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Photography Book: 7 Haunting Ventriloquist Dummy Portraits

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In my practice as a Hollywood photographer and director, I'm constantly looking for inspiration, and I always manage to find it in a magical, nearly instantaneous way. It seems that as soon as I put my antenna out there I start "receiving." The universe offers up the very thing I need just when I need it. It's a blessing.

It was no different for this project. I was looking for something to do that was personal and different from my everyday assignments. My antenna was up. And there they were, just below the fold on the cover of The New York Times Thursday Styles section--the dummies of the Vent Haven Museum.

After reading the Times piece by Edward Rothstein, I became deeply intrigued by Vent Haven's unusual inhabitants. I knew nothing of ventriloquism then, and still know very little, but I have learned of the poetry of these figures and the ways in which they were brought to life--as an expression of their creators--the figure makers and the ventriloquists.

The Vent Haven Museum is the only museum in the world of ventriloquial figures and memorabilia. It is home to over 750 ventriloquist dummies. The museum is in the tiny town of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, only five miles from the big city of Cincinnati, Ohio, but worlds away in spirit. Vent Haven ("vent" is lingo for "ventriloquist", and the place is a kind of "haven" for the figures) is housed in a private home, and several small outbuildings, on a pleasant, tree-shaded cul-de-sac. The museum was founded over 50 years ago by William Shakespeare Berger, a Cincinnati businessman and amateur ventriloquist.

Many people look on ventriloquist figures in a negative light, as if there's something frightening about them, and it took some time and several visits 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.

During various scouting trips to Vent Haven, I painstakingly selected the dummies to be photographed. I began by approaching my subjects because of how they look, not necessarily because of their historic or cultural value. The faces that spoke to me most had expressions that I found enigmatic, pleading, sphinx-like, hilarious, and disturbing--all at once.

To me, the greatest photographic portraits are mostly about finding a connection with the subject's eyes. There's an expression of yearning and desire in these eyes that I find mesmerizing.

My work in Hollywood with entertainers certainly informs the work in this project--after all, these ventriloquist dummies were once entertainers themselves. I used the same photographic techniques I use with human subjects. I am always looking to bring out a special spark of life and beauty in each of my portraits.

A certain formality to the photographic approach seemed preferable, given the natural flamboyance of the subject matter. All the images are straightforward portraits shot on a plain white background, using a hard single-source light. This formal approach helped me reach my goal: iconic, unforgettable and powerful portraiture, no gimmicks.

What time has wrought on the figures speaks volumes, in a language both satirical and tender. Their expressions evoke a sense of serenity, a melancholy that suggests a spiritual longing, authentically embodying three telling truths: nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished, and nothing lasts.

Perhaps in their solitude today, separated from their makers, these figures represent liberation from our materialistic world. No longer aided by the human voices that once spoke so magically through them, the Vent Haven dummies now speak by the simple fact of their physical presence. To paraphrase American poet Helen Hay Whitney: these old lost stars rise and gleam once more.

The Vent Haven dummies don't just channel humanity, they fetishize it. Human history is all over them. They are overwhelmingly, intensely human objects. They are my subjects.

Check out these 7 portraits of ventriloquist dummies:

Matthew Rolston is the author of Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits [Pointed Leaf Press, $75.00].

7 Haunting Dummy Portraits
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