The illusionist: McAllen native, TSTC graphic designer finds niche as toy photographer

HARLINGEN — For an hour each day, graphic designer Adam McGrath wanders around the Texas State Technical College campus warehouse here, where rockets, planes, helicopters and engines can be found. He carries with him an action figure in one hand and a camera in the other.

This lunch hour is spent searching for an interesting setting to snap images of his subject — typically storm troopers.

McGrath is the individual behind “The Chip Monsters,” a toy photography page that has amassed more than 15,000 followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. His favorite snack inspired the name.

This hobby, he said, is a “perfect marriage” of his interests: Star Wars, photography and design. Thirteen years ago he moved from Melbourne to the Rio Grande Valley and has been with TSTC for five years.

“If I’m not being creative, I just kinda get crazy,” McGrath said. “My favorite part (of work) is coming up with concepts because not only do I do design, I come up with creative ideas as well.”

The driving factor that led him to begin shooting and sharing his photos came two years ago when he stumbled across a similar page. The images, he said, brought disbelief they were not people in costume — which is the entire purpose.

“If the viewer can look and say, ‘Oh, is that really a person in a costume?’ I know I made an illusion,” he said. “That’s the barometer for saying I did my job right.”

While he occasionally uses Marvel figures, he favors Star Wars. “The Empire Strikes Back” is his favorite installment of the film series.

He stores his creations at home, which by this point, he said, fill up tons of “huge buckets.”

“I’ve learned a lot in the last few years doing this project,” he said. “(There are) so many possibilities, it’s endless.”

Setting up various lighting rods, creating a weathered effect through scuffing a figure with shoe polish and dry brushing are some of the techniques he has picked up to achieve a realistic set.

Navigating social media by engaging with followers and fellow toy photographers has also come new. For further reach, McGrath employs various hashtags, such as “black series,” “toy photography,” “South Texas” and even holidays like St. Patrick’s Day or Easter.

People who might not recognize the art, he said, often look down on toy photography or may consider it to be “weird.”

It does take much time, said McGrath, but he finds it to be worth the effort and is working to demystify the notion that it’s a strange thing for adults to do.

Starting this month he will be instructing a free toy photography workshop for kids at Kaboom Comics in McAllen, and due to high interest from parents, may eventually add an adult session.

“Being someone who has worked in graphic arts for so long, I think there comes a time you have to give back,” he said.

With the accessibility of technology to most everyone these days, McGrath’s goal is to provide a creative outlet where children can become inspired and “get their minds turning.”

In preparing for the sessions, McGrath has spent many hours creating authentic sets for the toys to be shot and has documented the stages on his social platforms.

McGrath plans to create an exhibition of the final work and auction the images to donate the profits to a charity that provides artistic opportunities for children.

To keep up with McGrath’s latest illusions, follow him by the handle @theChipMonsters.