Whether it’s the food paintings on the interiors of the ancient Egyptian tombs or the imagery of barber shops on the walls of Pompeii, still life seems to have been part of depicting human history for as long as there were portraiture and landscape. Trying to capture the world around them, people drew both natural and man-made things, everything from flowers, animals, rocks and shells to drinking glasses, books, jewellery, and today their works stand as the priceless testimony to the rich history of our kind. Before long, they also became works of art, for their extraordinary ability to transmit a feeling through a non-living thing, and with such artistic skill. During the Renaissance, the Dutch and Flemish painting masters introduced us to objects in a whole new light, quite literally, influencing entire generations of artists to come. Among them, of course, there were photographers, as still life photography is one of the medium’s most common genres, and one of the crucial ones for its development.
Because still lifes are in fact “still”, they became photography’s favourite subject back in its earliest days. Soon after the creation of the first ever photograph in 1839, it was convenient for pioneer photographers to take pictures of something that’s not moving. The reason was simple and technical enough: exposures were fairly long, so long it even took days for an image to come to life, so an inanimate object was perfect for the occasion. These works tended to resemble still lifes depicted in paintings, so much they even used the same objects and arrangements. As the photographic camera improved, still life was no longer a necessity, but it nevertheless remained one of the most attempted types of photo-making. Today, this kind of photography mostly lives in form of advertising shots, as their demand on the market is quite high, but its existence in terms of the arts certainly did not go cease either, as many photographers still do it for pure aesthetic reasons, for instance.
It is often said that, when it comes to still life photography, its artists don’t really take the photo, rather they make one. Being the exact opposite of street photography, or even the landscape one, still life provides complete control over what’s going to happen within the frame, from composition, to lighting, colors, mood, even the subject itself. Because setting it all up can look like a big thing, most newbie photographers by default believe they should take their pictures in a professional studio, which is not always the right thing to do. The studio can provide everything you need, that’s true, but it’s surely not a crime to take a picture using daylight or sunlight - which is what you sometimes tend to create with artificial lights anyway. Still life photography essentially comes down to the study of lighting, the way rays of it interact with your object, create or eliminate shadows, and help you tell its story. Depending on your object’s surface, shape and size, the light can have different effects on it, so the best way to start is to just experiment with it all. And not just with that - like in photography in general, it’s all about the point of view, the focus of your image, the right colors and an eye-catching interaction between the subjects within your photograph, but also between the photograph and its viewers.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that another crucial element of still life photography is the composition. Think of the great product shots out there - the photographer’s job is to create a captivating image that will hold the attention of the product’s potential buyer and, in a way, “lure” them in to actually buy it. In this sense, commercial photographers have a more precise contexts to work with when making a picture, but this certainly does not fetter their imagination - it simply gives it a certain direction. A dynamite arrangement, however, can also apply to the photograph you’ve been meaning to create in your own room, using bedpost lamps and a flower vase, although you can move around it much more freely. Like a painter before a blank canvas, it is completely up to you to decide what goes in the picture, whether it will have a context or have a story at all, and how much of your frame would be taken up by the object. Among all photography genres, still life perhaps offers the greatest deal of artistic freedom.
If we put aside very modern-day technologies of image-creation, such as CGI or 3D modelling, still life photography is often referred to as one of the best solutions for visual marketing today. The job of a photographer working in the field usually consists of creating advertising campaigns, in collaboration with entire creative teams, agencies and the client themselves. The artistic style of the photographer is of an immense importance - in a certain way, it has to match the identity of the brand they work for. The creation of a product shot involves many graphic guidelines, and is very often based on market research and trends. Another important factor is the client’s budget for the photoshoot, which requires a different kind of creativity on set and the ability to work with what you got. Let’s not forget that post-production makes up a large percentage of commercial still life photography, although nowadays this stands as a different kind of profession. With everyone having a product to sell, the job of an advertising photographer became quite lucrative too, as those skilled in all the above-mentioned areas seem to have become a rarity, in an age when anyone can take a picture with their smartphone. But once everything falls in place, we get brilliant advertising campaigns
Editors’ Tip: Still Life in Photography
This volume surveys some of the innovative ways photographers have explored the traditional genre of still life from photography’s earliest years to the present day. The introductory essay is followed by an illuminating sequence and juxtaposition of plates selected from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection. Still life has served as both a conventional and an experimental form during periods of significant aesthetic and technological change. Illustrating that here are nineteenth-century masterpieces by practitioners such as Hippolyte Bayard and Roger Fenton, twentieth-century examples that include the diverse styles of Baron Adolph de Meyer, Irving Penn, and Edward Weston, and a sampling of contemporary artists, some recalling styles from the past. The current revival of interest in the genre comes as the digital age is transforming the medium.
Over the course of the rich history of photography, many of its notable artists have produced spectacular still life imagery, some of which can hardly ever be recreated by anyone. Their strong visual impact and the marvellous depiction of the essence of the aesthetics have set a rather high standard in image-making in general, and has shown how a simple object can cause something very close to the Stendhal syndrome, if not the syndrome itself. Just think of Edward Weston’s vegetables and seashells, their breathtaking texture and splendid form; the flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe, in all their sensuality and sophisticated rawness; the homage to the Renaissance by a more contemporary master, Paulette Tavormina, with her table settings which make us look twice. And what about Man Ray’s surrealism photography, or the early experiments of André Kertész? These stand as fine examples, and there will be many more in the future, as the world continues to inspire artists in a beautiful variety of ways.
Featured images in slider: Paulette Tavormina - Crabs and Lemons, After PC , 2009; Robert Mapplethorpe - Calla, 1984; Albert Renger-Patsch - Glasses, 1927; Delphine Burtin - Untitled (Encouble 15), 2013. All images used for illustrative purposes only.