See ‘Barbie’ like never before in new St. Louis exhibition before you see the movie


Evening Barbie. Photo by Larry Torno.

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

They are everywhere you look. Ken and Barbie, the most glamorous stars of the summer, are ready to make their big screen debuts in a buzzy live-action film to be released July 21st. The film has sparked renewed interest in the pop culture icons including the pairs’ well-documented Jewish past.

Both Barbie and Ken were the “children” of hard-nosed Jewish businesswoman, Ruth Handler, whose family fled impoverishment and antisemitism in Poland. And some see the original Barbie as Jewish like Handler, a complex symbol of assimilation in the mid-20th-century United States.

And while the entire world enjoys “Barbie” mania, only St. Louis fans will be able to see Barbie and Ken through eyes of local photographer Larry Torno.

Larry Torno, Barbie and Ken

Torno, a U-City photographer has challenged the way we see Barbie and Ken for more than 15 years.

“In 2006 I bought my first digital camera and was looking for a good project to help me learn the camera,” said Torno. “My neighbors had an extensive collection of vintage Barbie dolls and asked me to take photos of them for prosperity.”

What began as a favor for a friend, turned into a true artistic experience. As Torno began to experiment with lighting and composition, he began to see beauty and personality emerge from each doll.

“The dolls were meticulous and the closer I got, the more stunningly beautiful and real looking they became inside the lens. Each image became a portrait capturing a personality, making them more humanlike and less plastic,” said Torno.

In 2009, the Jewish Light covered Torno’s first exhibit of his work when it went on display at the Bruno David Gallery, as part of exhibit exploring Barbie’s Jewish roots.

“In the companion exhibit, photographer Larry Torno’s close-up shots of various Barbie dolls are presented in the style of haute fashion and celebrity photography. Tongue-in-cheek color photos evoke a sense of paparazzi-pursued celebrities dodging cameras or of fashion photo shoots and red-carpet glamour. Black and white photos have the doll posed in a series of artistic nudes, with dramatic half-shadowed lighting. Barbie doll fan or not, the series of portraits of the iconic doll are certainly thought-provoking commentary on media imagery and plastic icons,” wrote Cate Marquis.

Now, in 2023, Torno is back as the featured artist with a new exhibition running July 14 – August 25 at the Charlie Houska Gallery in the Central West End.

“POP and PREP: Summer Group Show” will feature Torno’s: Glamorous,” an exhibition of new works featuring Ken and Barbie.

“We had been planning to feature some of Larry’s work when he learned of the release of the film opening, so it was just a perfect match,” said Lauren Tracy, the Gallery and Curatorial Director at the Houska Gallery. “We’ve always been fans of his work. Through his portraits, he’s sort of become a Barbie historian.”

The exhibit will feature six never before seen photos from the original 2006 sessions, along with new work completed within the last three years.

“When we decided to create this show, I went looking for more vintage dolls, but could not find any. I then purchased new dolls, so you will really be able to see the differences in the dolls themselves,” said Torno. “I prefer the vintage, but there is a certain personality in the newer, more mass-produced Barbies.”

Along with Barbie, you’ll see plenty of Ken as well. Torno’s images seem to expand the depth of Barbie and Ken’s style, as he gives close attention to their wardrobes in all his photos.

“If Barbie is wearing a bathing suit or an evening gown, you will find Ken dressed to match,” said Torno. “I hope people can see the dolls like they have never seen them before, and understand the elevation of them from just dolls to artistic portraits.”

POP and PREP: Summer Group Show

When: July 14th – August 25th, 2023. Opening Reception: July 14th, 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Where: Charlie Houska Gallery, 4728 McPherson Avenue, 63108
How much: Entry is free. All art is for sale.