Monday, January 17, 2011


Sunny Side
German photographer and miniaturist, Frank Kunert creates small worlds that slide into a realm of the surreal.  In his table top creations he challenges our eyes, makes us look a little closer to the story being told and then makes us look again. His photos of the miniatures bring the dioramas to a level of realism that astounds. There are views that create poetic qualities, silent jabs, some quick humor and dark zones. Most of these places have very little nature. They are views of industrial grey under an overcast sky. No people show up in his creations. We can see them as simply a funny story or feel their grit and leaf blown familiar alleyways. The architecture defines the people that live there and pushes the imagination closer to a lucid state of altered reality.

Kunert’s models are made with extreme reality in mind. He works on the miniatures for months before the lights come on and the camera shutter clicks. Everything about the constructions is meant for that moment of creating the illusion and telling the story. Often the story is a word play or a subtle jab at how the punch line is delivered.

A highway beneath a park playground slide becomes a devious parental thought for dropping the kids off to play for a short time. A contemporary art center with an impossibly inaccessible entry sets the tone for ‘high art’. Diving boards that hover above the audience stands, a public pool toilet or a house at the end of a pier invites the divers to one last free dive. The clay tennis court on a half pipe for a quick rush to the net. His “Public Toilet” invites an audience to watch the stage with the not so private function displayed a little too publicly. An apartment building that stands perfectly proud except that the balconies have no access and the doors to them make for a treacherous drop.

His miniature works are like a question mark on our perceptions and are scenes that open the world around us revealing a world of quiet fantasy underneath. They mimic a disturbing dream state and pull us to the edge of a diving board.

With Balcony

Event Restaurant

Adventure Pool Complex 

The Dream of Fortune

Almost Heavenly

Life Goes On

At a High Level 

Crowd Pleaser

Small Paradise

Hope is Green

Onward & Upward

Petting Zoo

Public Toilets

In Depth of Ecstasy

Tennis Half-Pipe

An interview with Frank Kunert

G P- I'd like to know how your current works came to you? Just glancing at your gallery sections there is quite a difference from your earlier cartoon-like illustrative works. These almost look like another artist entirely. I do understand that some of these works were for a purpose of working in the graphic and illustration realms of commercial works but where did the building works spring from?
F K - When I started building my miniature scenes I made my figures (human beings, animals) with plasticine. After a while the buildings became more and more realistic, and I had the feeling it could be interesting to build my small worlds without any figures to make it look less cartoon-like. And it worked: the scenes became more open for fantasies.

G P -Could you talk a little bit about your processes in your works. How do you pull your ideas together? Do you spend a lot of time constructing a scene in your head or by first sketching them out?

F K - At the beginning there are influences of everyday life, ideas by watching TV, reading the newspaper, take a walk through the nature or town and let the imagination and ideas in my head move around. Then, after a while I start sketching a little bit in my sketch book. But not every sketched idea is taken for the three-dimensional work. Some ideas are mixed together one day and the result is a new idea. If I have the feeling that an idea is ready for the model making, this will take a few weeks, sometimes a few months to the final result. When the miniature is finished I set the light in my studio and take the photographs with my large format camera. Then the 4"x5"-inch slide is scanned for the production of color prints, postcards, etc.

G P - Are there any events or stories from your deep past or childhood that inspired your present use of the absurd and the surreal in your works?
F K - When I was a child I was always happy when I could "work" alone with my hands in a quiet place. And it is still the same today. I can do things that I am not able to do in the "big" world outside. Perhaps It's easier for me to handle the absurdity of life with humor. And if I am alone it's easier for me to bring some order to my thoughts.
G P - Could you talk a little about your fascination with architectural environments, the realm of city and urban places in your works and the reason there are very few people in your constructions?

F K - Architectural environments show how people live, what their hopes and fears are. And I am fascinated in suburbs with their more or less old buildings mixed together in so many different ways. And in my pictures the life is shown without showing people, only what they have done. For me that makes more space for the imagination.

G P - I find studio scale often is a driving force in the scale of works that artists make. The work space defines the work like a ruler. Your miniatures are small scale. How does the camera change this and what attracts you to the miniature made large by the close up view? 

F K - It is always fascinating for me to play with the scales. If I build a miniature model, it looks like a miniature model. But suddenly - after setting the light, putting the camera into the right position - it's like diving into another reality.

G P - Your constructions often show a raw and rough edge to things. The buildings are weather beaten, the streets and steps are worn. How has living in such man made environments effected your view of nature and humor? Are these familiar places in your environment or history?

F K - As a child I lived in a new house, and everything was perfect. But I know that I was always interested in raw and rough edge of things. They always seemed to be more honest to me. We always try to get the nature under control, fight against the transience, and I think it's easier to bear the absurdity of life with humor. 

G P - Could you expand a bit about the importance of your hand built environments versus the more realistic or digital effects that one sees most of in this computer age? 

F K - For me the advantage of building the environments is that I can do everything step by step and the whole scene is of a piece. Sometimes it's a hard fight for my impatience, but I think it's better for developing my ideas - it's less abstract than digital work. The  hand made things have more charm than digital productions. I try to work out my skills with a perfection of imperfection.

G P - I like your attention to the story and narrative of a scene. Have you ever been tempted to expand your stories to the actual streets as guerrilla art and discovery installations? I'm thinking perhaps of Charles Simonds works placed in small corners of the urban environment or maybe actual children's slides and diving boards placed for visual effect.

F K - I am always fascinated in works of some other artists working in that way. But until yet I need a quiet place where I feel secure. For me it's necessary to build my scenes with the possibility to have everything under control. Perhaps one day I will go outside...

G P - I know you don't like to talk about any future ideas but could you expand a bit about process and journey? Often times we are led by unseen forces and end up making random choices about how the ideas can proceed. I also remember from a very early age how the act of drawing and learning to draw was like a journey creating it's own path. The best that could be done is just to follow the natural outcomes and be tempted along by learning more about the world by making and drawing. What important events brought you to make these small worlds?

F K - In my apprenticeship with a photographer I was fascinated of the possibility making illusions with staged photography in the studio. There had been quite banal things like water taps or door handles we had to photograph. But I learned that how you do something and not what you do is the important thing. After my apprenticeship I was busy with advertising and industrial photography, but I knew that wasn't the thing I really liked. I always needed the "quiet place at the corner". And among my commission works I built my first scenes for myself and realized that there were also customers interested in those pictures. Then I had the first commercial works in that way - and that was the beginning of the small worlds for me. In the last years I like to do my own things without any order. That's the best way, watching step by step how the work goes on.

G P – Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

F K - An additional thought: In 2004 I began producing my own postcard edition. I like the imagination that the pictures can go their own way around the world. It's a quite cheap way for people to buy a photograph. Additionally they can write down their own messages. I think that's great. 

Frank Kunert in studio working on Onward & Upward
To see more visit Frank Kunert’s web site 

Monday, January 10, 2011


Dolls have always seemed a little creepy. Their silent gazes look out from their painted or glass emotionless eyes and often take on the voice of their little girl caregivers in secret conversations and private friendships. Looking back at deep history you can find dolls in every culture from ancient Egypt to today’s action figures. They have been used as girls toys to prepare their caretakers for a future of real-life motherhood. Chinese doctors used small ivory dolls for their women patients to point to the areas that corresponded to their hurt in order to retain a modest physical distance from an actual full body examination. In Japan  women often carry dolls around with them when their own children have passed on in early deaths in a sign to others of their grief and loss.

Then there are dolls and dollhouses that are used to recreate crime scenes where murders, accidents and apparent suicides have happened. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were the result of Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy heiress grandmother from a privileged family as well as a master criminal investigator. In an age of botched and sloppy crime investigations there was a need for better instructive methods for police and forensic investigations of the growing crime waves of the 1920's and 30's. She founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936. Later she was made honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police through her work with investigative forensics. Her childhood fascination with murder mysteries like Sherlock Holmes fed this fascination with criminal investigation. Her work in the recreations of crime scenes pioneered criminal forensic studies and were used as teaching tools for the training of police investigators. She created eighteen dioramas in the early 1940’s donating them to the Harvard Legal Medicine department in 1946.

Frances Glessner Lee at work

The term ‘Nutshell Studies’ came from a well-known police saying: “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find truth in a nutshell”. The dioramas that were created by a meticulous hand are just as valid today and are still used in forensic training. Their detail is astounding and meant to inspire careful examination of the facts of each case. Carefully placed objects and furniture, found as they were by the first responders to the crime scene, displaying and detailing each important clue to what had happened in the room seem to freeze the death in a momentary time capsule. There are pencils that actually write, window shades that move, accurate bloodstains and spattered walls, shell casings, tipped furniture, all pointing to a clue to the crime.

In photographer and writer Corinne May Botz’s definitive book “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, she chronicles Francis Glessner Lee’s life and works in equal detail. She describes her as a “brilliant, witty, shy, intimidating, and, by some accounts, impossible woman. She gave what she thought you should have, rather than what you might actually want. She had a wonderful sense of humor about everything and everyone, excluding herself. The police adored and regarded her as their ‘patron saint’, her family was more reticent about applauding her, and her hired help was “scared to death of her”. According to one family member, she could put you under the carpet in three words.”

Lee made each of the dolls and many of the details herself with hands that seemed much too large for what she was making. The photos of her working show a concentration and skill that belays that fact. The dolls were given great attention to the detail of the corpse. They were each dressed accurately down to the underwear. She was never satisfied with her work and wanted a closer realism to each scene. Some of the furniture and dollhouse details were ordered from other craftsmen and no expense was held from creating a realistic depiction of each scene. Some of the photos of Lee working reminded me of the love and care that can be seen in the documentary film of artist/sculptor Alexander Calder puts into his toy works, particularly his charming circus performance.  However, there is nothing celebratory about Lee's dolls and their dark rooms..

But this macabre slant definitely has a dark shadow about it. Her miniature rooms often involved sex crimes, beds spattered with blood in scenes of domestic isolation and showing the layers of lives that ended inside what appears to be normal, private spaces tinged with a captured soul in a place of danger. The life of the typical woman during this time was one of domesticity, property and social complicity to the norms of the feminine life. Lee spent a good deal of her life fighting this stereotype but immersing herself in these scenes of death. Living in an age of women put in their home places, Lee had not gone to college nor obtained any degree after her name but, instead, gained notoriety from the profession of forensic medical studies and criminologists in the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine. Her works are studied to this day across the nation in the field.

Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962, aged 83, long before Dick Wolf turned forensics into entertainment. After her death these wonderful models were almost destroyed by neglect: Harvard lost interest in forensics after her death and shuttered the department. A former professor there, Dr. Russell Fisher, became Maryland's chief medical examiner and brought the Nutshells with him. In 1966 he moved them to the Medical Examiner's Office at the Baltimore city morgue where they are now housed. Participants in police science seminars have been poring over the models ever since.

By 1992, Lee's creations were disintegrating, and the Maryland Medical-Legal Foundation donated $50,000 for their restoration. Despite the dated decor and narratives, criminologists still swear by the Nutshells. "People take them as seriously as any other crime scene," said Dr. David R. Fowler, the current chief medical examiner for Maryland. "I've never seen anybody make jokes because of the degree of intricacy and detail. The quality is stunning. I have never seen any computer-generated programs that even come close."

The popular television series CSI recently created a series using similar dollhouse murder scenarios inspired by Lee’s Nutshell series. “The Miniature Killer” told the story of murder by model. A key signature of the miniature killer’s crimes were the meticulous scale models that were built by the killer to reflect each crime scene. The models were either left at the murder site or delivered to someone involved in solving the case.

Filmmaker Susan Marks is due to release a new documentary early this month detailing the works of Lee in a documentary entitled “Of Dolls and Murder”. The film is narrated by Baltimore native and filmmaker, John Waters. along with film co-producer John Dehn  who was on the fence about the project until he encountered the dollhouses in person."You become immersed in them in a way that, if it was not done so well, you wouldn't," he says. "You can actually go down in there like you're six inches tall. Because of the detail, the effect is much more."

The scenes are certainly haunting in creating a moment of calm after a storm of violence had swept through them. The close up photography of Corriane May Botz reveals a suspended time within the miniature dioramas of collapsed terror. 

More readings on the Nutshell studies:
  1. "Murder downsized" by Eve Khan, New York Times (Warning - JPEG; see the San Francisco Chronicle or San Diego Union-Tribune stories for text versions)
  2. "Grandma Knows Her Murders" by George Oswald, Coronet, December 1949
  3. "The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee" by Katherine Ramsland - True TV Crime Library
  4. "Murder in the Dollhouse", by Jennifer Schuessler, Boston Globe
  5. "CSI in a Doll's House and the Contagion of Obsessiveness" by Vince Aletti, Village Voice
  6. "Murder is merely child's play" by Eve Kahn, San Francisco Chronicle (from NY Times)
  7. "Dollhouse detective", Eve Kahn, San Diego Union-Tribune (from NY Times)