Tag Archives: Irving Penn

Photography as Archeology

Fig. 01 The Old Dairy Weydon - 1/100 at F/18, ISO 1,000

Fig. 01 The Old Dairy Weydon – 1/100 at F/18, ISO 1,000

For 6,000 years we have built structures, places to live, to keep us safe, to work, to store the product of our labours, to preserve our ideas or to give structure to our beliefs, to remember our ancestors and commemorate our successes. For much of that time we have made durable things, weapons for hunting, attack or defence, tools to ease our labours, vehicles to transport goods and people, and for a myriad of other purposes. Since the first farmers stopped following the game herds and selected a place to settle in the landscape humans have changed that landscape by collecting raw materials, by farming, by building and by scattering the things we made.

The things we build start with clear structures and purposes but as civilisations evolve our creations lose their purpose and their structure. Nature is always waiting to reclaim every element of every thing we make. We might stave her off for a few years, a few generations or a millennium but eventually she degrades and degenerates everything. Some objects settle into the landscape over time and we come to terms with their demise to such an extent that, as ruins, they define or are thought to beautify the greater place in which they stand but others sit defiantly ugly, never able to gracefully decay, remaining as eyesores, a blot on the landscape. Some temporarily find new life but time will tell and the greatest of our achievements eventually become dust.

Archeologists seek out these abandoned structures and objects to document their existence and to study their context before nature removes their trace. We mostly associated this science with the distant past, the discovery of something that is lost, the process of putting flesh onto the bones of history but all around us there are structures and things in the early stages of their demise, the abandoned buildings and discarded objects of the recent past that might become the archeology of the future but more often are cleared to make way for the next great idea. The documentation of these recent relics can be as compelling as an episode of Time Team, in each building or discarded object there is the history of people, of failed dreams and social change, of seismic shifts in our politics, habits and desires.

Assignment 5 has taken me back to the houses, villages, heaths and woodlands of my childhood and in searching for the past I have found shadows of my generation and the generations that preceded me. I have captured some of these with my camera.

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Photographically these objects offer interesting subjects but I find myself torn between using the saturated colours that I love, black and white graphic representations that remove the distraction of colour or desaturated and muted colours that might offer the best of both worlds. I was mildly critical of Tong Lam’s Abandoned Futures because I felt there were too many inconsistencies in his style and that this made his narratives slightly disjointed and I envy the certainty of style that can been seen in the work of Stephen Shore or Josef Koudelka who, I assume, never question whether to change their colour palette or, in Koudelka’s case, lack of colour.

There are examples of colour and monochrome being used together in a single presentation, David Bailey worked in both mediums and his Stardust exhibition showed his colour and black and white work, if not side by side, at least in close proximity. Irving Penn’s Still life includes examples of both and there is the sense that he moved freely between them. Most recently I visited Russell Squires’ Landings Exhibition where panoramic landscape photos in colour alternate with square format, black and white, intimate landscapes. These examples don’t necessarily set any precedents and the reasons that each artist mixed media in this way might need to be more carefully considered at some later date. At this stage and for these photos from around Farnham, I am switching between desaturated colour and black and white based on the approach that best suited each specific subject. A few months ago I conducted a similar study in Turks and Caicos and selected saturated colour as the approach that best suited the subjects and the warm Caribbean light. I may subsequently review this work and criticise myself for the lack of a consistent style.

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Exercise 42 Illustration by Symbols

White Vanitas - Colour - 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

White Vanitas – Colour – 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

Symbolism has been used throughout the history of both commercial and art photography. In art many symbols have been carried forward from religious painting, especially from the vanitas movement which flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. During my research for assignment 4 I looked at the types of symbolism used by these Dutch painters and how photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton brought that tradition into photography with it later becoming the basis for a lot of Irving Penn’s work and how vanitas symbols are regularly found in the work of contemporary still life photographers including conceptual artists such as Mat Collishaw. Many of the symbols used by contemporary artists have their roots in traditional religious, and especially Christian, art for the simple reason that they are readily understood by both religious and non religious audiences or because they have become so universal they have transcended their original religious meaning and become a common secular symbol so, for example, the Archangel Michael who was historically depicted holding scales as the warrior-guardian of righteousness and justice becomes Lady Justice on the top of the Old Bailey.

Advertising, and therefore commercial photography, is hugely dependent upon symbolism either by using commonly recognised symbols such as the sun to suggest health, vigour or goodness when advertising orange juice or breakfast cereals, shields, gates and castles for insurance and for security services or roses for valentine day products. All these uses of visual symbols rely on the concept of semiotics, which in simple terms is a sign that stands for something else *(1). The idea of semiotics was first described by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, who explained that it involves a sign, word or object, the signifier and a concept, idea or thought that is to be communicated, the signified. Semiotics is a broad and complex subject that will no doubt be a subject for in-depth study at a later date but at its heart our ability to communicate an idea through the use of a symbol relies upon either, an obvious association between that thought and the symbol, or a common acceptance of the meaning of the signifier. There are many symbols that have instantly recognised meanings in Western society, a dove or an olive branch for peace, a red cross for medical care or a dollar sign for money or wealth (even in countries that use the pound or the euro). However, these symbols can be interpreted differently by different societies and cultures so a red cross might evoke a negative response in the Middle East where it is associated with the crusades.

In effect we all carry a mental register of codes that allow us to interpret these signs to understand their intended meaning, and although these codes might vary between cultures, we are often sophisticated enough to combine the code with its context to identify alternate meanings. These codes are constantly evolving, partly because the advertising industry sets out to design and introduce new signifier / signified relationships through the use of symbols in the shape of logos or by the repeated use of specific images in close association with a product.

Through this process we not only decode MacDonalds and everything it stands for from a large yellow “M” we come to associate meerkats with a consumer choice portal or, for those of a certain age, tigers with petrol. Once such strong brand identities are established the most sophisticated advertising can move beyond advertising a dull and unexciting product such as home insurance and provide short entertaining mini-dramas that become an end in themselves but subtly  promote the product by making the audience feel connected or just good about the family story in a series of gravy adverts, the students obsessed with the speed of their internet connection or the lives of Russian meerkats.

At a more sophisticated level charities are especially prone to leverage preconceptions and, arguably, prejudices, to attract our donations. A black child with a fly on their face is code for suffering, illness and deprivation even though many healthy children all over the world will have a fly land on their face in the course of a day, try visiting the Australian bush in summer, and using dogs and cats in an advert for an animal charity at Christmas is more effective that the same advert used in mid-summer because it is coded as “a dog is not just for Christmas”, “people are acting badly during the season of goodwill”.

Photographers can draw on all these sources and code their images to communicate a message by appropriating established signifiers or inventing new ones that leverage established ideas. In some of my test pieces for assignment 4 I tried to use contemporary items as modern day vanitas symbols. This led me to use lipstick and stiletto heals to signify the vanity of the fashion industry but I mixed in traditional vanitas symbols such as plentiful fruit and watches in an attempt to suggest to the audience that all of the items in a still life needed to be interpreted in the context of vanitas.

This exercise suggests that we avoid clichés but the de-coding system we carry in our heads is reliant on our ability to instantly recognise and interpret symbolism in art or advertising. As a result there is a very thin line between a symbol being able to communicate the idea intended and it becoming a cliché. In practise a cliché is just a matter of timing, so the 1914 Lord Kitchener “Wants You” recruitment poster or “Keep Calm and Carry On” only became clichéd when they became over copied.

Growth

Avoiding plants, charts, upward pointing arrows and other common ideas:

  • I might try to photograph the wall in a house where parents have marked off their children’s height over time. The more dilapidated the wall the better, indicating that it has been left undecorated as a family treasure. This could provide a underlying message of love and nurture and sense of time passing.
  • On a similar theme a heap of, obviously discarded shoes of varying sizes might work.

Excess

  • Without wishing to appear obsessed with the subject all the traditional vanitas symbols work here, over-laden tables and so forth but, if I was planning to work on this subject again I would build on Mat Collishaw‘s ideas with his studies of American junk food. The concept of over sized portions and what we throw away offers powerful imagery.
  • Skips behind supermarkets and, a subject dear to my heart, all the food we dump in land fills that used to be fed to pigs because we have allowed government to over legislate to stop pork products being fed to pigs and cow products being fed to cows. As ever, we introduce new, sweeping, ill thought through laws instead of policing existing and sensible regulations.

Crime

  • I would look to go beyond symbols of crime and look for images of social situations that inevitably nurture crime. Disproportionate unemployment in areas with large populations of  ethnic minorities could provide interesting subjects.
  • The other angle might be crime waiting to happen such as open windows, keys in locks or visible purses in handbags.

Silence

  • A wealth of religious symbolism comes to mind and although this might verge on being clichéd it would rely on the image being strong enough to lift itself above the cliché. A lone monk walking towards an abbey or a simple altar in an empty church, someone praying alone in a church. Something with an Eleanor Rigby feel from Yellow Submarine might work so that loneliness was linked to silence. Note the use of a Beatles’ film as a source of symbolism.
  • Nearly any rural landscape with a pond if it is photographed with a long exposure so the surface is misty and perfectly smooth. Even a fisherman by a river might work.

Poverty

  • Probably a cliché but my first instinct would be to look for a juxtaposition of unnecessary wealth and extreme poverty. I spent many years in Asia and the images that still leap into my mind are slums next to Chinese graveyards where the dead were “living” in marble mausoleums and the living languished in huts made from flattened oil cans and packing cases.
  • If, it was to be a project, I would probably focus on rural poverty which is over-shadowed by the more obvious urban equivalent. The regular car boot sale in Aldershot would provide plenty of opportunities.

Sources

Internet

(1) Moriarty, Sandra. An Interpretive Study of Visual Cues in Advertising. http://spot.colorado.edu/~moriarts/viscueing.html

Chandler, David. Semiotics for Beginners. http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/sem01.html

Assignment 4 Applying Lighting Techniques

Assignment 4 asks for 8 photos that show the use of lighting to individually show shape, form, texture and colour in a subject. I have spent several weeks building up to this assignment and have described that process in Developing Assignment 4. That post describes the thinking and the research behind these photographs.

All the photographs in this submission are taken with off-camera Nikon Speed Lights triggered by an infrared on-camera controller. The flashguns were always set on manual rather than TTL to enable me to control their power individually.

In this submission I have included two series of photographs. The first set are from my last two shoots which used a wooden base board, a green paste board backdrop and a small selection of vegetables. The second series are from four different shoots and selected on the basis of the lighting and set-up having created the ideal environment to display each of the attributes required by this assignment.

Having spent so much time researching and exploring still life I wanted to create one final picture that represented the end of the process as well as completing the assignment.

Fig. 01 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Colour - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 01 Green Backdrop Vegetables – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 01 is that picture. The colours and the set are influenced by David C. Halliday but rather than using the natural light that he prefers I have used two lights. Both are diffused using soft boxes, one is fixed high, quite near to the left of the camera at 1/2 power. The second is high to the right at 1/8 power.

I believe that this photograph is an appropriate ending point because, although it has no vanitas symbolism, I have tried to mimic the lighting and tones of a 17th century painting thereby bringing together all the research and test shots in a single image.

Series 1 – Same Subject, Different Lighting Set-ups

Fig. 01 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Texture - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 02 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Texture – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig.02 Texture

There are still two speed lights being used but neither are diffused so that the hardest possible light is hitting the subjects. The light on the left is low and back of 90 degrees to throw light across the face of the pepper and the top of the radishes. The right hand light is back of 90 degrees and angled to put light along the backboard as well as across the mushrooms.

Fig. 03 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Form - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 03 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Form – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 03 Form

I used three speed lights. The main light on the left is at 135 degrees on 1/2 power; the fill light from the right is at 135 degrees and 1/8 power and a third light is on the right at 90 degrees at 1/32 power.

Fig. 04 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Shape - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 04 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Shape – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 04 Shape

There is one speed light in a soft box at the centre of a translucent acrylic sheet placed behind the subject and a second speed light in a soft box on the left hand side behind the acrylic sheet to stop the backdrop falling off to grey. I have consciously li the subjects and post processed to avoid a full silhouette, which I see as being inappropriate for this subject, and have left just enough light to see the shape of the carrots.

Fig. 05 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Colour - 1/60 at f/14. ISO 100

Fig. 05 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Colour – 1/60 at f/14. ISO 100

Fig. 05 Colour

I have chosen this photograph from a slightly different set-up as my first colour submission instead of fig. 01. The lighting set up is a main soft box directly overhead at 1/2 power and a fill soft box at 90 degrees from high on the left on 1/16 power.

Series 2 – Different Subjects with a variety of Lighting Set-ups

Fig. 06 White Vanitas - Colour - 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

Fig. 06 White Vanitas – Colour – 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

Fig. 06 Colour

This image was lit by two speed lights, both diffused in soft boxes. The main light was directly overhead at 1/4 power and the fill light was at 45 degrees with a honey comb grid with a frosted gel and aimed at the grapes.

This picture brings together some modern vanitas motifs and contrasts the colours of frivolous fashion items with the colours of nature. The watch reminds us that time flies.

Fig. 07 Black Vanitas - Form - 1/60 at f/16

Fig. 07 Black Vanitas – Form – 1/60 at f/16

Fig. 07 Form

This image was lit by three lights. The main light is at 135 degrees left on 1/1 power, the second is from the same angle on the right at 1/2 power (this light is specifically there to create a highlight down the left hand side of the black head. A third light is at 90 degrees left with a honeycomb grid and aimed at the skull to give that form.

There are a number of vanitas motifs used here with fashion items between a mannequin head and a skull which is filled by an industrial sized roll of cotton. the cherries and lemons represent the sweet and sour of life and the flowers symbolise the fragility of beauty.

I could have easily chosen a photo to represent colour from this shoot as the black background seems to exaggerate the colour intensity but I had found it harder to light the White Vanitas set for colour so fig. 06 was more challenging technically.

Fig. 08 Black Fruit - Texture - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 08 Black Fruit – Texture – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 08 Texture

For fig. 08 there were only two lights used, although in retrospect a third light on low power from above and behind might have worked better for the top of the melon. The lights are left and right at 90 degrees and fairly low down to try and glance the light off the fruit skins. The one on the left has a honeycomb grid fitted to direct the light at the green melon skin whereas the one on the right is in a soft box with no diffuser.

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

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

Fig. 09 Shape

The final photograph uses skulls as a classic still life, much used by Irving Penn and David Bailey who were both influential in the way I approached this assignment. the lighting is very simply a full power flashgun in a diffused soft box behind a translucent acrylic sheet behind the skulls.

Conclussions

As explained in Developing Assignment 4, I found this assignment frustrating and enjoyable in equal measure. It is a very simple assignment and I felt that it would have been too easy to take all the photos using one or two objects that included shape, form, colour and texture and to complete the project in a day or less. This might have been the intention but I wanted to use the assignment to explore the history of photographic still life, the symbolism of the 17th century painters that has carried forward into photography and to look at how contemporary photographers are approaching still life. I also took a much closer look at Irving Penn. As I worked through this research I tried different sets and different approaches and this explains why the photographs above come from multiple shoots.

The most enjoyable aspect was, without doubt, the research and then setting up shoots to test out the ideas that flowed from that research. John Szarkowski, in his introduction to Still Life: Irving Penn *(1), remarks that still life is the only form of photography where the photographer is totally in control of every element, the subject, the lighting and the technical aspects of photography and for this reason it is an appealing genre and one that I am pleased to have been introduced to. It is technically challenging and on several occasions I yearned for a large studio steaming with natural light and not to be working on the kitchen table. A few of Irving Penn’s assistants to go out and collect subjects would not have gone amiss either.

Self Assessment

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills

Technical skills are very relevant to this assignment and I have had to research and think about off-camera flash photography. Joe McNally’s two books The Moment it Clicks and The Hot Shoe Diaries were both immensely useful in this regard. I am satisfied that I make significant technical progress during this assignment, learning and implementing techniques of set-up, lighting and exposure.

However, there are still plenty of technical flaws to address at the next opportunity to work in a “studio” environment. I tend to under light the subjects and have not perfected the way to bring enough light to white backgrounds to stop the loss of exposure and the decline to grey. I understand for portrait that a light hidden behind the subject is a way of addressing this but that would not work for still life so there is still work to do here.

Quality of Outcome

I am reasonably satisfied with the outcome. I have printed each of these photographs and, whilst I can see areas where they could be improved, I am pleased with the results of a first attempt at still life.

Creativity

It took great creative energy to design the sets, which, with the complex sets, is harder than either the photography or the lighting and I feel that many of them were creative and brought together both traditional and historic ideas.

There was a lot of experimentation with different types of subjects, sets and lighting approaches and maybe a few hints of inventiveness.

This assignment does not feel as if it builds upon assignments 2 and 3 so it is difficult to comment on how it progresses the development of a voice.

Context

I took my research very directly into the sets and tried, at different times, to use the complexity and strong colours of artists such as Paulette Tavormina and Mat Collishaw, the simplicity of Irving Penn and David Bailey, the soft natural tones of David Halliday and Krista van der Niet and in parallel to the assignment tried out Simon Norfolk’s ideas in My Dad’s Stuff.

I believe that I have linked my work to both contemporary and historic photographers.

Sources

(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press

(2) McNally, Joe. (2008) The Moment it Clicks: Photography Secrets From One of the World’s Top Shooters. Berkeley: New Riders

(3) McNally, Joe. (2009) The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light From Small Flashes. Berkeley: New Riders

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.

ContactSheet-003a

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.

Sources

Books

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

Internet

(2) Weston, Edward. EdwardWeston.com – http://www.edward-weston.com/edward_weston_natural_1.htm

(3) Norfolk, Simon. SimonNorfolk.com  http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html

(4) Lippmann, Peter. Peter Lippman Official Site  http://www.peterlippmann.com/lippmann3/menu.html

(5) Davies, Dominic. Dominic Davies Official Site. http://www.dominicdavies.com/fat-duck/

 

 

Irving Penn – Still Life

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

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

On the recommendation of my tutor I acquired a copy of Irving Penn’s book Still Life *(1). Penn supervised the collation of this book and, as such, it is a revealing representation of his work. Penn is not the easiest photographer to pin down to a specific category because so much of his work was commercial and most notably for Vogue magazine from 1943 until his last contribution in 2007.

In his introduction to Sill Life John Szarkowski points out that, as a genre, still life offers the artist the greatest level of control. It is one of the few subjects where the artist controls the subject as well as the lighting, exposure, framing and final presentation. Szarkowski *(1) suggests that still life is unique in that its history is only a history of art, any other set of Iriving Penn photographs could be partly seen as a history of fashion, or of the changing landscape, or of the people who feature in his most famous work. When we look at still lifes and Irving Penn’s still lifes in particular we are reminded of the early photographers such as Fox-talbot and Daguerre and of the vast number of painters who preceded them. Like many of these artists Penn take humble subjects, pays them great attention through his approach and creates artistic representations that might alter the viewers preconceptions of that object or might just make us feel better by seeing something simple presented as beauty.

My research suggests that Penn was not a man who talked much about his work so it is not clear whether his commercial career was being parodied by his personal work or whether he saw them as quite separate streams or whether one just bled into the other. He is described as a prolific and incredibly hard working photographer who would often spend his days photographing for Vogue or Harpers Bazaar and his nights working on his own projects. Often his day job was to make the mundane beautiful or to empathise and express the obvious beauty in his subject yet in his private work he time and time again selects ordinary everyday items and creates beautiful pictures by exploring the colours, textures, shapes and forms in his elegant, minimalist still lifes.  In many ways his two worlds seem closely entwined. Fashion might appear to be an obvious channel for still life photography as stylish photographs of cosmetics, shoes and fashion accessories are now common place but Szarkowski *(1) tells us that before Penn’s first Vogue cover in 1943 he can find no copies of the magazine that feature still life in any meaningful way so, it might be said, that Penn created the first bridge between artistic still life seeped with the heritage of painting and commercial still life.

Penn is one of a significant group of photographers who are recognised as artists as well as reaching the pinnacle  of commercial photography, David Bailey would be another, and there is a common ground between them, perhaps in part because Penn was an established senior photographer at Vogue when Bailey was first making his name at the same magazine.

In their fashion and portrait photography, both Penn and Bailey had an economic style that concentrates attention on the subject and expresses their empathy with the models. When working in the world of high fashion they presented their models as women not mannequins, interestingly they both married their favourite  model, and their fashion photographs have outlasted the product they promoted leaving images of the people inside the clothes. Bailey describes his portrait style as not having one, that he was seeking “very sophisticated passport pictures” but neither his nor Penn’s style are easy to copy because their ability to see and capture the essence of the person is a highly tuned skill.

Penn said “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject dares to believe.” *(2) This could also be said of his still lifes where many of the subjects are “more wonderful” that we dare to believe.

Whether Penn felt constrained by his highly successful commercial career is a matter of conjecture but it is easy to interpret his private projects as counterpoints to the fashion industry’s obsession with youth and packaged beauty. Another easy answer to many of the photographs in Still Life or his Cranium Architecture *(3) series is that Penn was communicating by using the traditional motifs of vanitas and momento mori. Whatever his motivation might have been we are offered a remarkable collection of images in Still Life that lead us to much larger series along a variety of themes.

My perspective on the photographs in this book has changed over the last two weeks as I have been working on test shoots of assignment 4. It is only by trying to create a compelling still life that one realises that this is a highly challenging art form. As Szarkowski *(1) says, this is probably the only form of photography where the photographer has complete control over the choice and presentation of subject, the lighting, the technical aspects of the picture taking and the post production whilst this excites the artist and draws many to the form, equally it leaves the photographer nowhere to hide. This is photography with no excuses other than a shortfall of skill in one or more areas.

Penn’s range of subjects and approaches was very wide. Stationary, found objects, “classic” food ingredients including raw, frozen and cooked, vanitas motifs including musical instruments, skulls and dice, constructed sets which are best described as sculptures and many subjects linked to the fashion industry of which he was a part. There are common stylistic themes such as a simplicity of lighting and an elegance of set design combined with a formal complexity in his composition but over the many years represented by this book he switched back and forth between black and white and colour, between an emphasis on texture, a focus on shape and form and exercises in colour.

He asks us questions to which we may never know the answers. Does his extensive series of, what we would call dog-ends, represent a cycle of life from neat unused items in a pack to used and discarded rubbish in the gutter to being re-organised and painstakingly lit and photographed? Are his flowers symbolic of the fragility of nature and life or did he just see the opportunity to undertake intense studies of form and colour ? He said of the seven studies of a single type of flower each year that his lack of horticultural knowledge gave him the freedom to concentrate on colour and form and this might be the key to his work.

I sense that his still lifes were a form of release where not only did he gain the complete control of the image that would have, to some degree, been lacking in his professional career he also was able to photograph subjects, to use Eggleston’s idea, to simply see what they looked like photographed. His education and knowledge of the history of photography and art meant that vanitas motifs were naturally introduced into his sets but there may not have been a strong moralistic message.

The nearest I came to gaining an insight to his ideas was this quote: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

In the context of preparing for assignment 4 it was helpful to look at his work and try to understand how he used lighting to emphasise one or more element of each subject.

In Lavender Glory, Poppy, Vogue, 1968, *(4) , he lights a soft object with hard light against a white background to emphasise texture with deep shadows in the petal creases. It is interesting that he accepts a quite de-saturated finish with this photograph but approaches Rose, Color Wonder, Vogue, 1970, *(5), quite differently with strong colours and plenty of depth to the partially opened rose so obviously lit for colour and form.

Ripe Cheese, Vogue, 1992, *(6) is lit from above and in front for colour.

The key point is that Penn saw properties in his subjects that defined the subject so he arranged his lighting and exposure to concentrate on that property. As I have worked through test shoots for assignment 4 I have been frustrated by the idea that we should use a single subject and light it to bring out different properties. Whilst I would in no other way compare myself to Irving Penn I suspect he might have shared this frustration. In Lavender Glory he sees wonderful texture and invests himself in bringing out that feature, the apple and the cheese offer him a captivating colour contrast in Ripe Cheese so that is what he concentrates on. I do not believe that he would have then considered lighting the cheese and apple as a silhouette because that would have been pointless.

Sources

Books

(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Sill Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press

Internet

Vogue Archives. Irving Penn: Uncommon Elegance – http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/irving-penn-uncommon-elegance/#1

Masters of Photography – Irving Penn – http://www.masters-of-photography.com/P/penn/penn_articles2.html

(3) Hamilton’s Gallery – Irving Penn – http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/27-Irving-Penn/series/cranium-architecture/

New York Times – Photographer Who Broke Molds – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/arts/25iht-photog25.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(2) Hodgson, Francis. (2013) The Quizzical Chamois: Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture – http://francishodgson.com/tag/irving-penn/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2

(4) Pace Macgill Gallery – Irving Penn http://www.pacemacgill.com/selected_works/detailspage.php?artist=Irving%20Penn&img_num=123

(5) Christies – Irving Penn – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/photographs/irving-penn-rose-colour-wonder-london-1970-5494381-details.aspx

(6) We Are Selectors – Irving Penn – http://weareselecters.com/2013/10/Irving-Penn-On-Assignment/

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.

Summary

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.

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/