You’ve probably heard of still-life art, but have you heard of still-life photography? Still-life photography is one of the most underrated genres of photography, being a sub-genre of fine art photography.
If you are interested in learning about the history and art of still-life photography and generating some still-life photography ideas, you’ve come to the right place. In this post we will look at:
- Intro to still-life
- Intro to still-life photography
- Still-life photography tips
What is still-life photography?
Still-life photography stems from still-life art, which is one of the fundamental genres of Western art. The English term ‘still life’ is derived from the Dutch word stilleven, in the 17th century when still-life art was at the height of European popularity. A still-life painting is a rendering of a group of objects which are still or inanimate, designed to express an allegorical meaning.
The objects can be either man-made such as a bottle of wine, or natural, such as flowers and fruit. Still-life art can be a celebration of the material joys of life, or conversely a memento mori, expressing the temporality of human life and material pleasures. The wonderful thing about still-life art is that depending on the objects and the cultural contexts they draw from, each still-life art form will take on a unique meaning. Still-life art has existed from the 17th century until the modern-day, but in the 19th century, artists adopted photography as a new medium for still life art, to express their concepts in a novel format, and thus the still-life photo was born.
Intro to still-life photography
Still-life photography’s origins reside in the early 20th century. Art photographers emerged such as Baron Adolf de Meyer. The Baron was known for his highly artistic approach to photography, as he employed darkroom techniques and used soft-focus lenses to create photographs that looked like drawings, which was fashionable at the time.
Emil Otto Hoppé is an esteemed British photographer who is known primarily for his portrait photography and travel photography, but he also produced wonderful still-life photography in the 1920s, with a handcrafted style, comparable to Baron Adolf de Meyer’s.
Modernist still-life photography
Jumping ahead a few decades, the art genre of modernism came into being in Europe, with the two associated art movements of Dadaism and Surrealism. In the mid-twentieth century, Modernism was not a fully cohesive ideology, but rather a collection of artistic movements. What all Modernist movements have in common is a rejection of the past and the idea that they can make art objectively better by using unconventional approaches, which is what we can see when comparing early-20th Century and mid-20th Century still life-photography.
Man Ray was an American visual artist who dabbled in different art media and was a prominent figure in the Dada and Surrealist movements. Man Ray reinvented the wheel when it came to still-life photography. He pioneered innovative techniques in photography, and he also took new approaches to still-life.
Man Ray’s Dead Leaf (1942) is an excellent example of modern still-life photography. Dissimilar to Man Ray’s other art, this photograph appears to be very straightforward; a photograph of a dead castor bean leaf on wood; bringing the traditional Dutch memento mori motif into modernity; the traditional Dutch artwork reimagined in photography. However, the dark, foreboding and poignant image is not characteristic of Man Ray’s repertoire.
Furthermore, in the caption for the image, he wrote that ‘the dying leaf would be completely gone tomorrow.’ Some art historians attribute Man Ray’s morose attitude expressed in Dead Leaf to his disenchantment with his career, due to his lack of recognition and financial success in Los Angeles, and his anxiety that his work that remained in France would be destroyed in World War II.
Contemporary still-life photography
Fast-forward to the 21st Century and many photographers working today are continuing in the tradition of Man Ray and representing still-life in their photographic art, with many excellent examples of still-life photography to look at.
Sharon Core is an American photographer who has produced an impressive collection of still-life photographs. Her work uses historical-artistic conventions of still-life in her work to explore the themes of collective memory, authenticity and authorship, and the interplay between photographic truth and illusion. Core came into recognition when she recreated painter Wayne Thiebaud’s pop-art dessert tableaux.
Tatiana Skorokhod is a photographer from Kyiv, Ukraine, who photographs as a hobby. You wouldn’t know it from her still-life photographs of floral arrangements which look like renaissance paintings. Skorokhod has a superbly artistic eye and is highly skilled at composition.
Mat Collishaw is a British artist and photographer, who has produced still-life photographs. His series Last Meal on Death Row (2012) recreates the menus requested by men on death row, after the killer Russell Brewer requested ten items and then ate none of them, prompting the state of Texas to stop offering death row inmates last meals. Collishaw’s art often explores the duality of humanity, in-between life, and death. His eerie memento moris evoke memories of the Dutch paintings, and remind us of the fragility and ephemerality of human life, causing the viewer to question the value of our decadent pleasures.
Still-life photography tips
As you can see, still-life photography is not just taking a photo of a bowl of fruit – it is far more complex than it seems. A lot of consideration goes into still-life photography, including designs for the concept, set-up, and composition, as well as the technical skills required to make your photographs look great. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Keep your still-life photography simple. Especially when you’re beginning as a still-life photographer, you want your subject to be easily identifiable to express your concepts clearly. Don’t overcrowd your image with too many objects.
- Details are everything. Still-life photographs are very clean – you want all of the finer details to be in order. Make sure there are no smudges and visible specks of dust ruining the image.
- Experiment with your composition. Many still-life photographers begin their practice with a vision for their art, but it doesn’t always go according to plan. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the composition and move your objects for different leading lines to see how they direct the eye differently, and whether you like this effect.
- Avoid shiny surfaces. Shiny surfaces are reflective, making them difficult to work with. Try to avoid them as reflections can compromise your image.
We hope you enjoyed our introduction to still-life photography! You may also enjoy our article on the art of sports photography.
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