Mannequins are very much like actors. Theatrical actors are taught that emotions are expressed by gestures, and gestures start from the core of one’s body and unravel through their limbs. And, finally, they are painted on one’s face.

the art of mannequins: daedalus by the ocean

In photography, posing is about exploring this journey of expression back and forth. The core is nothing but the /coeur/ (Fr.) deriving for the Latin /cor/, which means the heart. When your expression comes from the core, then it comes from the heart.

Body language translates instantly, and yet photographers sometimes let what “looks good” rule over what “means clearly.” Posing is hard because body language is our mother tongue: it can be harder for a native speaker to enunciate a grammatical rule than for a foreigner who studied and learnt the language as second or third. We all speak in posing, but we may stumble when asked about the syntax and the grammar of body language.

The ancient art of mannequins

Figurative artists, namely painters and sculptors but also creators and designers, have populated their workshops with mannequins (or manikins) since the Renaissance. Mannequins are used chiefly to understand and replicate the features and proportions of human bodies without bothering actual humans, but those faceless figures are priceless for the photographer as well.

The facial features of mannequins are blank, but if you think mannequins are unexpressive then you haven’t played with one long enough (or maybe you haven’t played with one at all). Without a smile or a frown, mannequins can express a full array of emotions, feelings, and profound interactions: they change from despair to euphoria, from solidarity to selfishness, from love to hate, from confidence to anxiety, from humor to perplexity, and so and so for.

Just like for their human counterparts (or models), all it takes is bending or straightening the core, twisting an arm, shifting the weight from one leg to the other, and tilting the head in the appropriate direction. After a few minutes of play you can realize that you are holding in your hands a formidable syllabus of human expression. 

Practice, learn, experiment, and even before you realize it you will be applying the lessons from this timeless tools to all of your photography sessions – featuring real people, of course. Or, you will become completely obsessed and produce a crazy catalogue featuring mostly your mannequins.