Durham News

Dahlia, The Durham Doll

“I think girls and women are hungry to be portrayed as authentic and whole unto themselves, not just as a prize to be won, or a sex object, or desperate for approval,” says Talya Klein, creator of Dahlia the Durham Doll, here making a snow angel. “I know I wanted to see that as a girl and I still do”
“I think girls and women are hungry to be portrayed as authentic and whole unto themselves, not just as a prize to be won, or a sex object, or desperate for approval,” says Talya Klein, creator of Dahlia the Durham Doll, here making a snow angel. “I know I wanted to see that as a girl and I still do”

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Talya Klein moved back to Durham from New York City back in October. A writer and director for 15 years, she was looking for a place to put down roots and saw opportunities to teach and make work here and also to participate in Durham’s growth.

“I was filled with so much excitement and enthusiasm for Durham, but I knew that flooding my Instagram feed full of unabashedly enthusiastic selfies in all of my favorite places would get old for my friends and family pretty quickly,” Klein says. “So I decided I needed a surrogate: someone whose unbridled enthusiasm for Durham could be embraced without cynicism or skepticism. Enter Dahlia, The Durham Doll.”

Tell us a little about yourself and Dahlia

Klein: Dahlia is basically a doll version of me (her name literally came from referring to her as “Doll-Talya”) so we share a lot of things in common: same hair, same coloring, same signature “beauty mark” on our right cheeks, plus an unbridled passion for dance, ice cream, mischief and retro-style clothes.

However, as her character has grown and developed, there are a few differences as well. She’s a lot more of a physical daredevil (I would never try to razor scooter down a big hill) plus she has the English bulldog I always wanted (I’m a little jealous). But Dahlia is also an ageless creature, who is guided by a very innocent enthusiasm and curiosity, free from most adult worries and fears. I guess you could say she’s a concentrated mix of my best qualities (with very few of my flaws…).

I taught myself photography to practice film composition for directing, and some of my favorite subjects are my nieces, so I had gotten used to getting down on the ground, capturing the world from their eye level. I’ve also always been a huge fan of playing with scale and collected/created a lot of miniatures as a kid. This project has allowed me to dive head-first into those tiny worlds and little details, but also to capture this city I love, in all its magic and wonder, from the perspective of a 12-inch doll.

For those of us who have never heard of a Blythe Doll — which is what Dahlia is — can you tell us a little about them?

Klein: Blythe is a doll that was designed by Allison Katzman in 1972 and produced by Kenner (now Hasbro) in the U.S. for only one year. She had a big head and a tiny body, and if you pulled a string in the back of her head, her eyes moved and changed colors. She wasn’t really that big of a hit, so they stopped production on them pretty quickly.

Then, in 2000, Gina Garan, inspired by a friend’s vintage Blythe Doll, took the doll all over the world and took photos of her. She published a coffee table book of her Blythe doll photographs entitled “This is Blythe.” Takara, a Japanese toy company, inspired by the popularity of the book, decided to produce more “Neo” Blythe dolls, and those sold out within the first hour of release. Takara has been producing Neo Blythe dolls in Japan ever since, and in the last 15 years they’ve become quite the collector’s item.

I found a very reasonably priced Neo Blythe on Amazon (still not cheap by doll standards) called “Cherry Sunset Blythe.” I picked her because she had the darkest skin I could find on a Blythe doll (she had a suntan). It was important to me that the doll look like me (growing up, I never had a doll that looked like me) but also it was important that she also (like me) looked ethnically ambiguous. If she was going to be a citizen of Durham, I didn’t want her to belong to any one particular group. I wanted anyone in Durham to be able to claim her as their own. So I can proudly say that Dahlia is a one-of-a-kind doll.

What is your process like for taking Dahlia’s photographs?

Klein: As much as I can, I try to post photographs in real time, or at least on the same day. If I plan a photo session in the morning, I might space posting the photographs out throughout the day, and I usually post anywhere from one to five photographs a day. I haven’t missed a day yet! I also change her hair and clothes daily like a normal person would. I do this because I like the idea that Dahlia is out and about in the community in real time and her photographs reflect that. I like creating the possibility that she is someone you can run into.

I have a running list of photo ideas and try to plan them around my schedule. Some of my photos are planned weeks in advance, and some of them happen spontaneously when I’m out walking. I was born and raised in NYC, so I’m a big walker. When I’m shooting in public, I’ve gotten pretty good at working quickly without drawing too much attention to myself. The hardest part is making sure the lighting works and getting her to balance without my help. I might get a few funny looks if I’m crouching on the sidewalk or setting her up on a ledge, but I’m usually in and out within minutes. I’ve gotten pretty stealthy.

I shoot on my iPhone and usually edit the images on my phone as well. Using her as my primary subject has had a huge learning curve. Some photos that we think might look awesome don’t translate with her because of scale. It’s very easy to let her get overwhelmed by the architecture and the picture just doesn’t have the same punch or connection. I’ve learned that even the smallest tilt or angle or body position to the camera makes a huge difference. I took a whole series of photos in the tree houses at the Museum of Life & Science and then when I looked at them again, I realized her body language was a little too haughty. It’s amazing how much of a difference these little details can make. People will often comment and say, “She’s smirking here!” or “she looks like she’s flirting!” and I just have to laugh because other than her eye gaze, her face literally doesn’t change. It’s just the angle and her relationship to the camera that tells the story.

What are your goals for you and Dahlia?

Klein: Dahlia would tell you her dream is to be a model for Runaway Brand or to dance as Clara in “The Nutcracker” at DPAC (Haha!). As for me, I would love to create a Durham Doll book someday, something that both kids and adults would love. If I were dreaming big, I’d say that I’d love for Dahlia to become a Durham fixture like “Wool E. Bull” and maybe even a global ambassador for the city, a symbol of Durham pride, like “Make Way for Ducklings” was for Boston, or what “Eloise” did for the Plaza Hotel in New York City. She definitely fits into the quirky, homespun, personable aspects of this city, one of the reasons I fell in love with Durham in the first place.

Dahlia has the best style! Where do you find her clothes?

Klein: Aw thanks! I’m jealous of some of her clothes myself! I would say about a third of her clothes are vintage finds from my childhood dolls or thrift stores/yard sales, a third I buy on Etsy, and a third of them are sewn by me. I worked in the costume shop when I was a student at Duke, and that’s where I learned how to sew on a machine. Every couple of weeks I’ll raid the fabric scraps at the Scrap Exchange and I’m a regular at the monthly sewing meet-up at Spoonflower.

Sometimes I’ll be walking around Durham and I’ll get a vision in my head of how a photo should look, and I’ll try to recreate it. The 1950s dress Dahlia wore for the New Year’s photo shoot at The Durham Hotel was sewn by me from a vintage vogue pattern I found at the Scrap Exchange. I just xeroxed the pattern pieces at 25 percent until they were the right size. I also make all of her knitwear. You just have to use really tiny needles and be patient! I’m not going to lie, it’s a lot of work, but it feels really worth it when an outfit or an accessory really makes a photo pop.

We noticed Dahlia is an advocate for nonprofit organizations. Can you tell us more about that?

Klein: There is a treasure trove of local businesses and charitable organizations doing good things in and for the Durham community, and I want to support that as much as I can. It started out as a photo series I did with Dahlia on Giving Tuesday, supporting five local nonprofit organizations: ADF, Book Harvest, Trosa, The Porch Project and One World Market. It just grew from there. As someone who has spent the majority of her career making art in the nonprofit sector, I know how important word of mouth is. If I can help an organization that is contributing to Durham in a positive way, then I will. As long as they are based or contributing locally and aren’t proselytizing for a specific religious group, I’m happy to help get the word out.

It’s surprising how easy it is to help without even going far out of your way. Two weeks ago, I was walking around the Farmer’s Market at Durham Central Park and happened upon an animal adoption event by Hope Animal Rescue. I had Dahlia with me and asked if I could take a few photos. Within hours, the photo I snapped of Dahlia with Paws the puppy quickly became my most popular photo, and hundreds of people saw it, hopefully getting Hope Animal Rescue some good exposure and Paws a new home!

How useful has Instagram been for the Durham Doll?

Klein: Very. Even though The Durham Doll has a presence on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is definitely her social media platform of choice. It’s easy to curate and search for things of interest, and it’s a lot easier to protect your work from theft than Facebook or Tumblr. I would say that about 50% of her followers come from the Triangle area, and the other half are followers from all over the world: Japan, Taiwan, Spain, Australia … and I love that.

I will also say, even though it wasn’t immediately obvious, there is a feminist agenda at work in my photographs. When I first started this project, and I was looking at images on Instagram, I began to notice it is a very rare thing for us to see a female alone in a picture who isn’t portrayed as sad and lonely, hyper-sexualized or totally narcissistic and full of herself. Dahlia is often by herself in the photographs but she is never lonely or lacking, always thrilled to be exactly who and where she is. I guess that putting these photographs into the world is my own personal antidote to the narrow and limited images of women created and perpetuated by the media (social and mass) and pop culture. I think girls and women are hungry to be portrayed as authentic and whole unto themselves, not just as a prize to be won, or a sex object, or desperate for approval. I know I wanted to see that as a girl and I still do.

It is ironic that Dahlia is a doll, and not a real female, but I think it is because she is a doll that we allow her to be that joyful, that brave and that authentic without too much scrutiny. I like to think of her like a little sleeper agent, infiltrating our cultural perspective from the inside.

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