LEE Maxwell admits he received some curious looks from bystanders when he was poking around the storm water drain in the Kotara Homemakers Centre recently.
Perhaps they initially thought he was a graffiti artist looking to tag the drain’s concrete walls.
They became even more puzzled when they realised the 39-year-old Novocastrian was holding a camera and a large Raphael doll from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Lee wasn’t spraying graffiti, but he was pursuing the rapidly growing art form of toy photography.
“I thought perfect, there’s a sewer and there’s a few pipes in there,” Maxwell says. “When I got Raphael and took him down into the sewer there was one of the little off-shoot pipes and it was the perfect size, perfectly scaled.
“I put Raph in there and took the photo. A couple of people were walking past and they’re like ‘what are you doing’ and they then see I have a giant Ninja Turtle.
“So that’s always funny.”
For the past three years the Gateshead father-of-one has been regularly uploading photos of his extensive toy collection on his Instagram profile, Massive Geek.
It’s filled with creative and colourful portraits of everything from comic superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman to ’80s toy favourites Transformers and GI Joe to movie characters like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Star Wars.
Massive Geek has built an audience of 2375 followers, while it pales in comparison to the 22,000 Los Angeles-based professional toy photographer Mitchel Wu possesses, it is growing quickly.
“This trend started with watermarking your photos and I did a particular photo of my ’60s Batman and Joker and did a muck around thing with Batman tied up and few of the baddies around him and posted a comment, ‘will Batman escape this dastardly duo’ like in the old ’60s TV series,” he says.
“There’s a page called Epic Toy Art who just share other people’s stuff and they shared it and I got 3000 hits and my followers progressively went up for there.”
Maxwell first started collecting GI Joe toys as a child in the ’80s. But while most boys grow out of action figurines, Maxwell’s obsession only deepened.
He estimates he owns more than 1000 toys and figurines, which commandeer an entire room in his Gateshead home on custom-made shelves.
“It started from a love of comic books,” Maxwell says. “Having a 3D representation of that particular character was cool.
“For the Transformers stuff, it was nostalgia because I grew up loving that and I was the kid in school - and there was a few of us - that loved GI Joe.
“I loved the concept of having a jeep and a tank and little dude that fitted inside it. I guess it’s just snowballed from there and gotten bigger and bigger.”
Maxwell buys a new piece every fortnight on average from toy stores or online and admits the cost and household space the hobby consumes has led to some tense negotiation with his wife, Renee.
“When we first started going out in high school I said, ‘I’ve got a bit of a nerdy hobby and I need you to know one thing, it’ll probably outlast you’,” he laughs. “It didn’t go down too well at first.”
Maxwell proudly claims “geek” as a term of endearment and wore a “Nerdy By Nature” t-shirt while giving a tour of his toy collection.
“I’ve done it for so long they [my friends] don’t think anything of it anymore,” he says.
“It’s the new people who come through who are like, ‘OK, you’re buying dolls’. You get that a lot, then they see the photos or they come and see it.
“It’s hilarious because they can rip on you about it but as soon as they come into the room there’s always something they grab and go, ‘Oh my god, I remember that, that was the best’. That’s always fun to watch.”
There’s also an end game to Maxwell’s growing passion for toy photography. Much like so-called Instagram “influencers” who are paid or given clothes to model and endorse, some toy companies and stores regularly send their new products to photographers.
“There’s a couple of guys who the companies send stuff to photograph because they’re that good and their shots make you want to buy the bits and pieces,” he says.
“That’s a goal one day. If it happens, it happens. It would be a nice side effect of putting it all out.”