Selected Still Life Artists

Fig. 01 Bronze Age Axe , from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/11. ISO 100

Fig. 01 Bronze Age Axe , from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/11. ISO 100

Continuing on from looking at the historic roots of still life and the contemporary perspective on the subject, I want to briefly look at a selection of artists who I have found inspirational and who are helping me think about how I would like to approach assignment 4.

Fig 2 Still Life Inspration

Fig 2 Still Life Inspration

Mat Collishaw – Challenging the Audience

Mat Collinshaw is a prolific British artist whose work is often designed to shock the audience. He has a number of series in his gallery that might be loosely termed as still life but I was particularly interested in two of them.

Last Meal on Death Row is exactly what the title suggests, a study of last meals chosen by death row inmates in American jails in 2010 and 2011. This is extreme food photography, two series taken of very different meals ranging from a communion wafer to fried chicken. Using a single source every plate is darkly and softly lit, normally one would say “poorly” lit but that sounds as if the level of lighting is unintentional which is obviously is not. The sets are very simple, just the meal on a  plate or tray, no props, no cutlery. The lighting and subtly de-saturated colure are used to convey a solemn, sad occasion, the last meal before a person’s execution. It is the use of lighting  levels and desaturation to convey a mood that is so interesting in these two series.

Contrastingly, Natura Morte, from 1994 is a much brighter, well lit study. He still appears to use a single light source, which also seems hard and not diffused. Colours are bright and saturated with everything set against a black or dark red background. The sets are packed with fast food containers with the contents appearing to overflow into every corner of the arrangement. I suspect that he is directly drawing our attention to vanitas by using the French for still life as his title. His message is a vanitas message, an abundance, in fact, an over-abundance of food in a world where many are starving but the over-abundance is so extreme the feast looks more like a pile of rubbish that a meal.

Collishaw has used lighting very effectively in two very different ways. In Last Meal the soft “poor” light conveys a mood, in Natura Morte, the bright light and saturated colours emphasise the sense of this being junk food.

Lynne Collins – Modern Vanitas

Lynne Collins exhibited a series entitled Trespasser 1 at the Art on the Table Exhibition at Instituto Cervantes in March 2011. I have had screen shots of this work in my “ideas” folder pretty well ever since.

Collins is part artist, part photographer, part set designer. Trespasser 1 is highly planned and structured. Firstly she finds decayed buildings that have reached a perfect point of degeneration and trespasses (hence the name) those buildings to shoot backgrounds at pre-determined times to capture the perfect light.

Back in her studio she creates lavish and complex still lifes that are very much in the style of the Dutch and Flemish masters. She then combines the two in Photoshop to create 17th century banquets laid out in derelict buildings. Allegory and contrast in abundance. Her work combines the popular street photography subject of decay and the painstaking arrangement, lighting and photography skills needed for vanitas still life.

I find this work compelling at many different levels. The backgrounds are lit, by natural light, to emphasise the decay, the peeling wall paper, the complex texture of the rubbish strewn floors, the faintly lit hallways disappearing into the depths of the frame and the soft careful lighting of the foreground still life. Shade, tone and the intensity of light is balanced between the two components so they join seemlessly. The direction of the light on the still life seems to come from unseen windows in the background, but windows that might easily be there because the colour, intensity and direction are so carefully planned and executed.

Beyond the two pieces fitting harmoniously together she has also used colour and light to evoke the aesthetic of the Dutch painters and her message is a vanitas message of wealth and abundance in a transient, fleeting  and decaying world.

Peter Lippmann – Commercial Still Life

Having looked at two people who are artists first and photographers second, who would use an alternative medium if it achieved the right result I want to look at the work of a man who earns his living as a commercial photographer, a highly sought after photographer at that.

I could, but won’t, write pages about his website. Fashion, advertising, food photography, portraiture, HDR, and a wide range of still life. Of all the photographers I looked at for this project he is the nearest to being the Irving Penn of today. He has worked for Vogue, le Figaro and the New York Times, sells “fine art” photographs and works on advertising campaigns for some of the biggest names in the fashion world including Cartier, Christian Lauboutin and Audemars Piquet.

He uses vanitas themes in his work, perhaps most notably in his shoe advertisements for Christian Lauboutin, but he goes way beyond that with his Women of History portraits in the style of many different painters including Benoist, Corot,  de la Tour and Nattier. But, to look specially at his still lifes there is an interesting difference between his personal work and his commissions. Noble ? Rot is a series of pictures of rotting grapes, dark menacing, close-up, still lifes of large bunches of grape in differing states of decay. Dark backgrounds, saturated, metallic colours and hard light to emphasise the complex textures.

In Open Your Eyes to Saturated Fats he uses faux food photography to communicate a healthy eating message. I recognise that this kind of work is team based so he might nether have planned nor styled this work but he obviously managed the lighting which is the main subject here. In the small series shown on his website he, in turn, exquisitely lights croissant (with a snake) from front and rear left bringing out the texture and colour; razor blades mocked up as pats of butter which are good examples of how to light shiny surfaces with very diffused light yet with the sharp edges of the blades emphasised and a cheese trap table which hints at his interest in using Dutch painting as inspiration.

In a different series for Jeep he might be using Van Gogh’s shoes as inspiration and in the main body of work that excites me, his shoes for Christian Louboutin, he presents a series of shoe and still life images filled with vanitas motifs, fallen goblets, skulls, dead game and candles but he goes beyond one theme and uses religious motifs, pagan pentagons, indian mystic symbols and byzantine icons. This might be still life as commercial work but the complex sets and lighting make this exciting work.

Paulette Tavormina – Colour and Form

I was drawn to the work of Paulette Tavormina, a New York based photographer, primarily because of the intense colours she presents in her still lifes. This is modern photography mimicking 17th art but with no moral message just an accomplished celebration of light, form and colour.

She uses black backgrounds and dark props to emphasise the strong colours in her arrangements of fruit and flowers. For the large trays and bowls she appears to light from the front or at 45 degrees and with one light source. The small table sets are more evenly lit, maybe still with one light or one main light at 45 degrees and one fill in light from the front. She uses strong reflections of her lights off decanters and glasses to introduce contrast and help define the form of the props. I was initially drawn to the lavish and colourful still lifes but it is the more simple small tables with fewer objects that encourage me to linger.

Overall Tavormina offers a lesson in using simple lighting, a little under exposure and dark backgrounds to enhance colour.

This same, deceptively simple approach, can also be seen in her food photography. Her work for the Heirloom Cookbook uses surprisingly simple sets and very subdued straight forward lighting. I think that she is often working with a single light with a reflector or a low power fill light. A good example of how a simple lighting rig can be used to good effect.

Krista van der Niet – Designed Simplicity

The Dutch photographer Krista van der Niet offers another interpretation of still life. Brightly lit, simple sets with a few vanitas motifs such as fallen glasses and dice, often in symmetrical arrangements. There are some interesting ideas such as putting fruit into stockings and using aluminium foil as both a prop and reflective surface.

The main idea I take from her is the careful way she arranges very simple sets, not too many objects and each carefully positioned to play a role. Seven Pins and a Match is a ridiculously simple idea for a series that works well. Her work is also a good example of not over complicating the composition. Towards minimalism.

Interestingly van der Niet includes some of her working sketches on her web site showing a little of how she develops her ideas and hints at how much effort is needed to design simple still lifes that work.

Simon Norfolk – Minimalist 

I have included Simon Norfolk as the best example of a minimalistic approach to still life and one that I have been practising with a study of objects that were previously owned by my father.

Norfolk’s study of objects found on the battlefields of the Tigris Valley, Archaeological Treasures from the Tigris Valley is a series of found objects photographed, mostly singly, from above against white paper backgrounds. Norfolk explains that these were excavated by him on the battlefields of the Iraq war. There is the normal detritus of war, spent cartridges, simple tools, and exploded shells and these items provide a framework into which he inserts very personal items such as footwear, toiletries, a baby’s ID card and a photograph of a soldier’s sweetheart. The simplicity of this series is reminiscent of Irving Penn’s found object still lifes and shows that still life does not need to be designed by an accomplished set designer to convey a strong message.

David C. Halliday – The Purist

Most of David C. Halliday’s work is sepia tinted monochrome using a film camera and natural light but I am most interested in three series of colour photographs that are presented on his website. Colour Still Lifes 2008  are probably all lit by natural light. He uses rustic background sets, distressed painted wood panels, marble slabs and bleached wooden trestles which bring extra colour and texture to his designs, and these are definitely all designs.

Five Fishes is the most beautiful food photograph I’ve seen this year. Five fresh fish, mackerel patterned but with pointy noses tightly grouped in a single fish-like shape on a stone slab in front of a plain, pale green, background. The fish lie diagonally and the camera is higher than 45 degrees but not straight above. Three eyes stare out of the picture in the bottom corner and draw in the viewer before we are asked to follow the lines of the three bodies to the grouped tails. Simple, elegant, softly lit and beautifully composed. Masterly.

Like van der Niet, Halliday shows that a great still life can include a very small number of objects. There is a stunning photograph of a lemon and a black olive. The olive leans against the lemon as they both sit on a mottled beige grey slab. Ridiculously simple, the lemon is perfectly coloured, maybe a touch de-saturated and the olive glistens with reflected light. Another striking picture is a more complicated set including four red peppers, four small tomatoes and a piece of Parmesano on a scrubbed and bleached board against a distressed piece of dark blue-green painted wood.

Colour Still Lifes 2010 are along the same lines but are a subtly different series. These are all taken on white and grey backgrounds, like 2008 they are shallow sets and 2010 does not have the upmarket cookbook feel of 2008. This series has extreme simplicity, perhaps a little Japanese in styling, with one or two very bright and saturated colours against the pale backgrounds. There is a lot of empty space in 2010, often the majority of the frame, and within these spaces we find a few carefully positioned objects whose meaning is just out of reach.

Both sets are about form, shape and colour and have a real feel of being designed rather than styled and I came away with a sense that Halliday had built stages upon which his objects performed. There is an even greater sense of a stage set in the third colour series, Colour Box, as here he has built a dark box with one round window. Strong, but diffused, light pours through the window onto his subjects and he has bounced just enough light back from the camera position to allow us to see the form and shape of the complete subject. The subjects are items such as a block of Parmesano which is so cleverly lit that we can “feel” the texture and the three dimensional shape. This is an alternative approach to the dark background and single directional lighting to show texture and form.


This set of photographers, some of the very many contemporary artists working with still life, are all inspirational in their own way and I feel that there is something exciting to take from each of these approaches.

I am very drawn by the complicated set designs of Lynne Collins and the lavish, strong coloured still lifes of Pauline Tavormina. Their use of lighting, in very different environments, to bring out the colours and detail in their subjects is educational. However, much as I would like to try I haven’t the skills as a set designer to come close to this kind of result. Peter Lippmann’s work is also brilliantly designed and his study of rotten grapes might be more useful to me at this stage than the larger sets but I am very interested in the fashion theme and feel that an element of his style or his subjects might creep into assignment 4.

Simon Norfolk has inspired me to do some minimalistic still life studies but identical sets and lighting are a fundamental part of this approach and this doesn’t readily lend itself to being used in assignment 4.

At this moment, and this might all change in the next few weeks, I am taking more inspiration from van der Niet and Halliday, and Irving Penn who I will discuss in a later post, than from anyone else. I think that their simple designs are something that I can work  towards and this allows me to invest my energy into the lighting which is the real test in assignment 4.


One thought on “Selected Still Life Artists

  1. Barnaby Nutt

    An excellent post with concise yet informative critique of a well chosen group of photographers whose work is really interesting at this stage of the course. Thank you for posting.


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