by Norma Smith Olson

Barbie is a survivor. The ever-popular doll made by Mattel® toy company is over 50 years old and has had over 100 careers.

Minneapolis photographer Nicole Houff collects Barbies for more than play. As an artist, she places Barbie in different settings, adding a twist of whimsy and sometimes a bit of sarcasm to the scenes.

While "Thanksgiving Barbie," on the cover of this magazine, looks the perfect 1950s housewife serving up an enormous turkey on a platter, there is a hint of a little helper in the background.

Retro spoof
"I always try to keep my Barbie stuff really fun. I love doing the retro thing, that mid-century look, but I also like to do a little bit of a spoof on the concept of the happy housewife from the '50s, like you see in the TV shows," Houff said. "I like to add the wine glasses. You see the 'Leave it to Beaver'-type ladies, but they have happy pills or something. I try to keep it really fun and lighthearted."

Houff already had the perfect, hostess-looking, retro Barbie (with turkey and tray), when she had a chance conversation at her art festival booth with a collector who described her 1950s Barbie Kitchen. "Oh, my gosh!" Houff said. "The perfect stranger" loaned Houff the toy environment and the "Thanksgiving Barbie" scene was cooked up.

Once she has a background setting, Houff sketches out the composition, figures out props-she searches eBay regularly for Barbies and accessories, thinks about the lighting. Then she heads to the studio for the shoot. According to Houff, the shooting takes quite a few hours "to get all of the little minutia dialed in. When you're looking at a Barbie everything is so small, so if something moves even a millimeter it completely changes the composition.

"When I shot the Thanksgiving scene, I didn't want any other doll in there. She's doing all of the work, she's going to be hosting this big Thanksgiving, and yet she's by herself, with two wine glasses. Maybe her loved one is supposed to be there, maybe her husband, I don't know." She likes to let the viewer create their own stories and draw their own conclusions.

Passion and patience
"I really enjoy the technical aspects," said Houff, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Macalester-where she first got interested in photography-and an associate degree in photography and digital imaging from Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

"My entire life is basically photography. The Barbie stuff is a part-time job," Houff said. Monday through Friday Hough works at Armour Photography as a studio associate and producer's assistant.

"Thanksgiving Barbie" went pretty smoothly for Houff. "It was meant to be. Everything worked in my favor, the background, the doll, the outfit. I didn't have to do a lot of troubleshooting."

That's not always the case. "Some of them have fought with me the whole time, like it doesn't want to get shot." The most challenging: "Hula Barbie." Hawaiian setting and accessories, with Elvis and Ken dolls in the background competing for coconut-bra-wearing Barbie's favor, the scene is now one of Houff's favorites. "You wouldn't know it to look at it. Everything that could go wrong, did. It finally came together. It holds a special place."

"My survival kit and Barbie's would be quite different," Houff concluded. "I would have to have a camera. I can't imagine going through my life without being able to take photos. I don't think Barbie would require a camera, although she has had over 100 careers in her 53 years, and some of them have had cameras. She was a TV camera person and fashion editor-those came with a camera. So, maybe she would have a camera, but I think in Barbie's survival kit would be an awesome personal shopper and really good shoes."

FFI: www.nicolehouff.com