Thursday, 27 February 2014

Still life in the photographic age

Peppers, 2010
When you’re sitting inside on a gloomy, wet weekend and you don’t know what to paint or draw, the answer may be nearer at hand than you imagine.

Still life is a gift for anyone wanting to paint, draw or even photograph – and as a genre, it has a remarkable capacity to make some mundane, domestic items look interesting.

With origins in ancient times – there are still life paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs – still life as a genre reached a pinnacle in the 16th and 17th centuries, not least in the hands of Flemish and Dutch artists.

Mind, that could be taken to read that nothing after that period was much cop, but you only need to look at the vast number of still life paintings by Cézanne to realise that that was not the case.

And modernity didn’t ditch the still life, but simply found new ways to represent it, from Braque’s Cubist canvases on, while photographers have also realised that you can do great things with everyday objects.

With just a simple, single light source, you can even create a picture that conjures up those classic paintings of yore with their rich, velvet-dark backgrounds.

The Ukulele, 2010
The vanitas, as a sub genre of still life, also has a place in today’s world, although we probably wouldn’t see it in quite the same way, while there have been plenty of street artists who have executed superb Trompe-l’œils – the sort that aim to make you think you’re about to plunge off the pavement and into a vast hole that’ll send you to Dantean depths.

From a personal perspective, it was photography that led me into still life – although I’d regularly drawn, in painful detail, single objects when studying art at school.

But what makes still life work is the arrangements you use and not simply how you paint or photograph any objects.

It pretty much goes without saying that fruit and flowers were popular subjects for still life paintings, and they remain so.

Food has also often been popular – no, ‘food porn’ isn’t as new as some might imagine.

The history of representations of food in art is itself interesting. In the case of those Egyptian tomb paintings mentioned earlier, they often featured food, which was believed to transform into the real thing in the afterlife, thus providing the deceased with sustenance on their journey.

Pears, 2009
But later in Western art, many paintings featured food in a moral sense – as an indicator of something related to sin and its dangers.

Some of those paintings are hilarious, since they seem to have been executed with a sense of great irony.

When the food looks beautiful and the partying in the background shows everyone having fun, it’s difficult to believe that the artist was entirely convinced that he was painting all this to show that it was all bad.

One is rather inclined to believe that the ‘moral’ aspect of such paintings was really just an excuse to represent interesting subjects such as food or even partying – just as early landscapes were painting around religious subjects, which themselves finally diminished and diminished until we were left with entirely secular representations of the world around us.

You could extend this argument to the vanitas sub genre: after all, you might be saying that good food and wine and music mean nothing when it comes to the final reckoning of death, but if you’re doing so in a way that shows off your skills as an artist to an incredibly high degree, then an element of pride seems rather to have crept in to the equation.

Still life has, historically, been considered as one of the poorer relations when it comes to the painted subject, but it has always been popular with buyers, and when you consider the roster of artists who have painted still lives, then it’s hard to see that as much other than a form of snobbery.

Glasses, 2013
After all, when you can list a roll call of the likes of Rembrandt, van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso as creators of still life works, it’s rather difficult to maintain an idea of the still life as artistically inferior. And van Gogh’s Sunflowers remain some of the best-known and most loved paintings in the world.

These days, a certain snobbery exists about photography – or more accurately, about ‘Photoshopping’.

The advent of cameras had a huge impact on the path of art history, as they removed a sense of painting as being the only way that you could visually record images for posterity.

Once that had gone, it freed artists (as opposed to photographers) to look for ways to represent other elements of life than the straightforward figurative image – for example, the Fauves trying to convey an emotional response to a scene rather than present a photographic record of it.

Cup and saucer and stripes, 2010
And now photographers are altering their images too to create something beyond what the lens cannot capture.

Yet alteration of an image on a computer is not new – photographers used all sorts of techniques in the developing lab to create different effects – and it’s really only an issue if you are seeking to present a photographed image as a true record of something, so in reportage, for instance, or in terms of the moral argument about digital alteration presenting ideas of supposedly ideal, but impossible, bodies.

But even a sub-editor’s crop of a picture for the page is an act of alteration – a choice made for all sorts of reasons, not least the purely practical, but also involving the aesthetic, the political and many more.

Otherwise, alteration of digital images is simply another part of creating a final picture.

The still life may never have enjoyed the status of the genres above it – history paintings were at the top of that particular tree – but, unlike those, it has remained a constant throughout art history and one could even suggest that the most modern installations to be found in contemporary art are themselves little more than large, 3-D still lives.

Truffle, 2010
The photographs that I’ve posted here are all examples of modern, photographed still lives.

Some have been worked on heavily – others not.

But briefly:

Pears is one I shot in 2009, quite early into my experiments. It uses two proper fruits and a glass one. The latter is from Isle of Wight Glass – my mother has been buying me pieces as presents for some years and it’s very lovely stuff. A small mirror underneath the three pears provided the reflection, and it took a fair amount of Photoshop work to achieve the finished effect.

The Ukulele also took a lot of post-production. It’s sepia tinted but, I think, holds within it the suggestion of a story.

You might, by now, have sussed that I do rather like dramatic light.

Peppers is nothing short of food porn – and why not? Like most of the rest of these pictures, it was shot on a desk, with a single Lidl-bought lamp for the lighting, on a black t-shirt to give me the basic background, which was then deepened and smoothed out on the computer. I keep meaning to turn this into an art poster. The translucent quality is something I’m particularly pleased with.

76 Trombones, 2012
Cup and saucer and stripes was not set up, but grabbed when I was waiting in an apparently bland meeting room to doing something else. It seems to me to illustrate perfectly how you can get an interesting photograph from something that you’d barely imagine could look so good. There’s also almost no processing involved.

Truffle, on the other hand, was both carefully lit and carefully processed to give the reminder of that ‘old’ look. It also involved a number of components and a more complex composition.

76 trombones is not, of course, a single trombone – let alone many. But it made me think of Robert Preston and The Music Man for what should be obvious reasons. It’s unique among this selection in that it was shot with an iPhone when an entirely unexpected opportunity materialised. And yes, it’s highly processed – right down to the spot colour, which is not an effect that should be overdone, but works well here.

Glasses was grabbed during a shoot that had nothing to do with glasses, but is an example of how you can shapes and patterns and textures in the remarkably ordinary. It isn’t actually a black and white image – that’s just how it came out in colour.

So there you are: if you fancy a spot of painting or drawing or photography and you’re stymied for a subject: have a look around: you may be surprised at just what will make a good subject.

• All photographs © Amanda Kendal


  1. Hi,
    I like your thesis and presentation. Although I rarely paint stil life subjects, I have always felt that the intentional choice and arrangement of objects is almost ritualistic. Indeed, akin to the way a Shaman may choose and arrange 'medicine objects' objects charged with his magical intent and deeply personal talismans. Still life then can be a display of mementos of unique significance.
    Thanks for the inspiration and best wishes

    1. Many thanks, Gordon.

      That's a really interesting way of seeing it.

      All the best.