Early 3D Photo Statuettes: Photograph, Doll & Sculpture

Collection of Barbara Levine /

I collect vernacular photography including photographic objects and vintage photo statuettes. An American invention from the Depression era, a photo statuette (also known as a “humanette”) was a lifelike figurine made from a photograph laminated onto a wooden cut-out and coated with a durable finish. Often the maker would hand color the photograph for an even more lifelike appearance.

Advertised in magazines like “Popular Mechanics” as a way to transform an ordinary snapshot into an “immortal” keepsake, these oddities are somewhere between a photo, a doll and sculpture.

Photo statuettes in many ways are the miniature cousins of life size cardboard cutouts—the kind found in American amusement parks depicting movie stars, next to which one poses as if to say, “look who I know!” Like so much photographica, these statuettes seek to transport the personal photograph from the limited sphere of private memory into a world of public display and exchange, invoking the vocabulary of advertising more than portraiture.

Collection of Barbara Levine /

Seven Mario Lanza photo statuettes, 1941- 1950. Collection of Barbara Levine /

Photographic accuracy and sculptural approximation can result in a very odd combination—at once lifelike and creepily lifeless. But this hasn’t stopped inventors from continuing to experiment with the form: hi-res digital photos can now be mapped onto computer-generated wireframes and sent to 3-D printers to produce lifelike photo-sculptures. It remains to be seen if these 21st century souvenir mannequins manage to solve (or exacerbate) the unsettling qualities of the genre.

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