NATICK — Sometimes, the world can seem overwhelming. Overbearing. If only you were tiny enough to build a house out of cards and climb inside, or escape to a miniature treehouse suspended between stalks of broccoli.
Or better yet, just fly away. Fold a giant paper airplane, then grasp its thin fuselage for dear life and sail across a field into summertime.
Such is Zev Hoover’s fanciful photographic take on reality. His arresting images evoke a wonderland of imaginary environments, built from f-stops and pixels, and hinting at characters with secret stories to tell.
Hoover’s work, which he posts on the photo sharing site Flickr using the handle “Fiddle Oak” (a play on “Little Folk”), has caught fire across the Internet. He has been profiled in the media and on design and photography blogs. On Monday, he will fly to New York to appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America Live” webcast.
One post touting his “surreal photo manipulations” has received 108,000 Facebook likes.
“Maybe a million people saw it,” said the slightly stunned Hoover, who is only 14.
“He’s enjoying this little ride,” said his father, Jeff. “But he’s familiar with Andy Warhol’s idea of 15 minutes of fame and realizes this may be transitory.”
The skinny teen deadpanned, “If I was older, it wouldn’t make as good of a story.”
But it’s Hoover’s talent that has captured imaginations. A film production company contacted him about designing a movie poster. He has been approached by a publisher for a potential narrative photo textbook project. Nikon World magazine asked him to contribute a photo. A lens manufacturer sent him a free lens, saying only: “Take some pictures with it.”
No doubt he will. Plenty of his peers would be happy playing soccer or video games, but not Hoover. He needs to be creating. “I get anxious if I’m not doing something,” he said, sitting outside his family’s Natick home this week. “What’s next?”
His series of “Little Folk/Fiddle Oak” images began during a walk in the woods with sister, Aliza. He remembers thinking, “Oh, wouldn’t little people be cool?” Crouching near the ground, he imagined seeing the world from their perspective. He felt the miniature genre had never been done in photography — “at least not very well.”
“There’s a fine line to walk between having it be too abstract and having it be too cheesy-obvious,” he said.
He performs his sleight of hand in Photoshop, which he taught himself via Internet tutorials.
Hoover started shooting pictures six years ago. “I put a camera in his hand when he was 8 years old and told him about f-stops,” said his mother, Michele Gutlove. “See what he did with that little bit of knowledge?”
“Fiddle Oak” is not his first photography endeavor. When he was 10, Hoover embarked on “The Snugg Project,” taking a photo of his teddy bear in unique, whimsical settings for 365 consecutive days. “It became a little like work,” his father said, “but made him be creative every single day.” Some of the pictures were displayed at J.P. Licks ice cream shops.
Aliza, 18, his sometimes collaborator, helped by writing ideas for him to riff off of.
“I often motivate/annoy him,” wrote Aliza in an e-mail from Finland, where she has been studying. She has served as her brother’s secretary, brainstorming partner, and assistant, “placing props on cliffs and trudging through the river holding a tripod and camera and supplying Zev with endless batches of toast and criticism while he slaves away on Photoshop.”
It helps that “Zevi,” the youngest of four children, was raised in a family of artists, dancers, and mathematicians. Both parents are architects, and his mother, also a glass artist, home schooled Hoover and his three siblings, Jacob, 23, Ian, 21, and Aliza. His interests in photography, technology, origami, music, model airplanes (which he designs and test-flies), even tree climbing are “all sides of the same thing,” he said.
Hoover’s family lives in the last house on a dead-end street next to a cemetery, with the Charles River and a meadow for a backyard, and he shoots most of the Little Folk images in this landscape. Others are shot in the studio.
“When I say ‘studio’,” he corrected, “I mean bathtub with a towel or a sheet.”
His first camera was a cheap point-and-shoot. Now he shoots with a Nikon D7000, and his father said the teen often knows more about gear than experts working in a camera shop.
“Zevi,” wrote Aliza, “bubbles with brilliance, determination, and a thirst for adventure.”
Yet his art also feels tinged with melancholy. In “Summer Tales,” he and his sister sit on a popsicle stick raft on a pond at night. Where are they going? Have they been abandoned? In an ominous work called “Inspecting,” a giant hand wielding a magnifying glass looks ready to interrogate a tiny Hoover, or fry him like an ant. Another piece shows him walking through fire as wild as his unruly auburn hair.
“All the pictures have a very lonely feeling to them,” he said. “Even if they have more than one person in them, it’s ‘big world, little people.’ ”
But the mood isn’t “loneliness out of control,” he added. “It’s loneliness like it’s a beautiful feeling.”
Whether Hoover’s work is photography or digital art is a question his fans, and some detractors, have debated. Some online commenters have been nasty, attributing his success to parents who could afford to buy him expensive equipment. Others think he’s a hoax.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Hoover said of how people label his work. “It’s all art.”
He takes the criticism in stride as well. “That’s the Internet for you. Don’t feed the trolls.”
Whatever you call the images, his work reflects a sophisticated and complex relationship with the natural and human-made world. Hoover sat down at his computer to show a visitor the dozens of elements that go into each image.
“Slowly they’ve gotten more fantastical and magical,” he said. The productions, too, have become more complicated. One image, “Fly,” featuring a miniature Hoover clinging to a paper airplane in mid-air, involved a three-hour shoot. He suspended paper airplanes from strings, then suspended himself from a pole between two ladders. He then tiled together multiple takes of the large- and small-scale scenes, added shadows and blur effects, and adjusted the color.
“What I am doing always is really quite basic,” he said. “All the techniques stuff is Day 1 Photoshop.”
But to make a fantasy world believable is an arduous process. His mother said he will spend 8 to 10 hours, endlessly tweaking each image until he gets the desired effect.
As for what’s next, the young photographer remains undecided. With all the Internet buzz, he has begun to sell prints of his work. Beyond that, he has the summer ahead of him — flights of fancy to contemplate, trees to climb and conquer. He is thinking about an aerial photography project. Big adventures for a young man still navigating a small world.
“I don’t have a plan or anything,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’ll consider myself a photographer forever.”Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @ethanfreak.