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Minneapolis photographer Nicole Houff finds empowerment through Barbie

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“I’m not going to lie,” says Minneapolis photographer Nicole Houff. “To me, Barbie is this ass-kicking woman.”

The iconic doll is also the photog’s favorite subject, captured in over 100 staged, detail-rich images: Barbie suspiciously eyeing guests at her holiday gathering, a tray of freshly baked cookies at the ready; Barbie hanging her satin and lace unmentionables on the laundry line, holding a wine glass; Barbie in a mysterious black mask, a party invitation in her hand.

“When I photograph her, I view her as positive, strong, and totally in charge, and I try to depict her as such,” says Houff, whose work is included in “The Second Sex,” a group exhibition opening at Gamut Gallery on Tuesday.

Houff decided to dedicate her life to photography after seeing a Richard Avedon exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She shifted the focus of her four-year program at Macalester College to photography, and went into black-and-white printing at a professional lab post-graduation. After eight years, however, the film world began to crumble and Houff returned to school, this time at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, to learn about the technical aspects of lighting, retouching, and digital photography.

“I love when I get photo envy, even if it’s on Instagram. It’s always getting me to look at things and how I approach them differently,” she says. Influenced by Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol and fascinated by the artwork of the late ‘50s and early-to-mid-‘60s, she often took photographs of cars, mannequins, and signage that reminded her of that era. Then she added vintage Barbie dolls to the mix. “She epitomized everything visually and politically about that era to me that was interesting,” Houff says. By 2009, Barbie was the primary focus of her photography and the cornerstone of her brand.

Houff, who estimates she currently owns 40 dolls, purchases her “models” on eBay or buys reproduction dolls — older models of Barbie that are not collector’s items — from Mattel for around $20. The price is right, as Houff often “manhandles” the dolls to get them perfectly positioned in a scene. “I’m the collector’s worst nightmare in that I de-box everything, like vintage outfits that somebody took painstaking care to package and send to me,” she says.

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Sometimes her photographs are driven by a concept that she wants to depict, and she sets about scouting the appropriate items from her arsenal of props; other times, she’s inspired by an outfit or an accessory and sets up a shoot around it. “I just found this vintage Ken hunting outfit, which is adorable and hilarious,” she says. “He’s got this plastic rifle. I wasn’t thinking of shooting anything with Ken like that, but that inspired me.”

Houff regularly shows her Barbie photography at the Uptown Art Fair and the Twin Cities Pride Festival. Talking to passers-by about her work is one of her favorite parts of her career. “People come up to me and talk to me about Barbie, what she means in society and gender roles and equality,” she says. “What makes Barbie fascinating is that she means completely different things to different people. Just because I find her to be empowering doesn’t mean everybody else does.”

But that won’t stop Houff. She plans on continuing to photograph Barbie for as long as there’s an audience for her work. “I could perceive doing this for years,” says the photographer who has also shot weddings and events for magazines in the past. “It won’t look exactly the same as what I’m doing right now, but it’s something I find a lot of inspiration and joy with, and I hope it brings people the same.”

IF YOU GO:

"The Second Sex"

March 1 through March 19

Gamut Gallery

All ages

Free

There will be an opening reception Saturday, March 5, from 3 to 7 p.m.