote that I like a lot: "A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet."

There is a lot of debate over how long the limited-edition toy market can continue, given how expensive toys are getting and their limited use (outside of collecting). Do you feel the market is getting saturated?

Well, you have to remember that you're talking to a guy that's been photographing toys for over 15 years. As far as I'm concerned, toys are an artistic genre that is only starting to peek its head aboveground. Because this is so new, or at least the emergence is, there will be periods of readjustment where the medium will be forced to refocus and redefine itself. The trends that are happening now in the marketplace may come and go, but artists will continue expressing their vision through toys regardless.

What sorts of things do you think will help keep the toy business alive?

If we're just talking about the collector market, manufacturers and artists could do well looking at comics and baseball cards. Both tanked for a while after trying to artificially force the collectability. There is some of that already happening in the toy scene with people going a little crazy with colorways and overproduction of platform toys.

I gotta say that Rockstar did it right with the GTA figures. It's pretty ballsy for them to go with super-small runs and no paint variations. They're not trying to turn a quick buck or capitalize on some fad. They are supporting the growth of the genre. Frankly, it's going to take more of that sort of thinking to really keep this alive. The Rockstar Games of the world have the potential to be the Medicis of the toy renaissance. Artists such as myself will always continue to explore the medium, but it needs benefactors to be seen.

What is your advice for young photographers?

Shoot whatever the hell you want and just keep doing it. Eventually you'll find an audience.