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Photograph brings woman's childhood memory back to life

Submitted photo Minneapolis-based photographer Nicole Houff captured this image of Sally Zuehlke's Barbie doll, posed in her vintage kitchen play set.

WORTHINGTON -- Once upon a time, young Sally Zuehlke played with her Barbie doll every day. Eventually, of course, she outgrew the doll, so Barbie and her doll-size kitchen play set were put away among her keepsakes.

But Zuehlke recently found a reason to get Barbie and that play set out of storage -- to be part of a photography shoot.

"Last summer I was at this art festival in Hopkins," related Zuehlke, who now lives in the Crystal-Golden Valley area of the Twin Cities. "I came across this photographer, Nicole Houff, and I was intrigued by her photos."

Houff's photos feature vintage Barbie and Ken dolls posed in various costumes and situations.

"I was looking at the different pictures of Barbies and noticed that she didn't have the Barbie with the bubble hairdo," Zuehlke continued. 'I told her, 'I've got the 1963 blonde bubble-head Barbie. Why don't we do a barter? You take a picture of her in my favorite vintage dress, and I get a photo.'"

Zuehlke also told Houff about the vintage kitchen set she'd received as a present from Santa when she was a little girl growing up in Worthington, the daughter of Cal and Nancy Zuehlke. She first saw the play set on a trip to the grocery store with her mother.

"High above the food shelves were huge boxes that contained different dolls and toys," recalled Zuehlke. "Way up high was a box with a kitchen set, just the right size for Barbie to play with -- a stove, frig, sink and matching table and chairs."

On a return trip to the store, Zuehlke noticed that the play set was gone. But when Christmas morning arrived, the box wasn't under the tree with the other gifts from Santa. Then her dad said Santa had gotten too tired and left something big in the basement.

"I still remember walking down those stairs because it was too big and Santa was too tired, so he left it down in the basement," said Zuehlke, who found the kitchen set hidden under a sheet.

After hearing Zuehlke's story, Houff eagerly agreed to photographing her Barbie, and the resulting picture features the doll posed in the kitchen set, wearing a vintage dress that was fashioned by the Zuehlkes' neighbor, Jeanette Henning of Worthington.

"I am a Minneapolis-based photographer with a mild obsession with Barbie," explained Houff about her unique artwork in an e-mail. "My goal is to create fun and sometimes satirical photographs that will put a smile on your face. I love taking photos of Barbie dolls. Why? Well, love her or hate her, it's hard to deny that Barbie isn't just a doll; she is a cultural icon. I create scenes with the dolls that have a sense of whimsy mixed with a little sarcasm."

Through their collaboration, Houff added another iconic Barbie photo to her repertoire, and Sally has a photographic record of one of her most cherished childhood memories. She presented her parents with a copy of the photograph as a Christmas present.

"We both followed through and got it done," said Sally. "I don't know why I held on to (Barbie) all these years, but once I had her photographed, then I feel like I can let go and sell it to a collector."

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Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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