This is Blythe
by Gina Garan
Published by Chronicle Books
96 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
The first view of This is Blythe brings a shock of recognition. This is a familiar face for me. Like an old school friend, long forgotten: now fondly remembered. A doll that was briefly an important part of my life, then relegated to the back of the shelf when her string broke rudely in my hand. She was, as this implies, not well constructed. No Mattel-like attention to detail in the manufacture of the creations that occupied the space reserved for more expensive merchandise on toy store shelves.
She was an odd little imp. And -- in retrospect and in the light that author and photographer Gina Garan now casts her -- she was ahead of her time. Way, way ahead. Far enough so, in fact, that she enjoyed only one year of prime-time toy vogue. And even then, maybe it wasn't all that prime.
There is nothing she looks like more than an anime character: the head overlarge for her body. (Lithe Blythe.) Oversized eyes and a wide, moony forehead. A childish body roughly one quarter of the size that a human body would be. In relation to that head. Is she endearing? Yeah, sure. In an other worldly sort of way. One can see, even, why she would fit much better into the beginning of the 21st century than she ever would have into the early 1970s. As Gina Garan writes in her introduction to This is Blythe:
Blythe's original fashions -- twelve in all -- included outfits such as "Golden Goddess," "Kozy Kape," "Pretty Paisley," and "Medieval Mood," in addition to four natural hair colors and four fruit-colored wigs (lime, blueberry, lemon, and strawberry).
All of which seem more appropriate to 2000 than they were to 1972, the year of Blythe's birth, which may explain why her toy store shelf life was just that single year.
But This is Blythe is not a book purely intended for collectors, though Garan assures us that there are many of these. Rather the book is more of a movement of this nearly 30-year-old artifact from the realm of forgotten toy to that of high art. Garan admits her obsession:
When our eyes met I knew instantly that I'd found a kindred spirit, a kind of "friend." ... There was something more compelling than just looks -- there was an inner beauty that charmed me. We went on our first photo shoot soon after, and so Blythe and I began our strange odyssey.
An odyssey that has, it seems, culminated in this sorta strange book. The book consists of a brief introduction and then lots of photos of Blythe, or rather, several Blythes: Garan, apparently has collected all that were made. And more: she's created various new outfits ("... I've been known to whip up a go-go outfit from a pair of glitter panty hose.") as well as coming up with lots of new hairstyles. "A gentle pull of the string is all it takes for the finishing touch," the same string I pulled not-so-gently all those years ago, while attempting to change Blythe's eye color in a more hurried way than advised.
Garan's photos of Blythe in different clothes and with varying hairstyles would make a pretty standard issue collector's book and, of course, that isn't what we have in This is Blythe. In 100 color photographs, Garan brings us fashion shoots worthy of Elle. Except, of course, that all of the models posses a striking resemblance to each other: different clothes and hair colors, sure. But there again are those huge -- almost alien -- eyes. The tiny body. The impossibly small feet. Posed nude outside of a Hooters restaurant; in a bathing suit on the beach; walking the dunes; at the foot of a statue; visiting Santa; standing in a seashell... I could go on, but 100 is a lot. The photos are very good, if not excellent and the styling is flawless. But is it art? Noted photographer David La Chapelle seems to think so: as he says in a cover quote:
Gina Garan is a new master in a world where dolls rule. Her hypnotic photography, exotic locations, and styling seduce the eyes to orgasmic highs.
Interestingly enough, some of the cross processing and color filtering techniques that Garan employs in This is Blythe are startlingly like La Chapelle's own. Might she have been a photo assistant of his? A friend? A student? Not that it matters: La Chapelle's style is also bold and irreverent and the similarities serve Garan well in this book.
Obviously, This is Blythe is not a book that will interest everyone, or even a large percentage of anyones. However, if your tastes run to quirky photography or you have a passion for forgotten dolls, this may well be one for you. | May 2000
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.