Scientifically proven, there are 915,103,765 ways to tell a story with just six LEGOs. Toy Photographer, James Garcia has broken the code and found 915,103,765 more ways.
I first met James in 2013, when he came to my house and filmed me play a couple songs on my front porch. I feel like I really got to know him a couple years after that. I started seeing his LEGO photography pop up more and more and became fully immersed in his strange and imaginative world he created — with toys. Continuing from my previous post on using media to elevate your story, James Garcia has been able to combine humor and sophistication through his childlike medium of toys. He's even created a custom LEGO of himself (see above), fully becoming a character in the world he's constantly evolving. Describing himself simply as "just a guy who’s lucked out in having the chance to play with toys and talk about Star Wars while hiding the fact that I’m just a kid trapped in a 27 year old’s body," James' work translates his medium of photography in an ongoing ode to his love of the infinite universe of play.
Who are you? What do you do in the world?
Well, my surface-level answer is that my name is James Garcia, and I’m the Creative Director at a social media marketing company called YoungSocial. Going deeper than that, I’m a very creative person, and have been my whole life. This has caused me to jump from one creative outlet to another over the years, but I’ve finally found my “thing,” which is LEGO photography.
I’m also a writer, and consider myself very lucky to have the chance to merge that passion not only with my love of LEGO, but for my love of film. I write for ToyPhotographers.com, a great community of not only LEGO photographers like myself, but those who photograph all kinds of various toys. I’m also a senior staff writer for FlickeringMyth.com, where I write about movie and television news, usually of the geeky or superhero variety.
How long have you been taking pictures? Do you have your first picture?
I’ve spent a great deal of my life jumping from one creative outlet to another. Photography was always something I was interested in, but I never quite found my niche, or felt like I had anything to really add to the medium. I took one photography class my sophomore year of high school, but beyond that am self-taught and, frankly, have no idea what I’m doing technically behind the camera.
I found the LEGO photography community about five or six years ago, and immediately fell in love with it. In October of 2013 I finally decided to try it out for myself, and the second that first picture was captured, I knew I’d finally found my outlet. I’ve been taking LEGO photos ever since!
What is it about LEGOs that inspired you to communicate your artistic voice through?
I’ve been a LEGO lover my entire life. As a kid, I had an entire side of my bedroom dedicated to a LEGO city I’d built, with skyscrapers and even a train! I gave it up when I got into middle school, a period of life that the AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) community calls “The Dark Ages.” You know, the years when you’re “too cool” for kids’ stuff like toys. Luckily, my parents kept all of my LEGOs in the hopes that I would someday want them again, and lo and behold, I did! Now instead of having them in the corner of my bedroom, they fill my office, which also acts as my studio space. Don’t you just love how things come full circle?
The thing about LEGO that inspires me so much is the literal infinite possibilities that they provide. In the film A LEGO Brickumentary, a mathematician named Søren Eilers from the University of Copenhagen tried calculating the number of ways LEGO could be configured. With just six eight-stud pieces, he calculated that there are 915,103,765 combinations!
So, what more could an introverted, creative, and geeky photographer ask for in a subject? I get to hang out in my toy-filled office, play around in the Star Wars or superhero universes I love so much, and never run the risk of running out of ideas.
What's the process like in setting up a good photo session?
A good photo session usually requires some kind of scene set up, depending on what I’m photographing. I’m not much of an actual LEGO builder (apart from following the instructions that come with the sets I buy), so my setups are usually fairly simple. Death Star walls with a nice reflective black surface, or a quick little red LEGO couch on top of a cutting board (to simulate hardwood floors) can usually get me pretty far. My favorite “building” aspect is actually the choosing or configuration of the minifigure I want to feature. It’s fun tearing apart little plastic limbs or swapping out heads to see what new characters or scenarios you can come up with. Putting all the little hands and heads back together in their proper order? Not so much…
Another of my favorite things about photographing toys is the small scale, which means I have to get creative when it comes to what I use to create my shot. You’d be surprised at the kinds of things you can come up with with everyday household objects, that look far different sitting next to a 4 inch LEGO minifigure than they do sitting in your kitchen.
I’ve got a few umbrella lights that I set up if need be, but have a pretty big window that allows a lot of natural light to come in. Then I just set up my camera on a tripod and snap away! Primarily, I shoot indoors in my office, but over the past year I’ve found it refreshing and exciting to also pack some minifigures in my camera bag and go on photo walks to local parks or places where I think I can nab some great photos. Those require far less actual setup but do require that I deal more with natural elements like wind, light (which is sometimes hard to come by in the PNW), weather, and passers-by who find it hilarious that I’m hunched over playing with toys in the dirt.
What are you wanting people to walk away with when they see your photos?
The biggest thing I want people to walk away with is joy. Toys are an inherently happy object, reserved for play. So I tend to be rather playful in my style. That’s not to say that I won’t do something more serious (in fact, the stark contrast between something meant for play and a political message can be rather striking and engaging), but I want people to have fun with my work, and walk away somehow having their expectations or assumptions of the medium exceeded or changed. There’s no greater joy for me than seeing someone laugh at one of my pictures and ask, “How did you do that?” or “How did you think to do that?”
There's a lot of humor in your work, why is that important to you?
I’m a pretty jokey guy, so it’s no surprise that that shows up in my work as well! Humor is just what comes naturally to me as a creative person. My goal is usually to entertain people, rather than educate, scare, etc. Luckily, LEGO as a company has a pretty great sense of humor, so that mixed with that inherent joy that comes with toys makes capturing humor pretty easy.
When did you finally know when you created something that was fully in your vision?
It’s hard to say when I knew I’d created something that was fully in my vision. I think that early on, I felt that I was capturing what I wanted to, but looking back now I’m not really happy with some of those earlier shots, now that I’ve matured as a photographer and truly found my voice.
When I started out, my setups and scenarios were fairly simple. Once I started venturing a bit farther from my comfort zone, and taking more time to set up or more time to build things that I could use in my photos, that’s when I started up-leveling my work and fully achieving what I wanted to. I’d say that came about a year or so after I started. There was a bit of a learning curve I had to overcome, and a sense of confidence in my own voice that I needed to find first, I think.
How does your relationship with social media influence your art?
Social media has a huge influence on my art. As I mentioned before, I work in social media, so that’s always influencing my life in some capacity. Beyond that, social media is where I post my work! When I take a photo I don’t print it and display it somewhere, I post it on Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, and Google +. I tweet about it or use it as the subject of my latest piece for ToyPhotographers. Then I send that link out onto the various social platforms, and the cycle repeats indefinitely. So, while social media doesn’t have much to do with the genesis of the photo, it absolutely has a lot to do with the finished product, and the continued life of the photo once I’ve taken it.
How do you represent yourself through social media?
I’ve often thought about whether I should have some kind of “persona” or alternate version of myself on social media. That’s not to say a full-on pseudonym or fake personality, but a skewed version of myself that I could use to somehow frame my work. Instead, I’ve chosen to just be myself, which I ultimately believe is the best approach. I don’t shy away from my personal opinions - whether they’re for film or politics - or my personal sense of humor. After all, in today’s digital, social media driven age, I think that people have a better chance of truly connecting with my work if they understand what I’m like as a person and why I do the things I do and the way that I do them. I’ve certainly found that to be the case with the artists I follow and love.
As an artist, what have you learned over the years that has made your life easier?
The biggest thing I’ve learned, besides any technical things I may not have known about f-stops, shutter speeds, or the like, is how important it is to be social on social media, get involved in communities of like-minded people, and collaborate. More opportunities have come my way as a result of my collaboration with other artists (like the fine folks at ToyPhotographers and in the toy photography community) than when I was just doing this on my own and not engaging with other artists or my viewers.
Now, I have friends who are toy and LEGO photographers. We meet in person to shoot toys together, and I get to write on a blog I love because of getting involved in the community. They help me to become a better photographer, and a better artist.
I’ve made a commitment this year to “get serious” about my photography. That means being very intentional with my output and where I show my work. That means writing more, photographing more, and engaging more in the communities I’m involved in. And, hopefully, that means spreading my work farther than it’s ever been, and maybe even making a small bit of income off of my hobby.
I sell a few prints here and there on a few online stores, but I want to eventually begin selling prints myself, and I have ideas for coffee table books or collections of my work that people could purchase. I may have talked a lot about how great the digital age is - and it truly is - but there’s still something truly magical about holding a piece of my art in my hands, or seeing others hold my prints.
Mostly though, I’m excited for the unexpected things on the horizon I won’t be able to predict. Three years ago when I started, I had no idea where this would take me. It’s been one hell of a journey so far, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.