Category Archives: Part 4 Assignment Preparation, Feedback and Reflection (Lighting Techniques)

Assignment 4 – Response to Tutor Feedback

Fig. 13 Black Vanitas (colour) - 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Black Vanitas (colour) – 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

My tutor has provided his feedback on assignment 4, the following extracts are those specifically relevant to this assignment, he helpfully provided his thoughts on assignment 5 which I have excluded here . My comments are included in blue.

Overall Comments

Thanks for submitting assignment four Steve, which I enjoyed looking through and feeding back on.

The key issues I mentioned within my last feedback report were as follows:

  • Look at the work of Victor Burgin and Jason Evans in relation to assignment 3.
  • Look at the work of Penn / Weston in relation to Assignment 4.
  • Continue to read around the subject matter and review both practitioners work and exhibitions visited, via the blog.

Whilst it has not been specifically mentioned I am not attending enough exhibitions. Once the busy season is finished at work and I have some weekends free I want to address this. I spent time looking at Burgin and Penn. Burgin offered a new perspective on my assignment 3 and many of his ideas have stayed with me and I think will feed into assignment 5. Penn was a major influence for assignment 4. I looked closely at Weston and there was a hint of some of his work in the way I approached some of my still life exploration but it was his nudes that had the most impact on me and I want to hold back getting deeper into his ideas for a more appropriate junction.

Overall, I thought this was a strong submission and think you will have benefitted from the technical activities required here. Also, I think you are responding very well to the feedback offered Steve and I have seen evidence of this response within both the assignment submission and via the blog.

Assignment Feedback

From a technical perspective the imagery you chose for submission worked very well. You have demonstrated an excellent control of different lighting throughout the sets explored, whilst also keeping a close eye on the practitioners who have informed your own work (Penn / Bailey etc). I’m convinced that the success you have had with the assignment is as a direct result of the comprehensive and thorough testing conducted within your development work.

Fig. 05 My Dad's Stuff

Fig. 02 My Dad’s Stuff

Some of this development work was really impressive, especially the visual exploration of your ‘father’s stuff’ which I thought was really interesting on several levels. The composition was simple, but contained enough objects to arouse visual curiosity from the viewer, then in addition to this it was a very personal, and in my opinion, worthwhile exercise – the documentation of your late father’s archive.

My tutor expanded on this subject discussing some of his own work. I have had a few comments from other people on this mini-project and it is a good example of how some simple subjects or projects can strike a chord with viewers because they are evocative topics that many people share. Archeology is about what survives and looking at what survives a person that you knew well is a subject that I find interesting and one that I want to pursue further inside or outside this course.

Fig. 09 Skulls - Shape - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 03 Skulls – Shape – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

In terms of your actual imagery submitted, I can’t fault both your approach and execution. I really liked the work conducted with the skulls, which are always very visually interesting – There did seem to be quite a lot of flare wrapping around the subject though, which subsequently reduces the definition of the object being photographed. The way around this is firstly to get the white background separated from the object, in terms of physical distance between the two, and then over expose it only by 2 stops. So if you then bring the skull forward and use some kind of screens on either side of the shot, (bring them as close to the subject as you can without actually coming into shot) … you can light the subject independently of the background with a separate light at the front of the set. Try it and see if you can get a little more definition in the sides of the skull.

This is a valid point and there is too much flare on the sides of the skulls. I will rework the skull images and test out my tutor’s recipe which is a helpful guide.

Learning Logs/Critical essays

Again, I can’t see any issues here and the blog is working really well – very easy to navigate and full of evidence of both research and development work.

Keep up this level of curiosity and include posts about everything you are reading and viewing in relation to image making.


I am obviously pleased with this feedback and felt that I found shared interests and connected with my tutor more than I had in my earlier assignments. I have been given a lot of guidance on the way to approach assignment 5 and this is both helpful and motivating. the end of TAoP is in sight.

The other important factor was that the valid criticism of my treatment of the skulls was accompanied with a suggested technical approach to improve the pictures and this is especially welcomed. I have commented elsewhere that I found it very difficult to track down practical guides to lighting still life with remote flash guns and there is a limit to how much one can learn by analysing practitioners’ end results to create a lighting recipe. 

Developing Assignment 4

Over the last several weeks I have been researching, planning and shooting test photos for assignment 4, Applying Lighting Techniques. Originally I wanted to carry forward ideas about the vanity of fashion, which had featured strongly in assignment 3 combining this with the symbolism of vanitas to create faux 17th century still life. As ever with these assignments some ideas work, some do not, new ideas arise, new inspiration is discovered and the end result is quite different from the images imagined at the start. To that end it is helpful to record the development process.

This post looks at the evolution of the idea and at some of the technical challenges that were encountered along the way. In each phase of this course my work has been influenced by three things:

  • “text” book and other informed opinions about the genres of photography that are relevant to the exercises and assignments in that part of the course;
  • the photographers, both contemporary and more historic whose work appears relevant;
  • and, my previous experience and knowledge of relevant techniques.

For assignment 4 my previous experience of photographic lighting was limited to trying to develop better daylight flash techniques in an attempt to capture a Martin Parr look and feel for outdoor documentary photography and extensive experimentation with food photography which I regularly undertake as part of my role in the family business.

This food photography is effectively the starting point for assignment 4. Partly because it means I own 3 flash guns, a remote infra-red flash trigger, three cold-shoe soft boxes and various other bits and pieces such as grids, reflectors, LED lights, stands and backdrops. But, it was only by beginning to think about assignment 4 that it became clear that it is also a starting point because food photography, along with some fashion and product advertising, is one of the most commonly viewed forms of still life in books, magazines and on-line.

It is interesting to note that Irving Penn and David Bailey both worked as commercial fashion photographers yet also produced still lifes as part of personal projects that are generally highly respected. The dividing line between commercially driven and artistically driven still life is blurred with photographers such as Peter Lippmann *(4) producing compelling personal studies alongside similar commercial projects. As someone who sees many high quality cookery books as part of my work I would argue that there is much to be learnt about still life from the food photographers working for the most celebrated chefs. Dominic Davies *(5) is an excellent example of a food photographer producing creative and exciting food still lifes for Heston Blumenthal. In the last six months I have learnt that it is dangerous to pigeon hole contemporary photographers without trying to explore the breadth of their work. I found Peter Lippmann when looking at a Christian Louboutin advertising campaign but his personal still life work is, in many ways, even more exciting as is his unusual approach to intimate landscape in Paradise Parking. Dominic Davies is no doubt a highly sought after food photographer having worked for Blumenthal but before putting him into that pigeon hole it is worth looking at his other still lifes and his Mapping London project which is a William Eggleston like view of the details of London.

Fig. 1 Food Photography

Fig. 1 Food Photography

Food photography was quite alien to me until the last few years and whilst it has been a steep learning curve and a journey that is far from complete it has provided me with a basic understanding of working with small lights in restricted spaces. There is little or no room for big lighting systems in a commercial kitchen.

Initially, for assignment 4, I wanted to work with natural light and to photograph still life or human subjects within the landscape as I felt that this would take me into new areas and would keep me away from using the type of equipment I used for food photography. However, whilst I felt inspired by the work of Edward Weston * (1) and would have liked to try something along the lines of his beach nudes I quickly realised that the logistical challenges were significant and to meet the requirements of the assignment with a human model outdoors was unrealistic at this stage. Despite this early change of direction I did find inspiration from Weston’s 1927 Shells, and his studies of vegetables a few years later. Pepper No. 30, (1930), Pepper (1929), Eggplant (1929) and Cabbage Leaf (1931) are classic studies of form.* (2)

My first tests, with Weston’s work in mind, were with small groups of fruit to allow me to experiment with lighting for colour, form and texture.

Fig. 1 Contact Sheet of Fruit Test Shots

Fig. 2 Contact Sheet of Fruit Test Shots

This experiment highlighted some of the challenges that would arise time and again in this assignment. My instinct is to light for a combination of colour, form and texture (at least where the subject makes all three relevant) and I found it difficult to think in terms of isolating one attribute of a subject to the exclusion of all others.  In the context of Weston’s work the plum tomatoes bottom left and the pears bottom right come nearest to the effect I was trying to achieve where form was the main study but the raspberries and the vine tomatoes have a sense of both depth and colour. I knew that this type of subject could be carried forward into the assignment and that a series based on any of these groups could be lit in the four required, different ways. The fat Duck series on the Dominic Davies *(5) web site shows how food can be lit for colour, texture and form, for obvious reasons silhouettes are less common but a few examples in this series come very close.

I was also looking at the work of Irving Penn and a number of contemporary still life photographers and to stick with Weston style fruit and vegetables would be very limiting and too close to food photography.

As mentioned previously I was interested in the origins and history of still life photography and that research trail inevitably leads to Fox-Talbot, Roger Fenton and through them back to the vanitas painters of the 17th century. The symbolism of the vanitas style appealed in a very direct way and immediately spoke to my original agenda of weaving in the modern vanities of the fashion industry.

Fig. 03 A Small Study in Grey - 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

Fig. 03 A Small Study in Grey – 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

My first shoot was a very simple set-up. I spray painted a number of common household objects, set them up on a white acrylic sheet, added a pink rose for colour and took a few test shots. The vanitas elements were limited to the rose, symbolising the fragility of beauty and the fly to symbolise decay. This was primarily a light test using two cold-shoe soft boxes, one left and one right, both at about 45 degrees. The lighting worked to a point but I was uncomfortable with the fade to grey in the upper part of the background and noted that I either had to increase the intensity of the lights or find a way to fill the background. As an idea it was very limited and not something that could be taken forward into the assignment. I also felt that it was difficult to achieve the intensity of colour that I wanted using a white background.

By this point I had looked at the work of a lot of photographers and was identifying ideas that could come with me into the assignment. When looking at any photographers for inspiration there is an element of thinking about their subject matter, their overriding style and their technical approach but for studio based still life the technical approach in terms of backgrounds and lighting become a major consideration. It is clear that there are a lot of different ways to set-up and light a still life and I wanted to experiment with some of the options.

Fig 2 Still Life Inspration

Fig 04 Still Life Inspration

Fig. 04 shows the various photographers that were researched in some detail. A write up on these photographers is included here. This research led to a series of still life experiments where I looked at using different set-ups and techniques. One of the first experiments was inspired by Simon Norfolk whose archaeological study of objects found on the battlefield of the Tigris valley interested me at a number of levels. This is stripped down, simplified approach to still life that focusses total attention on a single object. Norfolk has photographed a series of small items excavated from a modern dessert battlefield so, unlike excavating  the site of the Battle of Hastings where the best one might hope for is a piece of broken and decayed metal, he has found tattered identity cards, pieces of clothing and personal photographs amongst the spent bullets and shell casings. This is a very human form of still life, exploring the memory of people through their lost possessions. I was keen to test out this idea quickly with objects that I already had to hand but with the intent to take this idea into the field and photograph found objects in a single location at some later point.

Fig. 05 My Dad's Stuff

Fig. 05 My Dad’s Stuff

Fig. 05 is the result of that experiment. My father was born in 1919 and died nearly 20 years ago. When I was thinking about subjects that might work as small items for simple, one object, white background still life I realised how few of his possessions I still own. His father’s silver watch, his scout knife, a bronze age axe he excavated, a few war time souvenirs and some tools.

At a personal level each object has a story which reminds me of my father, some objects are still being used by me, some are just beginning to be looked at and understood by my grandchildren and, when I have time I would like to repeat the exercise for other deceased relatives as a way of documenting an aspect of their lives. The items were photographed individually and then collected into a single image in Photoshop.

From a technical perspective it was a useful exercise as I was able to test different lighting in response to the material being photographed in a controlled environment. Some worked better than others.

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

Fig. 06 Bronze Age Axe , from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/11. ISO 100

For fig.06, the bronze age axe, I arranged the main light back of 90 degrees to the right, 3/4 lighting, and a fill light at a similar position to the left. This seems to have provided a sense of depth to the subject and the texture of the surfaces has been explored to some degree.

I have tried to use shadow as as way of exploring the form of the old fashioned router plane in fig. 07 as an alternative way of looking at the form of the object.

These test shots worked reasonably well but showed that 3/4 lighting is not the easiest to use if you still want to see the face nearest to the camera.

In fig. 07 the problem of backgrounds is also highlighted. In this instance I was using a flat acrylic sheet so the meeting point between the base and the background is very obvious.

I was also using a 105mm lens and working very close to the subjects so needed a deep depth of field to have the whole piece in focus. I have found depth of field challenging in food photography, occasionally it is interesting to only have part of a set in focus but generally it is desirable for the whole subject to be sharply focussed. This appears equally true for still life and  forces the use of small apertures.

Fig. 01 Router Plane,  from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

Fig. 07 Router Plane, from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

For my next series of test shots I wanted to create more complex vanitas still lifes bringing together classic motifs with modern objects.


Fig. 08 White Vanitas

For these shots I was still using a white background and, for all but “A” and “H”, I used the same acrylic sheet and a white background. A photography backdrop curved from background to base was used for “A”  whilst “H”, which is really just a bit of fun, was taken using a light box and a small amount of overhead light.

Fig.  Blue Vanitas - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 09 Blue Vanitas – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

“A”, the blue themed still life, was over complicated and didn’t work and was only useful as a learning experience for how not to set up a still life. However, I was pleased by the lighting in fig. 09 which is very even, brings out the various colours and avoids distracting reflections from the watch glasses and old mobile phones. In retrospect there could be a little more light to the left of the camera and on the coins at the front.

“B”, “C” and “D” were more successful, and worked when exploring colour but were much less successful when the same setup was used for texture, form and shape. I chose the red shoes specifically because they had both colour and texture but there was very little difference in the end result when I set up for colour and when I set up for texture.

“E” and “F” were taken as test shots for shape and “G” is my take on Irving Penn’s Vegetable Face.

Fig.09 White Fruit Vanitas 1 - 1/60 at f/14, ISO100

Fig.10 White Fruit Vanitas 1 (colour) – 1/60 at f/14, ISO100

Fig. 10 is a shot that is on the short list for my final submission as It meets many of my original objectives. It has obvious and less obvious vanitas elements, it brings fashion and classic still life together in a single shot and, I believe, works as an exploration of colour. The white background is difficult to work with, there is a 1 stop loss of exposure for every metre the backdrop is placed behind the subject so without extra lights to direct onto the backdrop it is always, at best, going to be grey. In this shot is just about acceptable but not ideal.


Fig. 10 Skulls - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 Skulls (edges) – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 Skulls (Edges) - 1/125 at F/16, ISO 100

Fig. 12 Skulls (Edges) – 1/125 at F/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 is also on the short list as an example of lighting for edges. It could, and has been (fig. 12), processed as a full silhouette but it is not as interesting as a photograph.

In fact this picture sums up my frustrations with this assignment.

I can light or process this just to focus on the outer edges and perhaps that approach best meets the assignment criteria but equally by over exposing a little I can also bring out the texture of the skulls and explore their form.

This is a far more appealing image than fig. 12. so I might submit fig. 11 and hear my tutor’s thoughts.

After “White Vanitas” I wanted to carry out some test shoots using black backgrounds. When researching contemporary still life I saw that whenever black backdrops were used the colours of the still life became far more intense. Mat Collishaw and Paulette Tavormina use black backdrops in very different styles of still lifes but I think both are doing so to emphasise colour.

Fig. 12 Black Fruit

Fig. 13 Black Vanitas and Fruit

“A” through “E” continue to use vanitas motifs and are a natural progression from the White Vanitas shoot. “G” and “H” are straight forward colour studies. There is no doubt that using a black base and black background brings out the colours in the subject. If the aim was just to emphasise colour this is the set-up I would use.

Fig. 13 Black Vanitas (colour) - 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 14 Black Vanitas (colour) – 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig.14 is on my short list as part of the submission. It is “B” in the contact sheet at fig. 13. “A” would be an alternative but without the honeycomb grid and red gel used to emphasise the red shoes. The strength of these two photos are firstly that they are an evolution of my original idea so have some heritage in the project and secondly that they are strong studies in colour. The black background is much more interesting than the white with the subjects fading into or growing out of the black set, appearing suspended in space. In some ways the black set is easier to work with but it does suck up the light so the flashguns had to be run much nearer full power.

Fig. 14 Melon and Citrus - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 15 Melon and Citrus (texture) – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 15 is also short listed as a submission for texture. This was lit with hard light angled to maximise the different textures in the fruits. At this stage in the process I had a few images that had worked for colour, texture, form and shape but they were from different set-ups so I wanted to conduct a final shoot where the four attributes were represented by four different lighting techniques and photos from the same set.

The criticism might be levelled that, as this was the assignment brief, I should have gone straight to this point in the first place and this is a totally valid point. However, I wanted to explore the four attributes with different set-ups and for each shoot I did light the subjects in, at least, four different ways and took four different sets of photos but with all the above set-ups one or two, and very occasionally three attributes would come through strongly but never all four. I believe that this is because the way I worked through the process of looking at different techniques and using different subjects created environments that empathised one or two attributes above the others. Clearly I could back light the Black Vanitas and photograph a silhouette but it was a dull picture and I don’t see the point in trying to take dull pictures, I take enough by mistake already.

The process also allowed me to explore different photographers’ work and try some of their techniques and work towards a style of still life that was representative of me and that was an evolution of the style I have developed for food photography over recent years. I think I found my greatest inspiration in the work of David C. Halliday and Krista van der Niet. This is a move away from classic vanitas still life but they use light and simple sets to create atmospheric still life that explores form, texture and colour, often simultaneously.

Fig. 15 Green Backdrop Shoot

Fig. 16 Green Backdrop Shoot

Fig. 16 is a contact sheet from my final two shoots where all the ideas finally came together. I am disappointed that “G” which is the colour shot from the very final shoot is weak, the colours seem desaturated and what seemed right in the “studio” did not process as effectively as I had expected. I may be fooling myself but I suspect the the choice of fruit in “A” through “D” lent itself to colour better that the subjects in “E” through “H”.

Fig. 16 Green Backdrop (colour) - 1/60 at f/18 (-1/3 stop), ISO 100

Fig. 17 Green Backdrop (colour) – 1/60 at f/18 (-1/3 stop), ISO 100

This is a shame as fig. 17, “G” from the contact sheet, is very close to the effect I wanted to achieve, the lighting seems very soft and natural, (I believe that Halliday works with natural light) and without having any vanitas motifs it has a 17th century oil painting feel. I have just failed to bring out the colours as strongly as I wanted.

This has been a very frustrating assignment at times and I still questions whether setting such a simple question is pushing a student to explore lighting in real depth. It is too easy to take one object with a bit of colour and texture and setup:

  • Colour – lights above and in front
  • Form – 3/4 lighting
  • Texture – hard light at acute angles
  • Shape – backlight

I set out to learn about still life as a genre and to explore lighting for effect. I have enjoyed the research and test shoots immensely and believe that I have learnt a considerable amount about, not just lighting, but how to introduce a mood into simple still lifes.



(1) Weston, Edward. (1999) Edward Weston. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH


(2) Weston, Edward. –

(3) Norfolk, Simon.

(4) Lippmann, Peter. Peter Lippman Official Site

(5) Davies, Dominic. Dominic Davies Official Site.



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.

A Small Study in Grey

A Small Study in Grey 1 - 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

Fig 01 – A Small Study in Grey 1 – 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100. Lit with 2 x speed guns set on manual. 45 degrees left and right, both in cold shoe, soft boxes

A Small Study in Grey 2 - 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

A Small Study in Grey 2 – 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

Just testing lighting scenarios.

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.



(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.


(4) Martineau, Paul (2011) The Still Life in Photography“still-life”-in-photography/

(5)  Dr. Paul Wolff and Alfred Tritschler –

(6) The J Paul Getty Museum  (2009) Paul Outerbridge: Command Performance –

Symbolism Used in 16th to 19th Century Still Life

Fig. 01 Pipe from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Pipe from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

The following list of symbols and their meanings are included here as a useful reference as I work towards assignment 4. I have collected these meanings from a variety of sources which are listed below. Many symbols have complex meanings and, in some cases, opposing meanings depending on their context; in such cases I have generally used the meaning that makes most sense to me or have referenced the context in which they should be interpreted.

This list is not exhaustive nor is it intended as part of a study of 400 years of European still life, it is at best superficial and incomplete. I want to use some of this symbolism in my compositions for assignment 4 and having spend a lot of time tracking down this information I wanted to collect it together in one, easily referenced place. Continue reading

Still Life, Symbolism and Vanitas

Fig. 01 Watch from the series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Fob Watch from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Assignment 4 “Applying Lighting Techniques” initially appeared to offer a wide choice of subject and approach and I was considering the merits of building a series of photographs in the landscape, this led me to Edward Weston. However, my tutor had also suggested that II looked at Iriving Penn and this began to pull me further from Weston’s nudes in the landscape and towards Weston and Penn’s still lifes.

The more I looked at the photographs in Penn’s book Still Life *(11) the more I became interested in still life as a genre and, given Penn’s background in the fashion industry and his still life style, there is a natural progression from assignment 3 to 4 and this in itself is appealing.

Still life, as a photographic genre, makes its entrance nearly simultaneously with the “invention” of the medium. Liz Wells tells us, in Photography A Critical Introduction *(1), that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre both announced the process for making and fixing a photographic image in 1839 and it is notable that many of those earliest photographs are forms of still life. In 1839 Daguerre photographed Shells and Fossils *(2) and Fox Talbot sent a “Table Set for Tea” to his friend, the Italian naturalist, Antonio Bertoloni *(3).

There are no doubt many reasons for the genre’s early entry onto the stage, not least of which was the restrictions of the new technology calling for long exposures and still subjects, but it is also relevant that Henry Fox Talbot was a frustrated artist who referred to his invention as the “art of photogenic drawing” and who named the first photographically illustrated book “The Pencil of Nature”. According to Graham Clarke *(4) The Pencil of Nature “both predicted and set the terms of reference for the way photography was to viewed for much of the nineteenth century”. Fox Talbot saw photography in the context of painting, describing his techniques using the language of the existing visual arts and thought as a painter. From the outset Fox Talbot was in no doubt that photography was an art and that he was drawing “without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil”.

So, from the outset, the new artists were thinking in the language of painters and as well as assuming the most obvious techniques such as compositional rules and lighting they started to use the same types of subjects and, perhaps most importantly, the same symbolism. In “The Open Door” 1844 Fox Talbot carefully constructs a scene containing positioned objects, even the “set” is manipulated to provide the effect he was seeking, the half open door, the backlit window, the twigs symmetrically crossed in the bottom corner. The photograph is as constructed as a painting, it is far from casual, far from capturing a chance moment.

Many of the early photographers were painters and many had enjoyed a formal education that would have included gaining an understanding of the great painters so it is not surprising that when they took up photography they came to the medium heavily laden with the baggage of fine art. Roger Fenton, who had studied painting before qualifying as a lawyer, made his name photographing great places and great people before turning to still life in the late 1850s. Still Life with Ivory Tankard and Fruit (1860) *(5) is one of his most famous works and as well as displaying his mastery of both technique and composition it reveals his roots as a fine artist by borrowing symbolism from the much earlier work of the Dutch artists. He includes the religious symbols of a chalice and bread, but the chalice is on its side suggesting consumption, there are grapes in the background suggesting Bacchanalian pleasures, over-ripe fruits suggesting that life is fleeting and the two ripe peaches have been associated with buttocks and the pleasures of the flesh.

This type of symbolism could be traced directly to the Dutch painters of the 17th century *(9) who used still life to communicate a religious, moral message in a style of painting known as “vanitas” from the quotation in the book of Ecclesiastes “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. The message of these paintings is not complex; live a better life, spurn the pleasures of the flesh in this life and focus your attention on the next. Their audience was offered repetitive symbols in paintings that, on face value, celebrated the wealth of a trading nation that was punching well above its weight in the 17th century with compositions built around an abundance of fruit, flowers, wine, imported goods and the fruits of the sea but often included snuffed candles, timepieces, books, musical instruments and human skulls.

The symbolism would have been understood by the wealthy residents of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the the 1600s. Over-ripe fruit spoke of the brevity of life and if mixed with citrus suggested the sweet and sour nature of existence. Flowers symbolised the fragility of life, everything beautiful is short lived, beauty is transient, it decays. Skulls, more obviously, signified impending death whilst clocks and snuffed candles said “time flies”. Oysters, thought to be an aphrodisiac, represented sexual pleasures, an idea that could be underlined by the careful positioning of a knife. Books and musical instruments, expensive luxuries at the time, symbolised worldly pursuits. (A more comprehensive list of symbols can be found here)

The overall message was saying we are living in a rich and successful country with the fruits of the earth coming to our door but don’t get carried away as life is short, all these earthly pleasures are short-lived, focus your attention on the hereafter. The Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21 was at the heart of their thinking: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The obvious irony being that only the very rich could afford to commission such works of art.

The work of the vanitas painters, their predecessors and those that were influenced by them, can be viewed at another level all together *(10). In their day these were highly sought after pieces of art attracting the wealthiest patrons and some of the most accomplished artists of the time worked extensively in this field. The still lifes that have been preserved represent the work of highly skilled master technicians who were creating objects of great beauty. The Dutch prized flowers and wanted accurate and skilful renditions to brighten up dark winter evenings, the aristocrats wanted paintings that expressed the wealth of their country estates, the merchants wanted to show off their ability to import the rarest plants, fruits and objects from across the world. Many still lifes have no hidden message other than the artists’ delight in form, colour and texture and, more prosaically, market forces.

Photographers not only adopted the genre they often adopted the symbolism and we can see the same symbols repeated by Roger Fenton in the 1860s, Edward Weston in the 1920s and 30s, Irving Penn in the 50s and 60s right up to Ori Gersht in recent years. This lineage is intriguing and we can see a clear connection between Caravaggio’s “A Basket of Fruit” *(6) painted around 1599 and Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate *(7) in 2006, despite there being over 400 years between the two.

This connection is exciting and continues to be exploited by contemporary photographers but we are not restricted to the symbolism of the 16th and 17th centuries or the interpretations of the 19th century. Mat Collinshaw, a British photographer born in Nottingham in 1966, whose work spans many genres published a small set of still life images in 1994 entitled “Natura Morte” *(8) which are feasts of American junk food and speak simultaneously of wealth and waste, gluttony and over-abundance. Collinshaw communicates a strong message using the broad style of the Dutch Vanitas painters but using his own set of symbols. We readily understand his message because we recognise the Macdonald’s fries and the chicken nuggets and this in itself makes it easier to understand how effectively the 17th and 18th century artists communicated their message using symbols that were as quickly recognised and read by their audience.



(1) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

(4) Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(5) McCabe, Eamonn. (2008) The Making of Great Photographs: Approaches and Techniques of the Masters. Cincinnati: David and Charles.

(11) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bulfinch Press.


(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – A Table Set for Tea –

(3) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography –

(6) The Bridgeman Art Library – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio “A Basket of Fruit” –

(7) Museum of Fine Arts Boston – Ori Gersht Exhibition –

(8) Collinshaw Mat (1994) Natura Morte –

(9) Metropolitan Museum – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600 – 1800 –

(10) The National gallery of Art – Still Life Painting –

Rodriguez, Levin. The Berkemeyer Project –

Phelps, D G. the Art of D.G.Phelps –