When I clicked through a New York Times slide show of Rebecca Martinez’s arresting photographs of the “Reborn” subculture—a group of mostly women who collect or create and “care for” incredibly life-like baby dolls—my initial reaction was, “these women are bananas.” Martinez’s subjects are photographed clutching the dolls to their breasts, holding bottles up to their pursed lips, nuzzling their little plastic heads, all with the tender, tired facial expressions familiar from mothers of real, live newborns.
But after I talked to Martinez, I was able to understand, at least to some degree, and respect the motivations of these women, whom she describes as having “a very strong desire to nurture.” All of Martinez’s work deals with “illusionary objects” that fulfill emotional, spiritual or psychological needs. She’s done a series of photographs of artificial crime scenes and recreations of plane crashes, which provoke extreme responses, but none so visceral as her Reborn photographs. Those babies are “the most powerful objects I’ve ever worked with,” Martinez says, because they’re so realistic. They not only look, but feel, very much like living infants.
The “Reborn” women she photographed have a range of reasons for embracing this unusual hobby, Martinez says. Some never had children and wished they did; some merely love caring for newborns, and want to have some access to that feeling after they’re past reproducing; some are just doll enthusiasts who appreciate the artistry of the infant dolls. One woman Martinez photographed was a prison guard by day, and by night, she made babies. Another woman is a former Playboy bunny who now runs a nursery.
A third, who became a friend of Martinez’s, “spent her whole life nurturing and taking care of her two disabled parents, and then when she got older, she became a midwife, and birthed hundreds of real babies, and adopted children, many children, children who were not very adoptable,” Martinez explains. “She became a Reborn artist because she just had so much love to give.”
There are three parts to Martinez’s series, which she’s named “pre.Tenders,” and the New York Times only showed the section that documents Reborn conventions, where women in the community get together to share their babies and buy new ones. Martinez also took photographs of people outside the community reacting to the life-like dolls. And finally she took photographs of actresses, notably Carrie Fisher, interacting with the dolls. Another actress, Donna Vivino, was moved to dress up like a ’50s housewife and put the baby in the oven like a roast—a literal interpretation of the oft-expressed emotion, “that baby is so cute I just want to eat him up.”
I have a cute newborn of my own, which I assume is part of why I had such an intense reaction to Martinez’s photographs at first glance. I love my child, but I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to pantomime the more laborious parts of baby care without the satisfaction that comes from raising another human. Martinez showed me the flip side. “They’re idealized babies,” so there is no diaper changing, she said. She also pointed out that while the babies’ limbs move around, their expressions are fixed. Martinez sent me a photograph of a woman who has a reborn that is always laughing, and she’s laughing along with it. There is a pure human joy there, one that defies facile judgment.