I’ve never been a big fan of still life paintings or photographs. Generally, I prefer the grand landscape or intimate moments in nature. That is, until I attended a photography show called “Flowers, Fruit, Books, and Bones” at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. With more than sixty still life photographs from the center’s collection, it includes works from current photographers to old masters. The show is on until the end of April 2017 in case you have a chance to see it yourself.

In the past I’ve thought of still life as a collection of nostalgic objects, perfectly arranged and lit. With photography, background textures or filters are often added. They are beautiful, for sure, but just a little too perfect for my taste. This show made me think of still life in a different way. Here’s their description.

“Although at its most basic a still life is an assemblage of inanimate objects, historically the term refers to artworks that engage with concepts of achievement, ephemerality, and mortality. Still life pictures rely on symbolic objects to suggest impermanence: flowers, fruit, books, bones. The English term “still life” contrasts with the French term for the same genre, nature morte, which literally translates as “dead nature.”” ~ The Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ

Let’s break this down, starting with “an assemblage of inanimate objects.” This opens up the subject matter to just about anything and it doesn’t say they are manually arranged. Instead, they could be found objects. I’m a big fan of accidental art, arrangements of items (dead or alive) that come together in a random way, usually on the ground.

They “engage with concepts of achievement, ephermerality, and mortality.” The objects are symbols that express ideas of accomplishment, creation, impermanence, even imperfection. There is nothing manufactured or perfect about them. The French term, “dead nature,” really appeals to me.

The Center says that “photographers use the characteristics of the medium such as focus, abrupt framing, and detailed description to extract, isolate, and describe their subjects. They direct our attention to shapes, textures, details, edges, colours, negative spaces, shadows, and unexpected angles.

I decided to create a collection of still life photographs of my own using the following criteria:

* minimal in presentation
* background does not distract, only highlights the objects
* focus on one or more items (dead or alive)
* found rather than arranged
* suggest impermanence or imperfection
* symbolic in nature (the items have meaning beyond what they are)

Below are a few examples that fit my criteria. You can see the whole Flickr album here.

“… arrange whatever pieces come your way.” ~ Virginia Woolf, Notebooks

Examples from the Exhibit

Ralph Gibson, Salt, Water, 1975
Robert Dawson, Open Book on Desert, Paiute Junk Yard, Nixon, Nevada 1990
Catherine Wagner, Alfred University, Science Classroom, Alfred, NY 1987

What are your thoughts on still life photography?


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