Matthew Rolston: Finding the Humanity in Dummies


Photo: Matthew Rolston

As a successful photographer and music video director for several decades, Matthew Rolston has worked with the nation’s top — and most attractive — entertainers. His Daniel Craig portrait was on a recent Rolling Stone cover, he’s just completed videos for Kelly Rowland and Brandy, and his other subjects include Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, the (naked and red-substance-splattered) cast of True Blood and many more.

His first client — in the 1970s — was Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. The second was Rolling Stone, the third Harper’s Bazaar and he’s never really looked back.

“What I’ve been interested in then and now was portraits of people in entertainment, film, music and television,” explains the Beverly Hills-based photographer, now in his fifties, during a recent a telephone interview. “My interest is in photographing talented, beautiful, fascinating personalities.”

That’s partly what makes his new project so unusual. He has taken close-up portraits, startlingly realistic headshots, of some 200 figures — colloquially known as dummies — at Fort Mitchell, Ky.’s Vent Haven ventriloquism museum. The results are in a new book, Talking Heads, just published by Pointed Leaf Press.

The remarkable thing, given his background, is that not all Rolston’s decades-old subjects are unblemished and in their physical prime. Some clearly show time’s ravages. Yet his empathic work makes them all come across as so eerily humanlike you wait for them to start speaking.

Rolston explained the project’s genesis came in 2009, when he saw an article in the New York Times about Vent Haven. (I did a feature on the museum for Cincinnati CityBeat around the same time.) The accompanying photographs immediately drew him in.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what is that? What are those faces?’ Then I read the caption and immediately went to the website of the museum,” he said.

“I photograph entertainers and my main interest is their faces. I know faces and I know them very well. And when I saw the faces at Vent Haven, I thought it was the best lineup, the best casting call, I had ever seen.”

Soon afterward, he scheduled a visit. (The museum, which is only open May through September, requires appointments.) And after taking snapshots, he started planning Talking Heads.

“At that time, I began to feel I needed to do personal work. I’d been a photographer and director of music and commercial videos for 30 years, and had never done a personal project,” he said. “The work I do was personal enough for me — I put a lot of my emotion and soul into that work and really enjoy it. But you get to a point, and it comes with aging, where you think, ‘Is that my legacy? Am I just going to interpret within my work assignments from other people?’

“I wanted to give myself an assignment to do something personal,” he explained. “I was hungry for it. It was almost the same hunger I had for my career when I was 20 years old. So that hunger was just opening me up. And there this was, in the newspaper, and I got very excited. It was an instinctive connection.”

He came back in 2010 with a crew and his own power generator, setting up shop for several days in one of the museum’s buildings. Curator Jennifer Dawson carefully handled the figures for Rolston, admiring the work as it progressed.

“It was a real labor of love for him,” she said. “Some of the figures he took photos of may not be as beautiful as others, but with him, every one became a work of art.”

Growing up in L.A., Rolston was surrounded by Hollywood beauty and fashion. His mother’s Harper’s Bazaars were in the house; his grandfather was a physician who treated MGM stars and had their glamorous photographs in his office. He brought that sensibility to his work for Warhol — who loved Old Hollywood.

In 1984, he and two other photographers who did early work for Interview, Herb Ritts and Greg Gorman, shared an important L.A. gallery show, “Working in L.A.,” that established their shared contemporary aesthetic toward physical beauty.

Rolston sees a Talking Heads connection to his fascination with Hollywood — ventriloquial figures, after all, were entertainers.

“These don’t happen to be human, but they have a human spirit,” he said. “To me, they’re almost fetishes of humanity.”

And his decision to shoot them in close-up, and to want large-format prints, reflects Warhol’s influence.

“It wasn’t until after the work was completed that I made that link to his famous silkscreen portraits of the 1970s,” Rolston said. “I realized that must have been driving my desire to make these giant-sized heads, to keep them totemic and overscale and square.”

Vent Haven’s Dawson hopes Rolston’s reputation will bring newfound national attention to the low-profile museum, which opened in 1973 at the home of the late William S. Burger, a Cincinnati businessman who loved ventriloquism. It houses some 700 figures and other memorabilia. (It has attracted the interest of several professional photographers before, notably Laurie Simmons.)

She also hopes it will be able to have a show, at some point, of smaller-size prints from the project. “The images that we’ve seen have been breathtaking,” she said.

Rolston, meanwhile, believes this project will now inform his approach to his commercial work.

I now have a greater appreciation of what I do with people,” he said. “Because in a way, especially when I direct music videos, I’m pulling the strings and levers of these performers. They’re not inanimate objects — they’re living, breathing, very talented and gifted performers. But I’m more thoughtful and more respectful of it now, having had the experience with the dummies of Vent Haven.

Photo: Matthew Rolston

(This first appeared, in a slightly different version, in Cincinnati CityBeat, 12-11-12)
For more information about VENT HAVEN MUSEUM, visit

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