I have a complicated relationship with Barbie. I do.
So does my friend Debbie Klein, for very different reasons. But we both sort of love her, and so when Debbie closed a storage unit she had kept for twenty years in Florida and found the original Barbie dolls she had played with as girl, we thought this could be a project. Thus was born, "Debbie's Barbies'."
There were a number of factors that resonated with us for this:
She had actually played with each of the dolls as a young girl.
Her mother had hand-made some incredibly fashionable outfits for Barbie.
The Barbies were starting to decompose.
Everything was just this side of tattered.
This was not exactly the glamourous Barbie we all know. This was, well, old Barbie. Elderly Barbie. These Barbies had clearly seen better days.
Debbie has maintained that although Barbie may have fallen out of favor with feminists, she didn't find that to be her overwhelming quality. "We didn't want her body," Debbie said. "We wanted her life." I get that.
For me, Barbie was the forbidden fruit. I instinctively knew that boys don't play with Barbie. If they must, they play with G. I. Joe. I don't have to tell you, G.I. Joe's wardrobe did not compare to Barbie's. Face it, his clothing was drab. There was no Dream House, no Corvette, no cute best friend and, my God, no hair to style! I was drawn to her like a moth to a flame, but I knew to keep my Barbie playing secret. Frankly, there weren't many opportunities to play with Barbie in my childhood. With two brothers, I had to sneak away to a house where girls lived. This did not happen often, which probably added to her allure,
In the third grade, I remember meeting a classmate, George, who not only had a younger sister, but we shared the same secret: we liked playing with Barbies. There was a profound sense of freedom and relief at meeting this kindred spirit. He moved away a year later, and I was growing out of my Barbie phase anyway. Still, although the desire to dress her up faded, she always held a certain sway over me.
And thus came my "aha" moment.
Until Debbie proposed this project, I never put two and two together. Barbie and fashion photography. How I could have missed it is beyond me, but there you have it. It took shooting these photographs, with Debbie art directing (and dressing the Barbies, and doing Barbie's hair, which she really enjoyed, I could tell) to make me come to some realizations. Could it be that Barbie inspired me to go into photography? To capture a certain glamour an awkward boy would never have? To create beautiful worlds where the sky's the limit and you can be whatever you dream, be it a flight attendant or a socialite or a bride! To be in control, not only of your destiny, but of those who desire you! I think I am on to something here.
Yet, there was something more to this project, though. Taking these torn and tired dolls and dressing them up to their former glory, even in their decomposing state, felt almost noble. And bringing the beautiful clothing Debbie's talented mother had made all those years ago to light again, felt like an artistic mission. When Debbie first brought out the dolls and their clothes, we both weren't exactly sure where we were going to take this project. It was, after all, just for fun and to hang out and be creative together. But as we started, we began to see something that was more than what we had imagined. The Barbies, and maybe both of our pasts, came to life.