This section of the galleries to view have what most folks would call “Still Life” but I like calling plant life “Living Stills”, hence the name. Sharing selected sweet quotes by some of the best master photographers the world has ever known.
It was in the 1920s, when nobody had time to reflect, that I saw a still-life painting with a flower that was perfectly exquisite, but so small you really could not appreciate it.
To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
I didn’t want to tell the tree or weed what it was. I wanted it to tell me something and through me express its meaning in nature.
The love for still life photography goes way back in my career and why has never really mattered. I enjoy looking and seeking out things in my environment lit with awe inspiring light that compels me to photograph. Light can take your breath away momentarily, only to give you joy later to relive a moment in your minds eye. Its not often one finds an article written on still life photography, today was my lucky day I fond one to share.
There used to be a hierarchy. At the top were historic grand narratives of religious or temporal events: big paintings of Roman heroes and famous battles. Pretty much at the bottom was the humble depiction of everyday stuff: still life.
The still life is democratic; anyone can do it. Pick up a pencil and draw your lunch, as the cartoonist Robert Crumb ritualistically does. Or take your camera and survey the ordinary things around you. Click the shutter on a bunch of grapes or a bottle of ketchup. Is that a still life?
Clearly it is more complicated than that. Or is it? The photographs of Wolfgang Tillmans appear to be genuinely random and casual, as seen in this image: Still Life, Grays Inn Road I (1999) (main image). This Turner prizewinning artist uses his camera to keep an ever-changing diary. He pins his pictures up for exhibitions as if they were on a kitchen noticeboard. They include shots of flowers, keys and whatever else happens to be around, juxtaposed with portraits of friends. The way Tillmans photographs his everyday material surroundings is so convincingly spontaneous that “still life” seems too formal a term to describe it. But why? Surely Tillmans is a major artist of the still life.
Old Perspectives, New Ideas
Edward Weston’s Nautilus, (1927). Photograph: Edward Weston/PR NewswireBear in mind the low status that was once allotted by the art establishment to still life. The reason this is worth remembering is that the term has taken on an almost pretentious quality nowadays. Far from suggesting something humble, it implies something grand and serious. Edward Weston’s exquisitely beautiful black and white photographs, such as his Nautilus (1927) (left), aspire boldly to be art. Weston sculpts form with light. He has an ability to make a photographic print look as pure and precise in its beauty as a marble statue by Canova. But for all his brilliance, Weston embodies a dangerous myth about still life. He was an artist who came of age in the 1900s, in the glory days of high modernism. He took his photographs at a time when the revolutionary ideas of modern painting were being popularised. His noble, austere, difficult ideal of the modernist still life translates the paintings of Cézanne and de Chirico into photography.The ideal we have inherited from these modernists raises the still life from zero to hero. From the humblest art it becomes a metaphysical exploration of reality that is arguably the most profound of all modern art forms. Jasper Johns when he painted a flag, Damien Hirst when he pickled a shark, were aspiring to join that avant garde tradition of the philosophical still life.
Is this how a photographer should approach still life? Should you be looking for metaphysical bananas, or arranging dead butterflies on a table to take an artistic picture of death? Is the still life, as some might say, essentially a vanitas, or emblem of mortality? Should you put a skull beside that array of nice food?
At its best, the metaphysical still life can work powerfully in art photography, but the recipe for a more truthful approach to still life photography can be found in the older tradition of still life painting – in the days when it was despised by the elite.
Caravaggio’s A Basket of Fruit (c 1599). Photograph: The Bridgeman Art Library
In the 18th century, when history painting ruled and still life was considered minor, the name of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was forgotten. Today, however, his work is universally popular – and this has a lot to do with the “photographic” qualities of his work. Caravaggio’s painting A Basket of Fruit (c 1599) that hangs in the Ambrosiana gallery in Milan is revered as the greatest still life in the world (above). It’s said an ancient Greek painter called Zeuxis once depicted a bunch of grapes so realistically that birds came down to peck at the illusory fruit. That painting no longer exists, but Caravaggio’s painting makes such miracles seem possible. The basket of moist, shiny, hallucinatory fruit balances on the edge of a table, forever on the brink of tottering over, falling out of the canvas and into our dimension. Mastering the Craft
Mastering the Craft
Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, 1601. Photograph: From Caravaggio and Rembrandt exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Caravaggio had an astonishing gift for depicting nature, but flowers and fruit were seen as trivial themes in baroque Italy. So he often had to incorporate his observations of the material world into narrative paintings – like his eerie Supper at Emmaus (above) – to get ahead.
Look closely at the food on this table and you’ll see how lighting and shadow animate and dramatise the relationships between fruits in the basket. The variety of forms and textures – such as the opened red flesh of a pomegranate, or the dusty skin of a grape – are acutely revealed by their juxtapositions.
These techniques can be emulated by any photographer: arrange a rich, suggestive scene, then carefully set up the lighting. Yet Caravaggio’s lesson is more subtle than it might seem. Even though his art has that “photographic” realism – and the artist and art historian David Hockney even argues that he used a camera obscura to compose his images – many still life photographs miss out on his deepest insight.
Compare his painting of a basket of fruit with photographs on the covers of food books and in food magazines. Determined to capture the lush colours of fish scales, artichokes and even wooden tabletops in the best light possible, they end up being kitchen glamour shots rather than still life pictures.
Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin
Jonathan Lovekin’s photographs in the Observer and elsewhere are good examples of how to depict food in a more Caravaggesque way: the trick is to reveal the rich colours and contrasts and spicy textures without over-lighting the scene (left). Just as Caravaggio’s light sources were high windows in Roman palaces, Lovekin often lets cool sunlight creep in to his peculiarly British scenes.
Caravaggio’s revelation is that the truth of objects is more fascinating than any beautified fantasy. Where is the art? It is in the loving observation of truth – with a camera as much as in paint. And yet for Caravaggio, that knowledge leads to pathos as well as poetry. There are signs of rot among his fruits. Opened fruits suggest sex and death. Bruises evoke his violent world. All that deeper meaning comes from observation.
The Art of Simple Observation
Ori Gersht’s Time after Time, Blow Up No. 05, 2007. Photograph: Ori Gersht/Courtesy Mummery + Schnelle
Start with simplicity and profundity will come. The Israel-born artist Ori Gersht has created powerful photographic still life images that are eerily precise. His Blow Up: Untitled 5, for instance, casts a keen eye on the colours and textures of flowers by freezing them with liquid nitrogen – so that even as he explodes the arrangement and photographs its destruction, shards of red, blue and white petals reveal their natural beauty (left). Simple observation leads to a rich and dark art of fragility and violence.
In the still life, the extraordinary is found in the ordinary.
Jonathan Jones – The Guardian,