Vintage Barbies are Perfect Models for Uptown Artist Nicole Houff

While it’s true that Barbie has had a driver’s license since the 1960s, in the world of Uptown artist and photographer Nicole Houff, the iconic doll isn’t quite ready to get behind the wheel of her sleek and
stylish sports car.

“I’ve had Barbie’s original car for two years, and I’m working on an idea,” says Houff. “I just haven’t had a chance to shoot it yet.”

Fans of Houff’s wholly original, fanciful and quirky take on vintage Barbies (and trusty accessory Ken—more on that later) might be surprised to learn that Houff’s photographs of Barbie, which now number more than 100, take many hours to plan and execute.

For instance, the image of Barbie and Ken outside the Uptown Theatre, which Houff, the commemorative artist for the 2017 Uptown Art Fair, created to illustrate the event’s vintage-inspired poster, literally took weeks and an extensive amount of design work (see page 2).

“When I came up with the concept, I knew I wanted a blue sky as the backdrop, but I was shooting it in March, so I literally had to go back [to the Uptown] several times to get the right light,” Houff says, adding she was “sweating bullets” that she wouldn’t get the weather she needed for the shot.

As for the models themselves, there were three different Barbies (from her collection of 40) that Houff considered using. “The one I used was a little paler. I also chose a dress with gold in it since people tend to dress up when they come to Uptown. Ken’s suit is dark blue, but there’s a little gold in the pattern.” Another design element? The brilliant blue of Ken’s eyes, along with Barbie’s bright blue eye shadow.

Never mind the vacant expression on Ken’s face: that’s par for the course, says Houff, since really, Ken is and always has been an accessory to Barbie.

“You don’t get into the Barbie line to buy Ken,” Houff says wryly. “I once read that for roughly every seven Barbies purchased, one Ken is sold.” It’s Barbie who brings the power to that couple, which is what made Houff want to photograph her in the first place. While she did have a few Barbies  growing up, Houff has come to see Barbie as “a total ass-kicker, and I portray her as such.” Examples: Barbie on the moon, or—one of Houff’s personal favorites—a hapless Ken tangled up in Christmas tree lights, with Barbie standing tall next to him.

Houff studied digital and commercial photography at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC ). She also has a degree in art and political science from Macalester College in St. Paul. In addition, she spent approximately eight years as a black-and-white photo printer, much of her work done for a local lab that printed for National Camera Exchange. Now Houff works one evening a week at the National Camera Exchange in Golden Valley, where she enjoys talking about “photo-related stuff” with customers and co-workers.

She’s been doing the Barbie photos for approximately 10 years. “I’ve always liked imagery and graphics from the 1950s and ’60s, so my work has always had that element,” she says. Houff was particularly thrilled to be selected as the 2017 Uptown Art Fair commemorative artist. “In the art-fair world, it’s one of the biggest ones in the country and it’s highly regarded,” she says. In addition to creating the event poster, Houff landed a plum spot at the fair’s entrance; her work was also the inspiration for a diorama contest called “All Dolled Up,” sponsored by the Uptown Association and City Pages, which offered participants the opportunity to put their own creative spin on dolls as photo subjects. Additionally, Houff will automatically be included in the 2018 art fair.

Houff has also been featured at the Minnesota State Fair, the Gamut Gallery in Minneapolis , Twin Cities Pride Festival and at other local art fairs. This month, she will have a show at the Art at 801 Gallery in the North Loop, which will run for four months and feature 10 to 12 bigger pieces. In March, Houff will have a larger show at the Hopkins Art Center. Her photos are always available online through her Etsy shop.

There are more Barbie images to come, says Houff, who keeps a long list of ideas. “I have so many more things to shoot with her. This work brings me a lot of joy and happiness.”