Throughout the darkest days of the pandemic I spent time trying to understand historical and contemporary practices of still life photography and painting. This led me to my own experiments with still life photography. Although I’d love to be able to gracefully happen upon compelling ‘found’ still life compositions, just by having a camera ready at all times, I’m drawn to the reflective processes of selecting and setting up objects, working with colour, form, perspective, depth of field and of course light. There’s also the problem of choosing and setting up tables and backdrops which are almost as important as the objects themselves, something I underestimated in the early experimental phase. I decided from the beginning to work only with natural light and am fortunate to be able to set up my compositions in two domestic locations, one with a fairly even north light, the other with a south facing, less unpredictable but wonderfully diffused light, especially in a short window during the Scottish spring and autumn.
By way of research I began with a close look at the Dutch still life painters of the 17th century. I can never have enough of that period, be it still life, landscape or domestic interiors. This led me to more modern painters like Nicholas de Stael, Pierre Lesieur and Giorgio Morandi. In photography I was particularly interested in the work of Josef Sudek, Laura Letinsky and Andrea Modica. I could go on at length about the work of these artists.
There’s a lot of literature on still life painting and photography but two books in particular helped me understand the deeper mechanics of still life art. Svetlana Alpers’ The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century is a book to be read and re-read. Then there’s Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked: 4 essays on still life paintings who came at the subject from some very interesting perspectives. I’ll quote, paraphrase and comment freely upon some of the points that struck me.
The removal of the human body is the founding move of still life. The same of course could be said about nearly all landscape photography and painting. Obvious yes, but I’m led to ask why.
Bryson then introduces the notion of still life as an investigation of rhopography (the big word for little things) from rhopos - trivial objects, the discarded and useless, things excluded and passed over. In this I find parallels with some contemporary musical and sonic practices, some of which have been at the core of my own works over the year, for example musique concrète which often seeks out disused, found and forgotten objects for their sonic properties. One could also find some common ground within musique brut, arguably the sonic equivalent of arte povera.
Attention itself gains power to transfigure the commonplace. I understand this to mean that we have to spend time with still life, to slow down and pay attention, to allow the transfiguration to take place or emerge. Again, parallels with many of the musical and sonic practices that interest me.
Bryson makes the argument that there’s a disinclination (in early still life painting) to portray the world beyond the far end of the table. A lot could be made of this in terms of frame, content and concept. In my early fumblings I struggled not only with the table itself but found myself in the midst of heated conversations between the focal length of lenses, angles of shot, table size and orientation. I still have some way to go to resolve these conflicts. This is of course unique to photography - painters can design their backgrounds and angles in an infinite variety of ways.
Objects are made to appear unreal or unfamiliar. This becomes apparent the longer you gaze at paintings in particular. In my recent series Evidence I’ve found myself tapping into this tradition in a more immediate manner by masking objects (disused, forgotten and found) in what look like forensic evidence bags.
Cultural memory, an authentically civilised world. This fascinates me, if we extend to the idea that the best evidence of civilisation, the memories of past civilisations, are most often manifested in the objects left behind. And that these might be the humble objects of domesticity.