Mannequins are a foil for fashion items, whether they be coats, stockings or even hairpieces. Few of us pause to wonder where those plastic dolls go after they grace the shop windows or decorate department store floors.

But in reality, mannequins made in Japan spend a lot of time in warehouses. Unlike in the West, mannequins are rented — not sold — to stores, so major manufacturers have to have space to store them before shipping them or when repairing and remodeling them. The warehouses are also a place for old, tired mannequins to come back to before they are dumped as industrial waste.

Yoshiaki Haruta, a retired inspector at the Kobe Customs Office — and an award-winning amateur photographer — finds beauty in the bare mannequins in such warehouses and has taken pictures of them for 40 years. His longtime infatuation with the plastic human figures peaked this week, with the publication of a photo book titled “Doll’s House.”

Presented in black and white, Haruta’s photographs convey the mystifying atmosphere the dolls have, be it sexy glances from a beautifully made-up woman or a row of headless bodies; the joyful singing of school-age boys whose detached hands dangle from ropes or James Dean look-alikes with mouths eternally wide open with hearty laughter.

Haruta, 75, says he still remembers the shock he felt when he first set foot into a warehouse in Kyoto 40 years ago for a photo shoot.

“The moment I walked in, I had a weird feeling that they had been chatting, and then they suddenly stopped,” Haruta recalls during a recent interview in Tokyo, where he shared his passion for mannequins over coffee. “They looked like they had been ‘frozen’ while in action.”

Haruta even says that “feelings” emanate from these silent dolls, perhaps in part because they don’t talk or move.

“Mannequins that have their eyes fixed on something are very seductive,” he says. “They look as if they are buried in thought. Even though the dolls are inorganic, I’ve found that they have deep expressions.”

To capture the emotion in mannequins, though, is not possible without keen observation. Haruta says he spends hours contemplating compositions and angles before shooting the scenes. His policy is to shoot mannequins in their natural settings; he never changes their positions even if they are standing close to each other — touching them might break or stain what the manufacturers consider merchandise.

Haruta also relies solely on the sunlight that comes in through windows for light; artificial lighting doesn’t produce the rich subtleties in shades, he says. After finding the desired angles, he shoots the scenes with his camera on a tripod and changes the exposure several times to get the best results. He only shoots about 10 scenes a day.

“Photographers need to look,” he says. “They need to find something that grabs their heart. You don’t encounter such moments so often.”

The photo book was made possible by the cooperations of eight major mannequin makers, whose facilities are normally off limits to outsiders. Haruta wrote to each explaining his deep affections for mannequins and his artistic aspirations.

“That he gained permission from as many as eight makers is itself amazing,” says Makoto Kakeda, a veteran mannequin sculptor whose 2002 book outlining the history of Japan’s mannequin industry, “Manekin: Utsukushii Jintai no Monogatari (Mannequins: A Story of Beautiful Human Bodies),” inspired Haruta for his photo book. “Mannequin makers are wary of giving outsiders access, because warehouses are full of trade secrets.”

Kakeda adds that in the rare cases when media have been given access in the past, mannequin warehouses have mostly been used as a backdrop for horror and suspense dramas and films, because naked body parts conjure up images of death.

“Haruta’s book is unique in that he treated the warehouses as an art scene,” says Kakeda. “That’s probably why he gained the understanding of so many mannequin manufacturers.”

Despite his deep love for mannequins, Haruta insists he is not a fetishist.

“I do find female mannequins erotic,” says Haruta, who lives in Kobe with his wife, and whose pictorial subjects have included real people and landscapes. “Eroticism is one of the attractions of mannequins. But I have no sexual urges for them.”

What, then, is it that compels him to keep chasing after plastic bodies?

He pauses, then chuckles.

“I don’t find mannequins erotic because they are naked. My only desires are to leave my impressions of mannequins — which I’m in love with — on film.

“We all live in this world, yearning to leave a mark of our existence. I think mannequins, all of whom are destroyed in the end after working hard for human beings for years, feel the same way.”

For more information about Haruta’s photo book (Nippon Camera; ¥3,990), contact him directly by fax at: (078) 453-3184.

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