Michael Wolf’s Factory Photos Tell The Real Toy Story

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

Sometimes I fall prey to romanticizing the anonymous precision of factory-made multiples. It takes only a reporter going undercover at Foxconn or photos from Michael Wolf’s The Real Toy Story to blow away those myths and sober me right up.

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

Lots of reporters have been visiting China in the wake of “The iPod Suicides,” and you can Google around to read their findings. (Here’s one from CNN.) But I know many of you follow Andy Warhol in preferring pictures to words, so let’s look at Michael Wolf’s photos.

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf was born in Germany and raised in the US and Canada. He returned to Germany to study photography and then spent over a decade working in Asia for the German magazine, Stern. While shooting his final story for the magazine, “China: Factory of the World,” he developed a fascination with the plastic toys that had been off limits to him as a child.

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

Over a period of one month, he collected over twenty thousand toys that were made in China and scavenged from second-hand stores and flea markets up and down the California coast. He transformed this vast collection into the installation, The Real Toy Story.

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story integrates portraits of workers in China’s toy factories into a series of walls covered entirely in plastic toys.

The result is an intense graphic representation of:

“the gargantuan scale of China’s mass production and the West’s hunger for a never-ending supply of disposable products. The gazes of the factory workers humanize this anonymous ocean of toys and invite us to reflect on the reality of trade in a world of consumer-driven globalization.”

If you stop to think about it, most toys (not just limited edition, designer toys) have an artist’s hand behind them–even Rubber Duckies and Mickey Mouse heads and (oh, cruel world) miniature Hummers.

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

Wolf sanded, glued and magnetized the 20,000+ toys he collected for an exhibition that initially appeared in Chicago in 2006.

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

If you think The Real Toy Story installation looks a little claustrophobic (above), imagine life for The Real People who make the toys. I chose the photo below because though the conditions are undeniably deplorable, I like to think that the factory workers shown here are a couple, and that their closeness gives them some comfort. Those reports I mentioned earlier describe how personal relationships are absent in factory life. Maybe that little chink of sunlight helps them see beyond their pile of amputated doll limbs, and perhaps they’re happy to not be working in this sex doll factory…

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story © Michael Wolf

If you’re curious where plastic toys come from and who makes them (and how they live), check out the rest of Michael Wolf’s The Real Toy Story project. He’s a great photographer, and the photos are not heavy-handed, though they are depressing.

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