Paul Martineau: The “Still Life” in Photography

“Stopping Time” by Harold Edgerton.

Would you call this Edgerton photograph a “still life?”

“A Hunting Scene,” by Adolphe Braun ca. 1867.

What about this one by Adolphe Braun?

A recently closed exhibition at the Getty Museum explores the history of the genre of the photographic “still life” in an intimate single room gallery that concentrates on 26 images. A companion book extends that examination to 80 images with an accompanying essay by the show’s curator, Paul Martineau. The exhibition In Focus: Still Life is the seventh in an ongoing series of thematic shows with works drawn from the Getty’s permanent collection. Its varied subjects and styles present a broader perspective of the genre than is usually attempted. A look at the “still life” in this week’s essay (I will, in fact, be leaving it up for the next two weeks) will also offer images not featured in the Getty exhibition: my own effort to explore the definition a bit further.

Cover of Getty catalog, “Bowl with Sugar Cubes,” by Andre Kertesz, 1928.

Amazon.com—Still Life in Photography link

The term “still life’ comes from the Dutch “stilleven.” Wikipedia attempts a rather comprehensive definition:

Still life (plural still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which may be either natural (food, flowers, plants, rocks, or shells) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, and so on). With origins in the Middle Ages and Ancient Greek/Roman art, still life paintings give the artist more leeway in the arrangement of design elements within a composition than do paintings of other types of subjects such as landscape or portraiture. Still life paintings, particularly before 1700, often contained religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted.

The French prefer the term “nature morte,” a definition that seems more precise, if more limiting. The subject parameters of  the term “still life” remained constant in painting through many centuries. It was the development of photography that began to break down this definition; photography freed painting from the onus of mere representation by pushing against the boundaries of realistic space. It is no accident that Cezanne and then the Cubists focused much of their experimentation on the genre of still life in order to completely deconstruct depiction of the real world.

Of technical necessity, the earliest photographs were not just still—they were of totally static objects. The first major album of photographs was Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844). Plate VI, titled The Open Door is also a still life of a broom.

“The Open Door,” from “The Pencil of Nature” by William Henry Fox Talbot.

Martineau discusses still life images in the work of early photo masters:

Still life was a practical choice because exposure times were measured in minutes and not seconds. Objects could be set up in the studio or in a sunny location outdoors convenient to the darkroom [a necessity for wet plate photography].

The Adolphe Braun hunting scene above, from 1867, conforms to the long tradition of painterly still life subjects. Martineau places it squarely in the mainstream of painting still life by comparing it to the paintings of Jean-Simeon Chardin.

“Still Life with Glass Flask and Fruit,” by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, c. 1750.

The first photo in this essay, Stopping Time, by scientist/photographer Harold Edgerton, exemplifies how the boundaries of the genre were being re-defined by the ever-changing intersection of photography and science. Edgerton’s high speed strobes of a bullet piercing an apple does, however, fit nicely into one of the revered tropes of the “still life,” a sense of vanitas, of the mutability and fragility of life— of the presence of death. It is, in fact, a high-tech meditation on the “nature morte” image of decaying fruit and animals that so inhabit the history of the genre. In this sense, one could argue that Edgerton’s photo, as much as the Braun photo of the dead boar, is a classic “still life.”

The English photographer Roger Fenton is mainly known for his images of the Crimean War. But his 1860 Still Life with Fruit and Decanter is a world away from the horrors of the battlefield.

“Still Life with Fruit and Decanter,” by Roger Fenton,1860.

Martineau, however, finds a sense of movement even in this classic “still life.”

Diagonal axes created by the pineapple and drape, and by the gourd and berry basket, help to add dynamism and depth to this lavish composition.

It is precisely these internal, dynamic vectors in a seeming still image that will become a near constant in 20th century photographic still lives.

One of the most sought after tasks in early photography was the cataloging of works of art. The finest of these photographers were able to turn this apparent drudge labor meant for archiving into independent works of art. This theme endured throughout the 20th century as well. Paul Strand’s photos of African masks and Robert Mapplethorpe’s of Grecian busts are highly sought after examples of the artists’ work. The contours of the concept of “still life” in photography become more frayed even as we look. How should we evaluate Fox Talbot’s Articles of China from 1844?

“Articles of China,” by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1844.

Is it simply a record of found objects in a cabinet in his home? Or is there a more subtle selection of balance and form?

The commercial work of Paul Outerbridge, a master of the 3-color carbro printing process in the 1930s, reflects his near obsessive attention to detail. This window box of succulents and cacti, made for the magazine House Beautiful, with its painted winter backdrop, is only one example of his meticulous craftsmanship.

“Cactus Window Display,” Paul Outerbridge.

In 1951, Bill Owens documented post-war working class America in his book Suburbia. Years later, he made this image titled Joy of Cooking. Is it a found readymade or is it a bizarre congery of foods? A close examination of the shelves doesn’t exhibit compelling cooking logic; does it possibly suggest the artist’s unseen hand? The Leary family from The Accidental Tourist shelved their food in alphabetical order.

“Joy of Cooking,” by Bill Owens, 1971.

There can be no doubt about the selection and placement of objects in Thomas Richard Williams’ allegorical The Sands of Time from 1852. It’s 3-D rendering of the most obvious tropes of time and death must have made a disturbing impression on the viewer whose eyes fused the two images into one by means of a wooden viewer. This highly constructed tableau seems to augur the passing of time itself.

“The Sands of Time,” by Thomas Richard Williams, 1850-52.

How much time might Irving Penn have spent in arranging this photo, Findings, his collection of cigarette butts from a NYC street gutter? Or were these unsavory leavings simply dumped onto the table?

“Findings,” by Irving Penn.

Several decades ago, I saw a show in a 57th Street gallery of Penn’s street detritus: cigarette butts, packages, crumpled and soiled paper cups, frayed gloves (a vanitas memento mori?) The objects in these large-scale platinum prints may have been retrieved by the artist mere steps away from his chic gallery.

Advertising discovered a goldmine in photography, at first as the simple illustrations of items in a mail order catalog. But, by the early 1920s, advertising photography had begun to intersect with the most avant-garde ideas in art. Former art photographers such as Edward Steichen became much in demand commercial photographers for magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue. Whether the compositional conceits of painterly Cubism influenced photography as a one-way street or whether there was extensive cross-fertilization, is a topic one can debate.

Paul Wolff and Alfred Tritschler’s Shirt Collars from 1930 embodies a fractured perspective of its subject, much like a Braque or Gris Cubist painting.

“Shirt Collars,” by Paul Wolff and Alfred Tritschler, 1930.

Paul Outerbridge’s earlier (1922) photograph for the Ide Collar Company was so true a surrealist object that when Man Ray introduced Outerbridge to Marcel Duchamp in his Paris studio, Outerbridge spotted a tear sheet of the Ide Collar Vanity Fair ad pinned to Duchamp’s studio wall.

“Ide Collar,” by Paul Outerbridge, 1922.

Outerbridge was an aesthete par excellence; when he is said to have entered a competition with Edward Steichen about how best to photograph an egg (a subject Outerbridge had done hundred of times as light and composition studies), this is the final entry that Steichen presented to him.

“Triumph of the Egg,” photo by Edward Steichen, 1921.

Outerbridge’s response (below) is said to have put the lid on the competition— a sort of “trompe d’oeuf.”

“The Triumph of the Egg,” photo by Paul Outerbridge, 1921.

Decades later Irving Penn created a series of still lives of frozen food, a veritable Triumph of the Frozen Veggies.

“Frozen Vegetables,” by Irving Penn.

There are still lives that rise beyond either commercial work or aesthetic experimentation into a position of singular meaning for the artist, either as emblematic of the artist’s personal convictions or as stand-in for the artist himself.

Tina Modotti, one time silent film actress and lover in Mexico of Edward Weston, became a prominent photographer in her own right. Unlike Weston, she was politically engaged in the ideals of the Mexican revolution. Her lover after Weston was Julio Antonio Mella; she passionately adopted his revolutionary Communist fervor.

“Mexican Sombrero,” by Tina Modotti.

The American modernist Paul Strand, like Weston a proponent of “straight photography,” abandoned still photography in the early 1920s. He bought an Ackley motion picture camera and spent the next several decades also working as a documentary cinematographer. A series of photos of the internal movement of his new 35mm. motion picture camera became a metaphor for the artist himself.

“Ackley Camera,” by Paul Strand.

Objects seen at and through windows are a much beloved and mesmerizing theme of the still life genre. Andre Kertesz, late in life, photographed hundreds of objects with his Polaroid SX-70 camera: simple but eloquent meditations on the windowsills of his 5th Avenue apartment overlooking Washington Square Park. Likewise, the Czech photographer Josef Sudek spent much of his life photographing at his studio windows. Having lost his right arm in WWI, it was difficult for him to wander far afield, the limits of his sojourns being Prague’s parks and gardens. Here is his simple study of the humble egg, a contrast with Outerbridge’s ovate apotheosis.

“Bowl and Egg in Window,” by Josef Sudek.

A year ago February, I posted an essay on the window still lives of both Kertesz and Sudek:

John’s Bailiwick—“From My Window”: The Late Work of André Kertész and Josef Sudek link

The parameters of the “still life” are easily defined in the images presented so far, even though technology has tugged at its comfortable corners. But here is another window image, taken by the great French flaneur and archivist of vanishing Paris, Eugene Atget.

“Storefront, Avenue des Gobelins,” by Eugene Atget, 1925.

True, there are no living figures here (unless you can see the photographer’s legs between the two mannequins on the right). So it can’t rightfully be labeled “portraiture.” And, yes, the mannequin subjects are “inanimate”—an oft cited requirement of “still life.”

Martineau explains the difficulty in assigning rigid parameters to the still life:

The use of the camera to photograph scenes that incorporated elements of still life and landscape (whether they were stumbled upon or were the result of elaborate arrangement) eventually led to the blurring of boundaries between the two genres during the twentieth century.

So, if landscape and still life merge in the street photography of artists like Atget, what about this photograph by the color master William Eggleston?

“Untitled,” by William Eggleston.

It certainly embodies many of the design and tonal elements of “still life.” But, it is a living human leg, not a “nature morte.” This is worth considering from the point of view of the artist himself. If you search through the thousands of images in the several dozen books that Eggleston has published, you will find few human portraits. Much of what could be considered portraiture is highly abstracted, such as the image above. Except in his freakish B/W videos Eggleston almost avoids the human figure, especially the full front on face. Does that make this photo a still life by default or by intention?

Genre categories are, of course, pretty arbitrary: attempted definitions creating more confusion than clarity. Yet, there is such a qualitative difference between photographing the complex interplay of emotions on a human face and the more reductive “thing-ness” of still lives. To further complicate the question, here is another Eggleston.

“Untitled,” by William Eggleston.

Is it more of a still life than a landscape? If a still life, is it more or less so  than the Atget?

Several months ago, when filming in Anchorage, I was walking along 5th Avenue, headed back to the Captain Cook Hotel. Passing in front of the Anchorage Brew House, I spotted a small vitrine set in the outer brick wall. The vitrine contents looked more like a photograph hanging on a gallery wall. I passed by, then backtracked and took this photo.

“The Red Shoes,” by blog author.

I had just returned from an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s art at the Anchorage Art Museum. There had been examples of Warhol’s early commercial drawings, including ones for shoes. Warhol loved drawing shoes. Worn-out shoes are often considered to be special metaphors for the spirit of the absent owner. I have seen many conflict/war photographs of empty shoes that bear witness to their slain wearers. Talk about momento mori. But what also caught my eye and compelled me to take this photo was the presentation of these red shoes. (For the moment let’s forget The Wizard of Oz or The Red Shoes.) The shoes were in a glass case presented at an angle no human legs save a ballerina could execute ; the vitrine’s backing was an embossed silvered metal, much like a New Orleans tin ceiling. The encased presentation looked both fetishistic and religious, as though the shoes were a sacred relic housed in a glass tabernacle… So much for a casual snapshot en passant. Still lives can be detailed, even arduous constructions done in the artist’s studio as haunting juxtapositions of unlikely materials— such as the Outerbridge Ide Collar. Or they can be a grabbed instant of perception like the one I made of the shoes.

There is a fascinating documentary film about Eggleston titled, William Eggleston in the Real World.

“William Eggleston in the Real World” DVD.

Amazon.com—William Eggleston in the Real World link

There must be an irony to that title, as the “world” we see Eggleston wander through is largely one of empty streets and unpeopled storefronts. The documentary camera follows him as he strolls seemingly without purpose, until we see almost at the very moment that he does—an “Eggleston.” The shutter clicks a few times and he moves on.

The snapshot aesthetic seems to loom large in his work but the intense chromatic density of his photographs reveals an eye that instantly perceives and extracts the emblematic inside the mundane. His vision has taught me much, how to search out a kind of drama, a hidden existential narrative, in the quotidian.

Several weeks ago, I had lunch with a film friend; we were seated at the restaurant’s window table, which had a pure white tablecloth. The light was a soft north light. I was sitting alone after drinking a cup of coffee, waiting for her return from the restroom. The coffee-stained interior of the cup suddenly caught my eye against the white corner of the tablecloth and the black void beyond it. I reached for my iPhone and took this shot. Nothing was set or planned. The moment just seemed pregnant with solitude.

“A Coffee after lunch,” by blog author.

As elemental and spontaneous as the coffee cup photo may be, here is one that is chock-a-block with stylized, formalized objects and color.

“Glasses and Dice,” CGI photo.

This still life was made in 2006. I don’t know the artist or artists; they are not credited on the site where I found it. Nor is the camera—because it is camera-less. The “photo” is a computer-generated image, seemingly made to illustrate the dimensional and textural prowess of CGI. It is hyper-realistic and, to me, totally lifeless, artless, inert. It evokes no sense of human presence—or any need of one. It is a pure “construct.”

Conversely, here is a still life that records the presence of a human, not just in the outline of the hands pulling the tablecloth, but also in the very creation of the image itself. It is a chrono-photograph, an action frozen in that instant before destruction occurs. Everything is askew, unstable—from the blurred dishes to the ones tottering in suspension at the table’s front edge.

“Dish Trick,” by JoAnne Callis, 1985.

The photographer, JoAnne Callis, was influenced both by Outerbridge and Eggleston. Even though the image lives in the stylistic tics of its time (1985)—a record of process rather than a static event, it seems timeless in its painterly color palette and chiaroscuro. It is both chaotic and classic.

Frozen movement became a theme of photography as soon as Eadward Muybridge was able to begin his locomotion studies of animals and humans. It has been enduring.

Alexey Titarenko created time-pictures of the citizens of St. Petersburg in a series called City of Shadows. I don’t know what genre you would call this photograph but it is not portraiture (though the subjects are masses of people), nor is it clearly a landscape. Does it somehow squeeze into still life, given the massed darkness?

“City of Shadows,” by Alexey Titarenko.

On the opposite side of the photo-time spectrum  from Titarenko, Israeli photographer Ori Gersht totally “explodes” the term “still life” in his photograph Blow Up: Untitled 15.

“Blow Up: Untitled 15,” by Ori Gersht, 2007.

Martineau explains the technique:

The [floral] arrangements are frozen, then exploded, and the explosion is photographed using a bank of synchronized digital cameras, with the fragmentary detritus caught instantaneously in remarkable detail… the two photographs capture the action at different moments in time and from two vantage points.

A verifiable frozen still life is this photo of two Pepsi machines, side by side during a recent snowstorm. It was made by Jehad Nga in the Arctic village of Barrow, Alaska. Nga’s normal perimeter of work is Eastern Africa, a parched and violent land. Most of his work for the NY Times documents the human condition in the Third World. This is his rendering of a First World totem.

“Snow Pepsi,” by Jehad Nga, 2010.

Writing apiece on the genre of “still life” may seem a bit anomalous if you read these essays regularly. It is no secret that my own interests in photography embrace the rigors and challenges of conflict and war photojournalism (work that is by definition dynamic and chaotic)  in the work of people like Nachtwey, Silva, Hetherington, Peress, Gilbertson, Nga—and Lynsey Addario, whose work I will feature soon.

A friend once accused me of being drawn to an appreciation of this tough work for the simple reason that I had strongly resisted military service during the Vietnam War, as though my later interest was some sort of symbolic military service manqué. True enough, the cinematography of motion pictures is not unlike waging war, if only in the scale and amount of equipment and personnel demanded to accomplish our goals. Our own lives, however, are never on the line—the risks we experience are only in the fictive narrative we present onscreen, with the car crashes and explosions, the mechanical and bionic monsters, and the insistent gunplay that are the stock in trade of most films today, as feeble avatars of the real life dangers of conflict. No matter how chaotic the day is on set, we go home at night to home or hotel, secure that, God willing, we will be alive in the morning to do it again. Recent events in Libya once again remind us of the risks borne by these photojournalists.

The lure of “still life” photography for cinematographers can be considerable. Most of what we  are mandated to do is create flattering close-up portraits of actors which may or may not bear much resemblance to their real life selves. (Thus, the still life genre in our personal photography can be an alternative mode of self-expression, one freed from commercial dictates.)

In some ways, the actor close-ups we create in movies are high-end versions of portrait studio headshots—except that they talk. One difference is that our photo backdrops are not mottled cloths or painted backings—but some simulacrum of the real world. Most of the other images we create as “still lives” are labeled with the condescending term “inserts.” The fact is that many of today’s most gifted filmmakers express much of their emotional and narrative message in these “insert” images that are powerfully expressive still lives. These images, absent human faces, often forge a narrative that enhances or even questions the up-front tenor of the actor’s dialogue.

Powerfully conceived and dramatically rendered “inserts” are tools that filmmakers increasingly evoke. In a cultural milieu that seems increasingly hostile to well crafted dialogue, it may be our new language.

Insert Shot from “Days of Heaven,” 1976.

Labels such as “still life” may be both limiting and disingenuous. I’m not trying to explicate or defend any thesis here– but I would love to hear what your thoughts are, and an open dialogue for the next two weeks.

This Monday, a look at the photojournalism of Lynsey Addario, recently freed along with three colleagues from detention in Libya.

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.

Comments

  1. Colleen Farrell

    Superb essay! You raise many of the same questions I’ve struggled with in my photography. Thank you for this thoughtful and enlightening post.

    Reply
  2. Richard Walden

    I have rarely liked still life paintings in what I consider the traditional view, dead animals, some anaemic fruit on a table, a bowl of gruel etc. However this essay made me think again because I am familiar with seeing the still life as only very old paintings of the previously mentioned subject matter or regarding them as tedious exercises in drawing for art classes.

    I generally like still life photographs and have shot many for my own pleasure or as inserts for a film, but I don’t think of them in the same way as I do with paintings and drawings. I am seeing the genre in a new light.

    Oddly enough I was recently in a Vancouver restaurant that had a large painting of the “Ide Collar,” photograph by Paul Outerbridge, hanging in the lounge area of the restaurant. Unfortunately none of the employees I asked knew anything about the painting or who the artist was.

    Reply
  3. juan namnun

    the final shot of this piece of an exceptional essay on this very well written and meaningful blog (the insert of “Days of heavens”) was surely a relief as i was (while reading and enjoying) starting to feel that maybe cinema as not yet reach the high peaks that painting and photography conquers…the works of Terrence Malick (as those also of Ingmar Bergman, an essay i await eagerly) helps us remind that while a lot of movies of today (or from any time) are trite, there are still people gifted with the capacity of showing that true is also beautiful. does anybody know who shot that field of wheat?: Paul Ryan, Mr. Wexler or the blog author maybe?

    Reply

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