Bill Finger: The master of miniatures

Bill Finger creates tiny dioramas of full scenes that he photographs to look life-sized. What drives him?
Bill Finger creates tiny dioramas of full scenes that he photographs to look life-sized. What drives him?

Bill Finger creates photographs of miniature scenes that seem life-sized. Hand crafting each element, he builds miniature dioramas of narrative scenes that serve as the subject of his large-scale photographs. Each image alludes to a sense of cinematic narrative that reflects his more than twenty years working on movie sets.

In his film career, Finger has worked on everything from major motion pictures to television series. He has an MFA in Photography and resides in Seattle, where he teaches photography classes at Photo Center Northwest.

AK: How did you come up with the idea to build miniature dioramas for your photos?

BF: It happened almost surreptitiously. I was trying to do a series of photos of bonsai trees and when I looked at them closely, they looked like miniature forests. So I started moving my camera in closer and closer to make the forests look more realistic, and that led me to thinking about how we fake nature and model making. Also, miniatures are something you can have a fair amount of control over, which had a tie to my film background.

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Finger photographs a miniature tree. Photo: Alice Kaderlan.

Are there other ways your film background has influenced your photos of miniatures?

What I do now is almost like making miniature film sets. In the film industry, you’re always rearranging the furniture, cheating a little for the camera.

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A number of my photos mimic film sets. A lot of people will back the camera off, but I put the camera into the scenes as though it’s the viewer’s point of view, making the viewer a participant. [My film background] also has to do with how I approach the lighting. I don’t want to reveal too quickly that the photo is a miniature, but want to give it some theatricality with the lighting to make it more cinematic.

I also play with the idea of a filmic place that only exists to be photographed and then is destroyed after the photograph [is shot]. This happens in real life too. The house that I grew up in will always exist in my memory, but it’s been torn down and replaced by a McMansion. There are all these things that exist in a photographic place, but physically you can’t ever go there again. I’m creating temporary places that are coming out of my imagination, but they exist in the real world as long as it takes me to photograph them.

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Photo: Bill Finger

How do you choose your subject matter?

That’s tricky because some new ideas come from working on a piece. I may be in the middle of one — dealing with plaster — and focusing on mixing the material, when an idea just comes. Some come from research, sometimes I allude to famous photographic images or my background. In LA I worked on "Bones" and that’s when I started playing around with the crime murder-mystery genre.

You got your idea for the series you’re working on “Ground Control” from a story on NPR. What was that?

NPR had a discussion about how NASA could go back into manned flight to Mars. One of the scientists proposed this as a one-way trip, where someone in his or her early 50s would spend their last years there.

So I started thinking about what kind of person would be willing to give up everything and everyone they know, not knowing how long they’d live. I started playing with that idea and creating some images about someone who might fantasize about doing that based on what he’s seen about space flight.

You’ve created a full a narrative for this series.

Yes. This guy is obsessed with the idea of giving up everything and living the rest of his life on another planet. But there is no way this is ever going to happen — he doesn’t have the skills — so the only way he can rectify that is to live the fantasy in his own life.

I leave it ambiguous as to whether he is just imagining it or whether he actually goes to Mars. Has he constructed his own rocket or is that just his fantasy? Right now, I’m working on a miniature where he’s building a plywood lunar lander in his yard and another one, where he has a huge mock-up of Mars in his basement and a flight simulator.

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Photo: Alice Kaderlan

What is the most challenging construction you’ve made?

One of them is the lunar lander I’m doing now. It’s a very complex shape, but I can’t easily reference it — like the miniature of a chair, where I can measure an actual one. Making the lunar lander to scale, so that it looks good, is hard because I can’t go out and measure a real lunar lander. I’ve had to make it from photos, which means taking a two-dimensional image and making it three-dimensional.

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Photo: Bill Finger

Why create narratives for your photos?

That comes from my film background, where you’re always dealing with narrative. My first series, “Paramnesia”, was a confabulation of memory. I wanted to remember specific places or events from my childhood and see if I could recreate them in miniature, then photograph them as a representation of that childhood. Part of the challenge was to see how much I could fill in with my imagination. The more I worked on it, though, the more I found it was hard to be accurate, so I just let it run its course. 

You started out your creative life as a photographer. How easy has the sculpture part been?

It’s still a bit of a challenge. With every image, I’m doing something I’ve never done before and sometimes I’m reinventing the wheel. Sometimes I construct something and it’s awful. The first time I constructed a landscape, it was terrible, so I had to think about how to redo it. It’s a painful process, but I learn something each time and make corrections the next time.

Given that difficulty, are both parts of your process — the photography and the sculpture — equally interesting to you now?

Yes. I like the idea of the diorama and the photo. You’re dealing with ideas of representation, of something that has occurred; elements of reality, history and memory. Think of the dioramas in museums. They’re ideal scenes; a kind of reality, but not really reality

Given how hard the construction is for you, what keeps you going? Why not just go out and shoot photos?

I am thinking about that after this series, but I’ve gotten used to working this way. It’s so easy for me conceptualize [the dioramas]. If you go out to shoot, you always have to decide what to shoot. I think if I was just photographing, I would still be staging things, because otherwise I don’t know what I‘d want to shoot.

Learn more about Bill Finger at


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