Dan’s Cover Artist Oliver Peterson Talks Toy Photography

October 28, 2022 Dan's Papers cover art (full image) by Oliver Peterson
October 28, 2022 Dan’s Papers cover art (full image) by Oliver Peterson

This week’s unique Halloween cover was created by our very own Oliver Peterson, managing editor of DansPapers.com and East End toy photographer. Here, he discusses setting up the shot that would become his first Dan’s cover, transitioning from paint/collage to toy photography and honing his artistic voice.

"Frankenberry" by Oliver Peterson
“Frankenberry” by Oliver Peterson

Oliver Peterson Discusses Toy Photos & More

How did you create this haunted woods scene and eerie lighting?

It’s made using 3.75-inch action figures by a company called Boss Fight Studio. The figures are called Vitruvian H.A.C.K.S. … They came as white plastic, so I painted all the bones to look real. And then I customized the characters how I wanted them to look.

In a background, any twig or branch can look like a tree, but I try to look for stuff that visually scales down well so that it looks more like a tree. Then there are some miniature evergreen trees back there … and it’s all in the dirt in my backyard.

I get some great lights from a company called Lume Cube. … The green is a filter you can put on them, so there’s a back light of green and then I front light with a regular no-color filter. Lighting is definitely a huge part of this whole thing. It takes a lot of practice, and I still think I have a long way to go in some respects. …

I started doing this in 2013, and if you go back and look at my pictures, they’re pretty terrible. … You can set up the same thing and shoot it, but it’ll look dead if you don’t have it lit right.

"USMC Corpsman" toy photo by Oliver Peterson
“USMC Corpsman” toy photo by Oliver Peterson

What kind of photography background did you have before getting into toy photography?

Not a lot. I took a couple photo classes in art school. I used to shoot a lot of Polaroid in college and after college a little bit, and I’d do these big Polaroid collages.

Even when I took photo classes, I never really took a lot of time understanding what ISO or ASA with a Nikon, F-stop and all that stuff means, and as I started getting into (toy photography) more, I started to learn more about it, watch YouTube videos and read stuff online to try to understand how to shoot better.

When I started taking pictures of toys, I used my cell phone, and then I eventually began learning from some other people like Matt Rohde — the guy who lives on Shelter Island and does this, who I wrote an article about a while ago. He helped me understand some of this stuff better.

WWII Brits in farmhouse by Oliver Peterson
WWII Brits in farmhouse by Oliver Peterson

As a child, did you ever grab the family camera and take pictures of your toys?

Yeah, I did. … The first time I ever did this was in 1987 with G.I. Joe action figures in the grass at my grandmother’s house. She had this Buddha fountain in her backyard, and I shot these two figures with slide film, weirdly. … I was like 10 or 11 years old when I shot them.

I’ve always collected toys. Toys have always been a huge part of my life, from childhood to now. As I was doing my art, my mixed media collage painting, I started to get burnt out on it at a certain point, so I started doing this more for fun. …

I remember Bill McCuddy bought a painting from me, and he saw the Photoshopped toy photography I did, and he was like, “Oh, I’d buy one of those if you printed them.”

It got me thinking maybe you could do something with this. I didn’t know about the whole toy photography world at the time.

The fact that you could juxtapose all these weird characters (from fictional worlds and real-life history) together and play around with that — I always had it in my mind that there’s probably something cool that I could do with that.

It percolated for a long time, and then when I started actually trying to do it, it turned out there are a lot of people who do this, and I started to learn from other people.

Mandalorian and Grogu on the Razor Crest toy photo by Oliver Peterson
Mandalorian and Grogu on the Razor Crest toy photo by Oliver Peterson

What’s your greatest achievement in toy photography?

I was one of the winners in 2016 for a contest for The Force Awakens, when the new Star Wars movie came out. … They displayed our pictures at San Diego Comic Con that year. And they sent out that press release everywhere, so there are articles all over the internet from different nerdy news outlets about those pictures and the winners, so that was really fun.

That was pretty big, although I also did a couple shows printing and showing (toy photos) at Ashawagh Hall. One show didn’t do well at all; I think I sold one piece. But then there was another show that I basically sold out except for one piece, so that was exciting for me. …

Also, David Dastmalchian shared my picture of him (as Polka-Dot Man in The Suicide Squad), which was fun. … It’s always fun when the people you admire actually take notice of your tributes to them.

Polka Dot Man and Doc Brown by Oliver Peterson
Polka Dot Man and Doc Brown by Oliver Peterson

How do you hope to develop your toy photography further?

As an artist, I tend to feel that some stuff that’s too tied in with an IP (intellectual property) is just fun, but if I’m trying to think of myself as an artist with this and really making art … I look at (shots like my) World War II images as more “art.”

Over the last eight or nine years of doing this, I’ve been trying to get better at my craft and photography, the setups, how to shoot and composition, but also shaping my own original voice, rather than recreating a scene from Star Wars, which is fun and cool, but not as interesting to me as creating a scene from WWII or a weird surreal image. …

What’s the most personally rewarding aspect of creating your toy photography?

What’s most fulfilling, for me, with this or any art is making something that I know is good. There are very few things in life that are as satisfying to me as making a painting, photograph or something that I know is really good.

For more of Oliver Peterson’s art, visit @oliversees on Instagram.

October 28, 2022 Dan's Papers cover art Halloween toy photography by Oliver Peterson
October 28, 2022 Dan’s Papers cover art by Oliver Peterson (@oliversees)

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