I feel pangs of guilt as I recall the fates of all my action figures. Leonardo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, dismembered via M-80. The Riddler from Batman Forever, beheaded with a 22 LR. Scrooge McDuck, the victim of a carefully angled magnifying glass. I treasured these toys as a child, treated them as violently as possible as a teenager, and now miss them. Why is this so often the case?
Now David Valdez, there's a man who knows how to properly treat his action figures. The Minneapolis-based photographer captures movie, comic book, and video game icons in bracing action scenes, bringing their personalities to life with impressively little digital trickery.
David calls his project "Father's Figures." Its Twitter bio sums it up perfectly: "If you don’t like pictures of toys, then boy are you in the wrong place."
"I'm not a huge toy collector," said David, "but I've always had a few toys from Star Wars and comic books that I like lining my shelves. One day I decided to revisit my high school photography hobby, so I started playing around by staging some scenes with action figures. I never would have guessed it could lead to anything.
"I joined Instagram in 2012, and pretty soon I started connecting with other people who photograph toys. Their beautiful photos opened my eyes, and I said 'Wow – this really can be an artform.' I got more serious than before, which meant relearning photography concepts like f-stops, apertures, and film speeds. But by 2014 my work had gotten good enough to get a following of its own. Now I have over 17 thousand followers on Instagram, and I'm selling prints online and at art shows and toy swaps.
"My photos tell a story in a single scene. A fan can look at a picture of Captain America fighting Hydra agents or Optimus Prime beating up Decepticons and know exactly what's going on. A subject like Deadpool, on the other hand, who's all about random humor, will look right at home in any situation. Or sometimes I'll combine characters from different franchises and create an all-new moment, like the Iron Giant holding Superman in the palm of his hand.
"I try to stick with practical effects as much as possible. Laser blasts and lightsabers still have to be added in with a computer, but whenever there's dust kicking up in the foreground or smoke lingering in the air, they're coming from an aerosol can. If there's an explosion, it's because I just lit a firecracker and then shot at a super high film speed. In a way I'm like a kid blowing up his G.I. Joes, but what I'm doing is just slightly more productive.
"If you ever want to feel like an oddball, go to 8th and Marquette and set up a photo shoot with a Spider-Man action figure. Most people probably thought I was nuts, but generally any engagements I have with people while I'm shooting in public are really positive. Some people get excited and come up to get a better look at what I'm up to. 'Oh man, you're going to make that look real, aren't you?'
"The core of my fandom will always be Star Wars. Whether they're mystical, fantastical, or even humorous, there are so just many aspects of the Star Wars story to tap into. It's a huge playpen for a photographer like me.
"To the average person, my subjects are just plastic dolls. But to me they're a chance to explore a fictional universe that I love – and even to add to it, in some small way."
Check out Father's Figures on Twitter or Instagram, and reach out to David if you'd like to order one of his prints. No home is complete without a photo of Donatello looking out stoically over the prairie, or Link about to shishkebab a giant Skulltula with an arrow. If you don't know who those characters are it's because you're not cool.