There has been no shortage of creative projects that have come out of the pandemic, but the Rolls and Tubes Collective is one of my favorites. Four Bay Area photographers decided to make the most of the shutdown by re-creating famous images using toilet paper.
Christy McDonald, Colleen Mullins, Jenny Sampson, and Nicole White all approach photography differently, and they had formed an informal group to critique each other's work before the pandemic. When the world came to a standstill and it was hard to continue making their usual work, they started this project on a whim. They ended up building sets, enlisting family members, and persuading patient pets to be a part of the series. The result is a unique and incredibly nerdy collection built on extensive research and sly wit. Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but when I look at these images it brings me a sense of joy at the playfulness involved.
The women reimagined iconic photographs initially captured by everyone from Edward Weston to William Eggleston. If you ever went to photo school or sat through an art history class, please delight in the rendering of “Identical Twins” by Diane Arbus. They started posting the images on Instagram, and the fun side project eventually grew into an exhibition and a book, the second edition of which is available in February. We spoke with them about the challenges of using toilet paper as a medium and why research is such an important part of inspiration.
How did this project get started?
Rolls and Tubes Collective: As we went into the initial pandemic lockdown, we determined we would have our critique group meeting via Zoom. The day we were to meet virtually, Jenny texted the group prior to our meeting stating she had nothing to show. On a whim, Colleen texted the group suggesting everyone make a quick photograph from the history of photography using toilet paper. Because we all felt a little scattered with the state of the world, this prompt was an unexpected distraction. We met and screen-shared our very first work (note, we were not yet “Rolls and Tubes”), and they made us laugh so hard. We realized that it had been weeks since we had laughed at all. It was, indeed, a needed release, and we wanted to replicate that feeling — and we knew we had many more of these in us.
Christy was a latecomer by a week and blew the project wide open by leaving her home to make her first photograph, bringing a delicious, transgressive indulgence to the group of pictures. Christy states, “For that first photo, my daughter and I drove from Berkeley to San Francisco to re-create the [Josef] Koudelka image. I remember feeling so guilty for leaving the house. There was literally no one anywhere. San Francisco was a ghost town — which made standing in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the middle of the day even possible. It felt surreal.
How did you each pick which artists’ works to re-create?
Jenny: That very first day, I thought I had the best idea: Magritte’s “Ceci N’est Pas une Pipe.” I re-created it to “Ceci N’est Pas TP” only to realize that I had already screwed up because I had re-created a painting, not a photograph. Time was running out and I had to act fast. But who? One of my very favorites, Diane Arbus. But which one? “Twins.” It was so quickly thrown together, but it made me laugh.
Moving forward, I recognized that re-creating photographs using my hands and building sets and scenes with my rolls and tubes was meditative, and working in a more abstract and imperfect way was freeing. So I proceeded to find photographs that I thought I could build with my hands in some way, initially looking through every single photo book I owned and then over time migrating to the internet and being more deliberate about whose work to re-create.
Nicole: We chose artists who we respected and whose work we appreciated. We each have our own individual relationships to photography, and so our selections were decidedly different from one another. There were some instances of overlap, classics from the canon that could not be dismissed (i.e., excellent, recognizable fodder for the project), but for the most part we each brought our own subjectivity to the work, and artists selected reflect our distinct backgrounds.
Colleen: I started with images that I had in my head already. From there, I turned to my photo book library. And this, too, was an exercise in getting lost in books I hadn’t paged through in a while. Later, I looked to the web, be it social media outlets for museums, remote Zoom lectures, or browsing New York dealers. I occasionally suggested an image to one of the others, and likewise a couple were suggested to me. I was also aware as we kept passing the days making these images how very full my library was of male photographers. So I began willfully including more women than the history I had been trained in provided.
Christy: I wanted to re-create images from photographers I admire and who have inspired my work, so this meant documentary and street photographers. I utilized my personal photobook library, the internet, social media, and friends to find images. Colleen was an invaluable resource as she was always sending me random ideas and photographers to look at. As for choosing a photographer and photograph to do, it really came down to whether or not the image had something in it that could be represented in some way with a roll of toilet paper. There were many, many photographers I didn't choose because I either couldn't see toilet paper in the photograph or the subject matter didn't lend itself to being reduced to toilet paper.
This seems hard. Can you talk about some of the challenges in working with toilet paper?
Jenny: Initially, the biggest challenge was time. I had committed myself to making work using my hands and building sets and scenes, which was something I had never done and something I greatly admired by some of my contemporaries (Lori Nix and Grace Weston, to name just two) — and in the beginning of the project, we each re-created one photograph daily — that is A LOT!! So the ongoing challenge was, Can I literally make this with my hands in one day and not be completely embarrassed by it? Eventually, we all agreed that a daily creation was taking over our lives, and we created a schedule. We each posted every four days, which helped, however, it also raised the bar.
Nicole: Each image presented its own challenges. With a project like this, you must modify your own approach to image-making to fit the desired result, which meant that we were all making photographs in very different manners than what we might be more naturally inclined to do. Part of the allure of some of the images we restaged were the technical challenges present within the original. These challenges provided a space for us to intentionally make work that was outside our practices, and we all gained technical and conceptual insights in the process.
Colleen: I don’t typically practice my photography at home. Historically, my work has been more documentary-based. I would say where those challenges ensnared me, they also taught me a better appreciation for certain kinds of image-making. In the challenge of constructing an Erin Shirreff, say, I was faced with a greater appreciation for the complexity and difficulty of what she does. There was also a bit of internal dialogue with regard to approach: Would the work be one to be perfectly emulated, quoted, or disrupted by the intrusion of toilet paper? The question was answered differently in each piece.
Christy: Aside from the initial challenge of finding an image to re-create, we were on lockdown for most of this project, so we were having to work with what, who, and in the location we had available. Jenny used her roommate and sister's dog for one or two photographs, I used my daughter for most of mine, and my dog for a couple. Like Colleen, my photography is documentary-based, I don't ever work in a studio or with lights or props, and I never preconceptualize an image. This project pushed me to work in ways I haven't worked in years — or ever. I also found myself looking more closely at images than ever before while trying to see all the details that needed to be in the re-created photograph. I have a whole new appreciation for the way other photographers work.
Which image is your favorite?
Christy: My favorite images of mine are the ones with my daughter, Fiona, in them. I especially love the Man Ray and the Hairdo magazine images. Creating those with her was kind of magical; she just seemed to know exactly what was needed to make the images work, and they turned out exactly how I had imagined. Fiona and I were on lockdown together, and she was having to do the second half of her junior year and all of her senior year of high school on Zoom, and she was miserable. Working on this project with her made that time and this project so much more meaningful for me (and I hope for her!), especially knowing she'd be going off to college soon and that we may never have that much time together again.
Fiona recently mentioned that her favorite photograph is the William Eggleston, where she is lying on the grass. I thought that was so interesting because that was definitely her least favorite photograph to make. She hated having to wear that dress in public, and we shot that on the lawn of her former middle school, which is next door to our house. Of the images that are not mine, I love, love, love Colleen's Anna and Bernhard Blume, Jenny's Consuelo Kanaga and Nicole's Pierre-Louis Pierson photos.
Colleen: For me, it is the Pierson that graces the cover of our book. The marvelous and totally relatable self-portrait by Nicole White. She’s wrapped in a puffy blanket, hair asunder, and that gaze. Coquettish? Commanding of respect? Wondering who left only one last square?
Nicole: I am most drawn to the images that were unexpected or where I learned about a photographer I had no prior knowledge of.
Jenny: I have great difficulty picking one favorite. There are so many images that made me laugh or inspired me or that I revered. I learned about photographers I had never heard of. I was constantly in awe of how Christy, Colleen, and Nicole rendered photographs they admired. And, full disclosure, looking back at the work, I am shocked (and even impressed) with some of the images I made.
What has the reception been to this project?
RTC: We have had a wide-ranging response to the work, and it has been overwhelmingly positive. We were and remain humbled by these reactions. The project wasn't started with that intention at all. It was just a small, silly exercise that was meant to be fun, funny, entertaining, distracting, and challenging — as well as something to keep us creating and communicating with other human beings!
On one end of the spectrum, we made a body of work that is most definitely toilet humor, but it feels like there’s less of a response to that and more interest in the reengagement in the history of photography. It allows the viewer to appreciate it regardless of how deeply vested they are in the photographic canon. The fact that the work can oscillate between a “good laugh” and something that holds a little more conceptual resonance is perhaps why it has attracted a diverse audience. Over and over, we heard how much this project made people laugh during an exceptionally terrible time.