Contemporary Still Life

Fig.  01 Pincers and American Grips (war souvenir) from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Pincers and American Grips (war souvenir) from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Having looked at the origins in painting of still life  and specifically at vanitas painting and before focussing in more closely on Irving Penn I wanted to look at a cross section of the still life work of contemporary photographs. The research trail has led me to a number of interesting photographers, some commonly working with still life, and some who have, seemingly, only used the genre occasionally. Some are obviously taking inspiration from the 17th century painters and some are working from a different starting point. The only connection is that each of these photographers has something in their style or approach that might feed into my assignment 4.

Contemporary Still Life 

The Tate Guide to Art Terms has no clear definition of “contemporary” offering a number of options ranging from the last ten years to the last sixty seven so I generally use my own life time as a period that is contemporary to me, not quite the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ 1947 until until today but not far off. However, this arbitrary moment in time needs to be stretched a little further to include Edward Weston whose shells and vegetables were original in their own day and a high watermark for simple, uncluttered, even austere, still life images that focus on light and form to the exclusion of all else.

Contemporary still life is a house with many rooms, and I know that I have only visited a small proportion of them but I see five clear groups of work.

There are many artists who are using the old masters as a template to create modern interpretations of the fruit, flowers and skulls of the 17th century. These would include Sharon Core who wants to recreate the time it took the masters to paint a still life by cultivating the rare fruits and plants that star in her productions;  Ori Gerscht who creates “classic” still lifes that are often directly modelled on paintings but then exploded whilst shooting frames at 1/6000th of a second to freeze the action; Laura Letinsky uses the framework of the Dutch and Flemish masters but moves away from their subject matter by bringing a strong sense of narrative to still life. Her photographs of the remains of meals look at what is “after the fact, at what lingers and by inference, at what is gone.” *(2) I have focussed in on photographers from this group that are more directly using the abundant styling of vanitas such as Lynne Collins and Paulette Tavormina and at Peter Lippmann who flamboyantly uses the vintage styling as props for shoe advertisements. Associated with this group but not quite part of it is Mat Collishaw who uses the look and the language of vanitas to express his concerns, however his subject matter and style are far removed from fruit and flowers.

Irving Penn, who like Lippmann, worked in the fashion industry has a simpler, crisp, clean, razor sharp style which has no obvious link to the Dutch and Flemish painters until you note the tiny details that echo vanitas motifs and thereby challenging the viewer to de-code his meanings. Other photographers have taken a further step towards minimalism in still life and I particularly like the work of Simon Norfolk, who is better know as a war photographer and whose series on found items in the Tigris valley inspired me to build series of simple still lifes of dead peoples’ possessions.

Penn used advertising and fashion as his vehicle for developing a collection of remarkable still life pictures but he was not alone. Paul Wolff and Alfred Tritschler founded Germany’s first photo agency and their archives show an eclectic mix of commercial work *(5) but it is their Short Collars photographed as advertisements in the 1930s  that provide another excellent example of the blurred line that divides commercial advertising work from art. Paul Martineau, in his paper The Still Life in Photography *(4), describes these images as cubist and points out that they are closely related to Paul Outerbridge’s work for vanity Fair from the previous decade. Outerbridge, who in his career worked for all the major fashion magazine titles of the age brought a highly tuned talent for arrangement to his commercial work which included a number of cubist still lifes. *(6)

Another group who have attracted my attention are artists who have fused vanitas influences, modern food photography and artistic interpretation to create photographs that, like Weston, are about light and form but use colour, thoughtful lighting and inventive sets to make the subject, which is often raw food ingredients, the hero of the piece. I will look more closely at two such artists in David C. Halliday and Krista van der Niet both as potential inspiration for my work and partly because I have a professional interest in food photography.

Finally there are conceptual artists working with mundane everyday objects that are made extraordinary by being photographed but, unlike the historical painter’s idea that the ordinary is made extraordinary by the technical skill of the artist many of these photographers present photographs that, at first glance, might appear casual and lacking in high technique. The Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ series Quiet Afternoon presents everyday objects built into unlikely structures. Charlotte Cotton, in The Photograph as Contemporary Art *(1), believes that this series played an important part in moving photography towards more playful and conceptual territories. Cotton explains that this approach to asks the viewer to identify the significance of the subject, knowing that there must be one, because the artist has made it significant by photographing it.

Although it is clear that there are different schools of artists using still life it is also interesting that, as a genre, it was very popular in the 18th century and rather faded in the first half of the 20th century. Since the war there have been a few notable photographers in this field but not enough to make it a main stream genre to compare with the popularity of landscape or portraiture. Of course throughout this period and up to the present day commercial photographers have been creating fashion, food and product advertising that is, in effect, still life and many of those, such as Penn and Lippmann have become well know outside their original world.

However, since the millennium there appears to been a resurgence as more artists take to still life as their favoured medium of expression. This may be because it is the genre that is closest to the classic visual arts where every aspect of the image is in the direct control of the artist. The artist collects the subject, arranges the set and deals with the technical challenges of lighting and exposure and post production and publishing.

In my next post I will look more closely at some of the specific artists mentioned here.

Sources

Books

(1) Cotton, Charlotte. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art: Second Edition. London: Tames and Hudson Ltd.

(2) Higgins, Jackie. (2013) Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus: Modern Photography Explained. London: Thames and Hudson.

Internet

(4) Martineau, Paul (2011) The Still Life in Photography http://www.theasc.com/blog/2011/03/28/paul-martineau-the-“still-life”-in-photography/

(5)  Dr. Paul Wolff and Alfred Tritschler – http://itaibachar2.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/dr-paul-wolff-tritschler-alfred.html

(6) The J Paul Getty Museum  (2009) Paul Outerbridge: Command Performance – http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/outerbridge/

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