Documenting Dummies: Matthew Rolston’s New Photo Book

This collection of ventriloquist’s dummies may be the freakiest thing you’ll see all week

From supermodels to… dummies? Matthew Rolston is one of Hollywood’s top photographers having shot everyone from Michael Jackson and Angelina Jolie to Lady Gaga and Chanel Iman for publications like Vogue, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and tons of others. For his latest book, Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits, Rolston turned his lens on subjects who were a little less lively and a lot more stiff: ventriloquist’s dummies.

Out tomorrow, the 224-page book features 100 images that somehow capture the human presence lurking behind the glassy, inanimate eyes. In the process, Rolston pays homage to one of the original entertainment genres. We talked to him about the serendipitous inspiration for his new book, what drives him, and what he’s got up his sleeve.

How did you choose ventriloquist’s dummies as the subject of your book?
In my practice as a photographer and director, I’m constantly looking for inspiration. I always seem to find it in a magical, nearly instantaneous way. As soon as I put my antenna out there I start “receiving.” It was no different for this project. I was looking for something that was personal and different from my everyday assignments. There it was, just below the fold on the cover of The New York Times ‘Thursday’s Styles’ section: an image of dummies and an article by Edward Rothstein about the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky. I became immediately fascinated, and I began making multiple trips to the museum. That was back in 2009.

How has your work in Hollywood prepared you for this new series?
My work in entertainment portraiture certainly informs the work in this project. If you think about it, these ventriloquist’s dummies were once entertainers themselves, so this isn’t too much of a departure for me. I used the same photographic techniques I use with human subjects.

Where are you going to go from here?
I generally work for magazines, movie studios, record labels, etc. I also work as a director and creative director, but it’s always a response to a creative problem presented by a client. This was unique because it’s the first time I’ve allowed myself to be the client, to create something wholly personal. This was the first purely fine arts presentation I did—not a commercial project or anything— just something for myself.

What inspires you in your personal projects?
In my personal projects, anything that I see or come across can be that spark. What is humanity? It’s something that we ask ourselves, but the meaning is not always concrete. I want to explore what it means to create and give life to an inanimate object. One thing that unifies my work are faces. It’s something that I think captures that humanity.