Playing with Toys:
Understanding the work of Terry Towery

There's an old saying that goes something like:
My grandfather was a farmer so that my father could be a teacher so that I could ba an artist. This saying fits me perfectly.

Education, Precedents, influences and evolution

My father was good at everything. When I was about 10 years old I got a Photography kit for Xmas. I proceeded to take a roll of Black and White 126 film in an instamatic camera and a few days after xmas I was ready to develop my first roll of film. I had read and re-read the instructions that came with the kit and had decided to use the bathroom as a darkroom. My father was convinced that you could use the safelight bulb that came with the kit to roll the film onto the reel and I didn't think you could. Of course it turns out that you have to load film into the developing tank in total darkness. This was the first time I realized that I was actually better at something than he was. Somehow photography became a career.

My mother was a painter. I never saw it until well after I left the house but there was an oil painting she had made in college hanging in the living room. Now she paints with watercolors regularly. Even though I didn't realize that i was interested in art until I got to college, it was around the house. We had this kind of southern admiration for artists, even though it wasn't really considered something you do for a living, just as a recreational activity. Art was considered a skill not an intellectual pursuit.

I had a darkroom that my father built for me in my teen years. I learned how to develop prints and make color cibachromes by the time I was 15. It seemed glamorous to be a photographer, there is a mythology surrounding photographers that they travel to exotic places and meet famous people. They are portrayed in the media as having a sort of rugged individualism that I believed. I wanted to be that person that answered to no one and worked for themself.

I read everything I could find about photography and learned all the terminology from books. I looked at monographs of well known photographers in the library and saw the quadtone reproductions of Adams, Weston, Uelsmann and all the other west coast f64 photographers. It was the seventies and all I was exposed to photojournalism and straight photography and then there was Uelsmann. Not only was he so completely different than anything else in the library but he was also from Florida. I tried to mimic his techniques, I learned his style.

When I was ten, I took a class at the local community arts center in downtown Tampa from a guy named Lou Marcus. His brother owned the local photo store and he was a well photographer around town. Eventually, when I returned to Tampa many years later I taught a few classes at the same place that I took that first course. Lou Marcus now runs the photo and new media program at UMBC.

When I went away to college at FSU in Tallahassee, I started working for the local independant newspaper as a freelance photographer. It was my college job and it was everything I could have hoped for. I was meeting the most interesting people in town and since it was the capital of the state the most important politicians in the state. I covered a hurricane in north florida and the subsequent blackout and curfew for UPI (now part of Reurters). I was getting my pictures on the front page of the local paper regularly and I was sort of a celebrity in the town. I covered demonstrations, press conferences, feature news and even did some fashion. My favorite assignments were the feature stories on artists. My very first published image was f the local printmaker, William (Ding Dong Daddy) Walmsley. The paper put me on staff "full time". I was paying my way (except for tuition which my parents covered) by being a working photographer. Then I started taking photo classes at the college. They were offfered through the art department. I probably would have taken the courses in the journalism departemnt if they had been offered but they weren't.

My first photo class was taught by a graduate student named Linda Adele Goodine. She was a fascinating character to me. She was from Glen Falls New York and was so unlike anyone that I had ever met in the south. She exposed me to Duane Michals and a new way of thinking about photography other than journalism. Her own work was a kind of a life sized tabletop style that involved mythology and the supernatural. One of the images that I made in this class was used for the cover of a poetry book.

As an undergraduate I did a small project using plastic toy guns. It was for an assignment in my photography 2 class.

I was working with Robert Fichter, my earliest mentor other than books, and decided to make an allegorical comment on the proliferation of handguns. Robert's work has allegorical and political elements to it and I picked up on these as a young artist. His work with a "cast of postnuclear characters" included Baby Gene pool, Bones, and others. He worked closely with a strange taxidermist that made him a range of bizarrely stuffed animals that he used in his desktop tableuax images. Fichter's development of his characters and his apocalyptic vision have continued to be an influence on my own work. I see him as a precursor to artists that are currently exploring the implications of genetic manipulation.

more of Professor Robert Fichter's work

Robert had studied with Moholy Nagy, Henry Holmes Smith and Jerry Uelsmann. He had worked at the George Eastman House and had been included in an early collection of example slides that were widely adopted by the emerging university programs in photography around the country. He is probably best known for his non silver experiments although he also paints and draws and makes prints.

Even though I was making a living as a photojournalist at the time he introduced me to an experimental attitude towards photography, an attitude that I retain to this day. His conceptual approach to his content and his embrace of the processes of photography as part of the creative process continue to be an inspiration.

Robert was instrumental in getting me accepted in the graduate program at the University of Florida. He had studied with Jerry Uelsmann there for his own MFA and had worked closely with Evon Streetman who had started the photo program at FSU and was now teaching at UF.

For more of Jerry Uelsmann's work

Jerry was the big draw at UF, the superstar. His surrrealistic visions and darkroom wizardry had earned him numerous exhibitions around the world. His exhibition list looks like a whos who of photography and art. I had been aware of his work since I was very young, even trying to duplicate some of his techniques in my very first darkroom at age 14. As a photographer growing up in Florida it was hard to not be influenced by his presence in the State. Jerry had worked with Minor White and Henry Holmes Smith.

For more of Evon Streetman's work

Evon Streetman had lived in New York after almost finishing her MFA at FSU studying mostly with Hiram Williams. Hiram wrote a book about encauastic painting. Evon was a good old boy even though she wasn't a guy. She had that kind of country wisdom and a very pragmentic attitude towards teaching photography. She really embraced the technical side of photography and relayed that to her students very well. Although we had some serious differences of opinion on a number of issues, she was instrumental in my learning the more technical side of potography.

Although the person that initially drew me to the graduate program at UF was Jerry Uelsmann, I worked most closely with another artist named Wally Wilson. Wally was "art smart" and tried to instill this in his students.

Wally had joined a photo club in kentucky when he got interested in photography and the president of the club was a fellow named Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

While in graduate school in the late '80s I bought a package of cheap Wrestling figurines from the toy store. I proceded to microwave these and they ended up making interesting contortions of the figure that I then mounted on metal backing plates and heavily painted on.

All of these people had worked with the polaroid 20 24 camera. Robert had used it while it was still in Boston and Jerry, Wally had gone to it in New York, I'm not sure how Evon got her hands on it but It is obvious that she too had used it.

On my arrival to New York I was overwhelmed. I had lived in London but New York is nothing like London. I used the camera to adjust to the city, exploring the city through the lens. I used small toys in a manner similar to my mentor Wally Wilson to produce a kind of setup street photography. As the saying goes, Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. hybrid between the purely staged images so popular in the 80s art world and the street photography genre that I imagined New York city to be so natural at. I often carried around a "fanny pack" full of toys that I could use whenever I came upon a scene that intrigued me.

I had some success with these images, including exhibitions at the Campos Photography center in Buffalo New York. they caught the attention of a scholar, educator and curator there named Robert Hirsch. He curated the exhibition at the Campos Center and included 6 of the images in a show at CEPA (the Center for Experimental and Perceptual Art).

I was running the darkroom at Parsons Scool of Design (Diane Arbus had my job at some point) and teaching graduate students in the New School Media Studies Program at the time. Neither Parsons nor the New School require their faculty to exhibit to continue teaching. They tend to respect professional (read commercial) experience more than creative exhibitions. I found that boxing up pictures and shipping them off to some strange place so that a small handful of strangers could see the images was very disappointing. Although the shows in Buffalo were a great success, subsequent exhibitions were thoroughly disappointing and very expensive as well as time consuming. I guess I didn't really see the point of doing this kind of thing. I got caught up in the commercial world and immersed myself in the computer after this body of work for a number of years.

I did freelance for major ad agencies. I did visualizations for architects and my best client was the Environmental Simulation Center. After 10 years, teaching and commercial work began to seem empty. It was just a chase for a better paying commercial job.

I began to get interested in doing my own work again. One day as I was leaving my loft on the Bowery I found a large bag full of dolls on the street right in front of the loft. these dolls were obviously considered trash to whoever was discarding them but to me they seemed like gold. I was to find out later that they were made of a material called composition. Even the name of the material suggested that they were destined to be made into art. they were cracking and peeling in fascinating ways. I had never been interested in the figure before since I thought it was sexist for me to shoot women and the male figure had no interest to me. These dolls were perfect. I had used toys before and these things had the resonance that I had been interested in. Besides my chair was encouraging me to exhibit and go through the process of making personal work. Described by one colleague as "the knife to the throat". This is the academic artists equivalent of publish or perish, exhibit or perish.


Over the years Wally, Jerry, Wegman, Play, Random, Fichter, Kiefer

Historical precedents

Levinthal, Close, Hans Bellmer, Barthes, Simulacra of a human


Why do I do the work I do?


I utilize a lot of different processes in my work. I enjoy the process of creating these objects at least as much as the final outcome. Most often i still use a traditional camera loaded with either Kodachrome or Polaroid film. I occasionally use a digital camera but find that it does not allow me to mess around with the photographic image as much as I would like.

Digital vs Photographic


Its kind of scary?

Why Dolls?

Dolls fall in that place btween the animate and the inanimate.

This has been an area of artistic research for me since my early days of graduate school. This body of work continues an ongoing tradition of artists using man made toys as allegorical visual cues. A variety of artists from Dada artists such as Hans Bellmer, Surrealists to contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, Robert Fichter and David Levinthal have used doll imagery in their work. There is a poetic and symbolic quality to the dolls that the use of human models does not allow.
Dolls are simulated humans. They are both figurative and non specific

Art and play are closely related

I hate pictures of dolls

Conceptually, the surface texture of the work reflects the tactile quality of the dolls very effectively. The wound like forms of the dolls combined with the chancre sore like forms of the surface applications satisfy my fetish for the object. The works deal with illness, age, and decay. They put fear and beauty; repulsion and attraction; the longing for children and the fear of death in the same place. The works both arrest time and allow time to change the work. I am destroying the surface while keeping that precarious balance between image/object/painting. The works are objects but at the same time you are confronted by a strong image, which regardless of the mixed media, canvas, encaustic, even oils, you cannot escape dealing with an image. I am seeking a palpable experience of the object, a visceral, bodily experience.

The dolls are often a jumping off point for experimentation.

a good survey of Florida Photographers Florida Photogenesis

Thesis work

Tricia Michelberry's interpratation of the work

Toys immediately work as analogies. Even children understand this property of toys. It is easy to imagine toys as stand ins for the real thing that they simulate. This is the ultimate simulacrum device, easily understood by all. While it may seem childish I tend to think of it as universal.

All images Copyright of the artist unless otherwise noted