Marwencol: A Film of Depth on Art, Doll Collecting, Photography and Dream


from the film Marwencol
from the film Marwencol

Living the Dream – Dreaming the Life

The other day quite by accident I came upon the film Marwencol in my Netflix Streaming account: Netflix Marwencol. I read the reviews and hesitated seeing it because it seemed like it might be a little heavy, but still decided to dive right in. It was all about things that are important to us at Tonner. Here was a Kingston artist who most of us here had not heard of. We are a Kingston company close to the community we have been a part of for 25 years. It is a dramatic story of a person who in many if not all ways “lost his life”, and then reclaimed it, or created it through dolls and what can only be called remarkable photography. The film has extraordinary complexity with no easy interpretation or way to feel. It confronts basic human loneliness, the power to create and dream, acute craftsman dedication, homophobia, and the redemptive even ascending power of dolls and their Art.

The Marwencol Trailer

6 Scenes of the film can be watched here

1/6 Scale and the Universe

Mark Hogancamp constructed his world at the 1/6 scale, the scale of Barbie dolls and GI Joes. But what he has done with this scale is worthy of any gallery, any scale it seems. It is not just the detail and imagination with which he has filled his Marwencol world, it is the unreal Real that fills his photos with light and exquisite poses. You can feel his entire world poured through that isolated frame, something that all visual artists endeavor to achieve. His photos practically vibrate with life, and what many people in society might off-handedly categorize as the most fake, or plastic, reveals itself to be reality itself. In the film it is described as Mark’s innocence, and I suppose there is something about that. But if it is innocence is it the way that “play” and “imagine” and “artifice” go to the very core of what Art is about, and possess the power to strip away so much that that doesn’t matter and present boldly what does.

There are so many layers in this story; it is easy to get pulled out of one and into another. The violence Mark suffered at the hands of brutalizing youths outside a bar, or his own early anger and heavy alcoholism both illumine and obscure the force of what he has been able to do. His meticulous posings and camera work – he worked with a 25 year old Pentax K-1000 that had a broken light meter and sent his photos out for processing, having to reshoot everything again for exposure until he developed a feel – exact out a sincere and serious imagining. But no matter the sense of sadness someone might feel, and I did not experience the film as sad as others have, you cannot escape how piece by piece Marks has built a ladder in his life, elevating it and us.

Now as others come in contact with what otherwise would have been lonely work the meaning of the work itself is deepened. Inspiration spreads. The film gives life to his created life. And when we talk about it, share it with others, more is made. This is the nature of Art. This is why we share it.

Photo: copyright Mark Hogancamp
photo: copyright Mark Hogancamp
photo: copyright Mark Hogancamp


Esopus Magazine

Esopus Magazine was the first to bring the work of Mark to the public with their publication of the article Marwencol on My Mind in the Fall of 2005 which included an introduction by Tod Lippy and an interview with Mark by David Naugle a Kingston photographer who discovered him walking his jeep with dolls by the roadside. Esopus is foundation, magazine and space, more of which can be found at the bottom of this post. From Tod’s introduction where he tracing out the path from scrap wood to the universal:

Frustrated but resolute, Hogancamp reached further back into his creative past. He began by revisiting his childhood hobbies of collecting toy soldiers and building painted models. Commandeering a pile of scrap wood left behind by a contractor, he constructed “Marwencol,” a fictional Belgian town built to one-sixth scale in the backyard of his home. He populated it with action figures and dolls representing Word War II personages like Gen. George Patton, as well as stand-ins for himself, his friends, and his family. Finally, he dusted off an old camera and began using it to capture staged events ranging from pitched battles between occupying German and American forces to catfights in a town bar. Through these exercises, Hogancamp sought to regain the capabilities that he recalled having had before the attack. Hogancamp’s photographs first appeared in Esopus 5 (Fall 2005). Since their publication, he has added several structures to the town and, armed with a new camera, he has been busily documenting a series of new narratives (stills from which will appear at White Columns for the first time). All of these images evidence Hogancamp’s desire to conflate the historical and the personal, the specific and the universal.

photo: David Naugle of Mark Hogancamp, from Esopus Magazine

And from David Naugle’s Interview, on why Mark started photographing his town after he built it and why realism is so important:

Why did you decide to start photographing the town?

Well, see, when I built it, I thought, “Oh my god, nobody’ll believe it, nobody will believe me.” And I couldn’t bring everyone I know here to my house to see it, so what I figured I could do is photograph certain things. When I got the first photographs back, I was like, “These look so cool.” So I just started a whole story that evolved into photographing everything, filming different sequences. For me, it was very exciting….I mean, this was a whole story that I was so into. And I was so proud of what I was doing—I was so proud that my imagination was coming back—that I wanted to share it with people. But it was just, you know, nonsense to most of the people that I showed the photographs to. And I figured, “Well, if they think it’s nonsense I’m not going to show them anymore.” So I kept the town quiet, you know, pictures of the town, what’s going on in the town. I kind of closed myself up from sharing that with other humans….

…The photographs are almost like film stills—why is it important
for you to get them to look so realistic?

Oh, realism, that’s the key. If I took a doll and just posed it the best way I knew how, or however I thought it would be enticing for other peopleto look at, and I snapped the photo and it ended up looking like a posed doll,people would say, “Nice doll.” You know, “Nice uniform,” and stuff like that. But if I pose that doll and make it do every damn human thing that people wouldn’t ever think twice about, then it’ll look like humans doing something. You know, when people first look at my photos, they think, “It’s a real club, it’s real people,” until they see the seams on the hands and the joints and stuff. They’re halfway through the photographs before they say, “These are all dolls!” And I’m like, “Yeah.” That’s my thing, trompe l’oeil—to fool the eye. I wanna pose all of these guys so that they look real, not to put one over on people, but to imitate life.

click to read the original interview


The Story as Told in the Press

 NY Times

Made from scraps of plywood and peopled with a tribe of Barbies and World War II action figures, Marwencol grew along the side of his trailer home near Kingston. (Mr. Hogancamp named his new world after himself and Wendy and Colleen, two women he had crushes on.) Narratives surrounding a downed American fighter pilot rescued by Marwencol’s all-female population began unfurling against a backdrop that was nominally a World War II setting, in Belgium. The themes, however, were Mr. Hogancamp’s own: the brutality of men, the safe haven of a town of women, the twin demons of rage and fear. Mr. Hogancamp captured his stories with thousands of photographs, shooting on an old Pentax with a broken light meter. The noirish images, complete with blood flecks in the snow, are riveting and emotional.

read the rest: NY Times: In a Tiny Universe, a Room to Heal

Wired Magazine

“There was one rule in my town,” says Hogancamp, “That [people] be friends, be friendly with each other, behave. So they did, they were.”

The initial cordiality between Nazi and Allied Forces soon gave way to kidnappings and gun fights. For more than a decade, 1/6 scale dolls have played out existential and therapeutic stories of love and war, friendship and enmity, heroism and cowardice, and desire and restraint. In some cases, the stories of Marwencol mirror reality, sometimes they’re purely fantasy; usually they blur the two…

…What began as private rehabilitation has become more and more public over the years. In 2005, Esopus Magazine published Hogancamp’s photographs for the first time after he was discovered by a local photographer. A copy fell into the hands of filmmaker Jeff Malmberg who, coincidentally, was already thinking about themes of reinvention and scouting for a story to test his ability as a director.

read the rest: Wired Magazine: Miniature Town Brings Its Creator a New Life

Wall Street Journal

photo: Mae Ryan for the WSJ

“I don’t consider my photos art work,” said Mr. Hogancamp, 48, a gentle, talkative and straightforwardly eccentric individual who doesn’t expect everyone to understand his passions, which have turned his modest living quarters into something like a miniature military supply depot. “It’s my therapy. I never planned on the world ever seeing my stuff. I was just going to keep the billions of photographs I took to myself.”…

…Watching Mr. Hogancamp at work on a recent afternoon—Sept. 11, an emotional day for the artist, who served in the U.S. Navy as a young man—it was easier to see how he gives his dolls their uncannily lifelike presence. He crawls on his hands and knees, now using a digital camera, constantly finding low angles and using forced perspectives to make backgrounds appear in scale. “He’s doing so much with so little,” Mr. Malmberg said. “He’s able to manipulate the dolls in a way that makes every gesture so revealing.”

read the rest: Wall Street Journal: Illustrator’s War Games Prove Restorative

LAist (interviewing the filmmaker)

LAist: Did Mark ever give you any rules?

JM: Not really…Maybe some small ones like, “Try not to knock over the dolls” (which I did all the time). But as a subject, he was completely open and never told me what I could or couldn’t include. So I tried to earn that trust by being responsible with what he gave me. He’s got a very artistic sense and I think he knew I was going for something and didn’t want to burden me with rules about it – a very giving thing.

LAist: When did you decide that you had shot enough?

JM: Most of the footage in the film was actually shot very early in the four-year process. But it wasn’t until about 2008 that I was able to see what it all meant. Some of it took a while for me to wrap my head around. My wife and I had to put together a synopsis of the film for a grant proposal. And it was really then that the story became clear. After that point, everything more or less fell into place.

LAist: How did you know that you’d found your ending?

JM: We played around with a few different endings, but nothing felt perfect. And then one day in 2009, Mark sent me some new photos from Marwencol and we were like, “That’s it – that’s the ending.”

read the rest: LAist Interview: Marwencol Director Jeff Malmberg:

Marwencol Itself

Some Marwencol Characters

characters as found on Independent Lens

Interactive Navagation of Marwencol

Click to Explore Marwencol at Independent Lens


Some of Those Involved

Marwencol and Jeff Malmberg

Director Jeff Malmberg with Makr Hogancamp via the Candler Blog

From Independent Lens: Marwencol is Jeff Malmberg‘s directorial debut. The award-winning film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. As director, Jeff was honored with the HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award at Hot Docs. Jeff produced and edited Red White Black & Blue, which aired on Independent Lens in 2007.

The Esopus Foundation, LTD

The Esopus Foundation Ltd. is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization incorporated in New York State in 2003. It was formed to provide an unmediated forum through which artists, writers, musicians, and other creative people can make a direct connection with the general public.

In its first eight years, the Foundation has been largely devoted to the publishing of Esopus, a twice-yearly magazine that features content from all creative disciplines presented in an unmediated format. “Unmediated” means that Esopus never features advertisements or commercially driven editorial material, and employs a purposefully neutral editorial voice in order to make the magazine a distributor, rather than interpreter, of its content. In 2009 The Esopus Foundation launched Esopus Space, an intimately scaled performance and exhibition venue in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood that features one-person and group shows, performances, lectures, and screenings at no cost to the public.

you can subscribe or donate to Esopus here

Marwencol and Mark Hogancamp

There continues a close relationship between the film, Esopus and Mark. A website has been set up and they are looking for ways through a trust so that his photographs can be sold. In personal communication it was suggested that this trust should come into existence very shortly. There you can see some of his photos in the gallery. From the site concerning the purchase of his work:

Mark Hogancamp’s photographs are not for sale right now — any revenue he collects from art sales could endanger his disability payments. We are in the midst of setting up a special trust for Mark that, once established, will print editions of his work, collect income from sales, and distribute it to him in a manner that wouldn’t threaten these payments.

If you’re interested in purchasing photographs by Mark please add your name to the list by emailing with the subject heading “Interest List”. Please include your full name and email address if different from the one you’re writing from.

 Marwencol Among Us

Several of us on the Twitter #dollchat have seen the film Marwencol now and have been discussing it. In some ways it is almost too deep to discuss, and I can feel that there are complexities beneath the responses. I invite you to watch Marwencol and come and discuss your thoughts on #dollchat. We meet on Sundays at 2pm and Tuesdays at 9pm, but it actually is a 24/7 hashtag if you have doll thoughts you’d like to share. Or if any of you are blogging about the film we’d love to hear about it.


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