Incredible lifelike photos of dolls capture a hauntingly eerie beauty

Visually stunning, the photos possess an uncanny ability to tap and tease the human soul. Monika Mostowik

Harnessing an aesthetic more in line with the unsettling works of Edgar Allan Poe, a new exhibition in Nowa Huta’s Cultural Centre looks set to change and challenge the public’s perception of dolls.

The work of author and photographer Monika Mostowik, the dolls she photographs represent a distinct departure from the pretty-in-pink world of Barbie and instead capture something altogether more emotive and ethereal.

“These are not stereotypical in their beauty,” say the Mostowik. “There is a sadness to them; some are disfigured, imperfect, tearful, and others are even dead. What I want to do is show beauty, but not in its traditional form.”Monika Mostowik

Taking otherwise featureless ball-jointed dolls (BJD) manufactured from polyurethane synthetic resin as her starting point, Mostowik uses these to create a series of hyper-realistic models whose captivating form crosses into art – playthings these are not.

Speaking to TFN, Mostowik said: “The dolls are not bought off a shelf, they’re pre-ordered from Asia and it can be anything between a month to 18-months before they arrive to me in their ‘blank’ form.”

“One time,” she recalls, “I was shooting in a cemetery when an elderly lady approached me. I thought she’d be angry with me for using a graveyard to photograph dolls, but she was actually really nice and asked if I could photograph at a grave she’d just finished tending.Monika Mostowik

Awarding each doll a name and its own individual identity, often inspired by Mostowik’s passion for Gothic literature and dark wave music, the photographer then outsources the make-up process (“usually to artists in Russia,” she says). Likewise, having picked out fabrics and styles herself, clothing too is then manufactured by specialists from around the world.

A time-consuming and often laborious process, it then falls to Mostowik to place the pieces of the puzzle together, adding final embellishments such as wigs and other assorted miniature props. “As an author, I build stories with words,” she says. “As a photographer I do exactly the same with these dolls, only without vocabulary.”

Clearly taking her cue from the neo Gothic spirit of the Victorian and Edwardian age, each doll ceases to become an object and instead becomes a mysterious figure empowered by Mostowik.Monika Mostowik

Clearly taking her cue from the neo Gothic spirit of the Victorian and Edwardian age, each doll ceases to become an object and instead becomes a mysterious figure empowered by Mostowik.

Generally measuring 40 to 70 centimetres in height (though also available in both larger and smaller sizes), Mostowik is conscious to carefully select and compose background scenery for her shoots so as not to reveal the doll’s proportions before photographing her subjects, something that can often take an entire day.

Monika’s extraordinary photos harness an aesthetic more in line with the unsettling works of Edgar Allan Poe.Monika Mostowik

In addition, shoots are also conducted outdoors: “I like castles, abandoned locations, quiet forests,” she says. “Of course, there are times when I’ll run into members of the public, but the reaction is usually quite positive – most people are intrigued and want to know more about the dolls or even take selfies with them.

“One time,” she recalls, “I was shooting in a cemetery when an elderly lady approached me. I thought she’d be angry with me for using a graveyard to photograph dolls, but she was actually really nice and asked if I could photograph at a grave she’d just finished tending – I think it helped that my model that day was an angel!”

The dolls Monika photographs represent a distinct departure from the pretty-in-pink world of Barbie and instead capture something altogether more emotive and ethereal.Monika Mostowik

Promoted by the exhibition’s organizers as an aesthetic and psychological adventure, such is the doll’s detailing that it becomes immediately apparent that this is more than just hyperbole. Visually stunning, they possess an uncanny ability to tap and tease the human soul.

“These are not stereotypical in their beauty,” say the Mostowik. “There is a sadness to them; some are disfigured, imperfect, tearful, and others are even dead. What I want to do is show beauty, but not in its traditional form.”  

Generally measuring 40 to 70 centimetres in height (though also available in both larger and smaller sizes), Mostowik is conscious to carefully select and compose background scenery for her shoots so as not to reveal the doll’s proportions before photographing her subjects, something that can often take an entire day.Monika Mostowik

Attracted and enchanted by their hyperrealism, Mostowik began collecting BJDs in 2010, buoyed by the fact that they came lacking the signature “irritating”, childish grins found on, for instance, Japanese Kokeshi dolls.

“Poses must be natural,” says Mostowik, “because one missed detail can destroy a whole session.”

Monika’s staggering attention to detail has been met with widespread acclaim.Monika Mostowik

Exacting as this can be, the attention-to-detail has born staggering results with Mostowik’s dolls meeting widespread acclaim. However, their sheer naturalness has been a double-edged sword with some professing an open fear of them.

“Phobias come in many shapes,” says Mostowik. “It’s not just spiders people can be scared of, but also hair, mushrooms, and in some cases, dolls.

Monika said: “There are those who are unsettled by the dynamic nature of my models – although they are static, they create an illusion that they can move at any moment.”Monika Mostowik

“Outside the realms of phobia,” she continues, “there are those who are unsettled by the dynamic nature of my models – although they are static, they create an illusion that they can move at any moment. As a photographer, I really like showing that dynamic that they have, as well as playing with stereotypes and presenting dolls that are scarred, sad or sitting in wheelchairs.”

Touting a gentle, other-worldly glow, viewers find themselves forming an unspoken empathy with Mostowik’s models, connecting to them on a subconscious level. "I want people to interpret them on their own level, to build their own story," she says. 

“As a photographer, I really like showing that dynamic that they have, as well as playing with stereotypes and presenting dolls that are scarred, sad or sitting in wheelchairs.”Monika Mostowik

Featuring 25 models (“I kept one at home for myself,” jokes Mostowik), and approximately 60 large format accompanying photographs and 25 ambrotypes, this powerfully haunting, non-standard exhibition promises to leave an indelible mark on all those that view it.

To see more of Monika’s extraordinary work go HERE.

Łukasz Gągulski/PAP

Łukasz Gągulski/PAP

Łukasz Gągulski/PAP

Łukasz Gągulski/PAP

The exhibition which begins January 27, 2021 can be seen at the White Gallery in the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre.Łukasz Gągulski/PAP