Off the Clock: Language Professor Creates Toy Stories with Photos

Posted: May 19, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

seagulls on shore

At first glance it looks like a beach vacation photo—seagulls swarming in a blue sky above a crashing ocean, while sunbathers lounge lazily on the sand. A closer look reveals the closest seagull is not actually real, but a toy positioned to blend in carefully with the natural scene.

Jennifer Leeman, assistant professor of Spanish linguistics at Mason, became interested in toy photography by accident. It started out as a creative way to teach students in her graduate teaching methodology and materials course how to incorporate creativity into the classroom. It ended as a personal obsession.

Jennifer Leeman
Jennifer Leeman

Now, she surfs the web, searching eBay for antique toys to use in her pictures. On vacation, instead of posing in front of a landmark, Leeman sets up toy figures to photograph. The macro lens on her camera helps her close in on the toys, making them look like a natural part of the landscape. She uses perspective, not digital manipulation or photo montage, to make the figures seem lifelike.

“I explore the flip side of the common notion that the photographic gaze objectifies,” says Leeman in her online artist’s statement. “In my images, photography makes objects almost human. In the end, the toys are objects, meaning that any emotion that the photos seem to capture is actually imposed by the photographer and the viewer, highlighting that photographs do not simply reflect reality.”

Although Leeman is exploring this idea of photographs not reflecting reality, her pictures often evoke strong emotions. With use of shadow, blurring, and silhouettes, the “people” in Leeman’s photos can seem lonely, frightened, peaceful, or mysterious. Though she is not the first photographer to use toys in her pictures, it is the blending of these toys with a natural setting that is unique. The results are startling and clever.

Leeman has always been interested in photography, but her passion really picked up in the past few years. She’s gotten technical support from her husband, who is a photo journalist. She has also set up a web site,, that displays many of her photos and information about her exhibits, and has gotten hits from all over the country.

“Now that I’ve really started looking at old toys, I’ve been amazed to see how many people are interested in such a specialized hobby,” Leeman says. “I’ve had people stumble upon my web site because they are interested in toys, or sometimes people just find me through word-of-mouth.”

airplane image

Leeman has also gotten attention on-site when setting up her photos. “With my old camera, I would often have to lie on the ground to get the right angle,” she said. “That caused a lot of people to wonder what I was doing.” Though people might stop and stare, Leeman says their curiosity is usually quite friendly. She’s gotten into some interesting conversations with people, and often children are intrigued by the idea of taking pictures of toys.

Leeman has exhibited her photography in various local galleries and juried exhibits, and she has been approached about using one of her photos for a book cover. Her pictures are also on sale at the store go mama go! in Washington, D.C.

The Spanish professor is spending four weeks this summer in Seville, Spain, leading the Mason Center for Global Education study abroad program and is excited about helping students learn about Spanish history and culture firsthand. Of course, she’s also excited about the photo possibilities—and she’s sure to pack her bag of toys.

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