Understanding Still Life – Plan of Action

I did some research on still life photography before, but I wanted to really understand its context so I can act on it. I’ve done a lot of research on portraiture, but I want my still life images to have as much depth and context as them.

I took some photographs of objects occupying a space where they are relevant. But the space made them seem less powerful and more impractical. So I wanted to find a solution from looking at other still life works

Objects on bed

After a lot of online searching I stumbled across a documentary on ‘The Story of Still Life’ http://vimeo.com/84883341 The documentary explored the context of still life art from its documented birth in ancient Egypt, till the modern day. In this chronology its presented the mediums development in the public eye as well as its practice. Even though the majority of the feature was talking about painting, it is interesting to understand the devices which the painters used to influence a deeper meaning for a bowl of fruit. Furthermore, even though my intended outcome isn’t a nicely lit photograph of a bowl of fruit, with help from this context, it can provide a timely representation of an artefact that can be placed in the timeline of still life art.


‘Still life isn’t about looking, it’s about seeing’

McArdle, L (2013) The Story of Still Life, http://vimeo.com/84883341

The first part of the documentary made me consider the use of still life. It presents mundane objects and gives them the time and space to be appreciated. We don’t appreciate everyday objects because we use them without thinking, and their use becomes more important than their appearance or their manufacture. From artists presenting these objects on an elegantly detailed canvas, it allows people a space to spend time over them and consider their form over their utility. Philosopher Alain De Botton said that ‘There are many more beautiful things than we give credence to in our day to day lives’, and still life gives examples of this.

The documentary also gave me a visual of how still life paintings are created, and the process behind them.

‘First they are going to choose their objects, then they are going to place them in space… and then they are going to consider their lighting and last of all they will think about their framing’
Dr Sarah Simblet, fine art oxford

McArdle, L (2013) The Story of Still Life, http://vimeo.com/84883341

The description by Dr Simblet doesn’t differ at all from painting to photography, the same applies. She also says that still life’s are usually lit the same. Western artists are programmed to light their objects from left to right, because we are used to reading from left to right and the still life adopts the same narrative. If it was lit alternatively then the narrative would be disjointed.

Even though there is a beauty in still life, it was and in some cases, still is, considered the lesser art form. Roman philosopher Pliny marginalised still life as one of the very first art critics, implying that its was just the practice of painting simple and base things.

The rise of religion in the middle ages mean’t that the focus was all on the painting of people acting out religious scenes. The painting of objects became a forgotten medium, but when an object was given space in a painting, people began to recognise its symbolic importance to the painting.


Objects then became more prominent in paintings from Caravaggio, Chardin and in the Netherlands. Still life became a representation of wealth and a lot more conceptional in its meaning. Caravaggio’s fruit bowl painting didn’t show ripeness, instead it showed the external effect on beautiful objects, expressing the narrative of genesis through the scared apple and the falling vines.

Canestra_di_frutta_(Caravaggio) silver_cup still_life_with_a_drinking_horn

Painters like Van Gogh and Cazanne became more expressive to show the texture and the presence of the objects. When photography was invented, photographers immediately turned to still life because they could photograph them in 8 minute exposures without movement. Painters became more expressive to offer what photographers couldn’t, but photography has dominated still life through advertising and mainstream public photography in the 20th and 21st photography, perhaps making us value the material world more.

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_128 cezanne88

It is interesting to understand the value of an object, and how painters empowered it in a painting through lighting and composition. It is interesting how digital photography makes it a norm to photograph an object and upload it to a social networking site. It perhaps degrades the object and the medium of still life art. It is therefore important for us to depict objects with precision and creativity, so that they can be appreciated in their form by those who don’t look twice. Watching the video gave me more understanding of what makes a good still life art piece and how the lighting and composition effects the viewers perception on the object. The space in which its captured is also important. For my project the space itself is going to be different to the black backdrops used in renaissance paintings.

Photographer Mat Collishaw photographed meals that prisoners had on death row in the style of a 17th century Dutch still life painting. You are looking at these objects in a different way than you’d normally think of. The images makes us reflect on the prisoners vanity, expressing that there has to be more to life than consumption. It is interesting to see how Collishaw seduces us with an aesthetic that we recognise as a beautiful still life painting found in extravagant galleries. But the content of the image is much more horrific. To seduce the viewer with nice lighting and a commonplace, it makes for more of an artistic project. My photography however would relate more to the photography of Laura Letinsky, who takes inspiration from paintings, but uses a contemporary backdrop that offers more negative space that gives more power to the objects.

last-meal-on-death-row-john-wayne-gacy-by-matt-collishaw-2012-1362149029_b David_Allen_Castillo_large letinsky02

This research has given me more confidence in my still life photography. I hope to light my images well, knowing the context gives me more of a pre-visualisation of what I want the images to look like. I want to photograph them digitally so that they form a different narrative and occupy a landscape orientation, as well as more room for experimentation from having the comfort of a playback screen. But I hope to photograph colour film alongside so I can see which works better.


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