The animal figurines made by Hagen-Renaker Inc. are delicate, shiny, hand-painted collectibles — not what you would think of as the subject of a photo series.
But photographer Paula Goldman looked at them and saw possibilities. She reached out to the company's owner, Susan Renaker Nikas, with an unusual request.
Goldman, who for the last 20 years has made a living photographing objects for museums, galleries and libraries, wanted to do the same for Hagen-Renaker creations, but not as if she were shooting for a catalog. Instead, she treated each like she would a portrait.
Nikas selected about 50 figurines for Goldman to photograph. Each choice was carefully made to represent the six artists, all but one now deceased, who created the molds for the figurines.
"Nell [Bortells] had a raffish comical style that came through in what she was doing, Helen [Perrin Farnlund] was somebody who could make an armadillo cute, and Maureen Calvert was absolutely accurate as far as her depictions of animals," said Nikas. "Her horses are prized by horse model collectors."
This last thought intrigued Goldman.
"The whole concept of why and what people collect fascinates me," she wrote in an email. "I think these figures fit right in with Meissen, Lladro, and even those scary Hummels."
Goldman's pictures are glossy and brightly lighted so that the kiln-fired curves of the figurines shine as if bathed in sunshine. They are placed against a variety of backgrounds: gray silk for a trio of cheerful country mice in overalls, fireworks for a tow-headed child in a green jacket, a blue velvet theater curtain and felt stage for a family of azure-eyed Siamese cats.
"The level of craftsmanship in these figures is remarkable, as is the dedication of the remaining employees who hand-paint each one," wrote Goldman.
At its height, 70-year-old Hagen-Renaker operated two factories with 300 employees. These days, it has just one factory and 18 employees in San Dimas.
Collectors of the vintage figurines pay hundreds of dollars for them. There's an online store and museum devoted to them; it's run by Florida aficionado Ed Alcorn and his wife, Sheri. The site boasts more than 1,200 pictures of more than 4,500 Hagen-Renaker objects.
Goldman hopes her work will help people understand the cultural importance and context of the figurines without being "overwhelmed by a discussion of kitsch."
"They deserve to be treated with respect," Goldman wrote of the figurines.
As do the designers who once created them, said Nikas.