I write this on a Sunday morning in late January. Outside the window snow is falling and the world lies still. It’s a day for hunkering down and staying warm indoors. Much of our lives have been lived indoors in the past year. As a photographer this has meant fewer landscapes and more still lives.
Still life is older than photography. Still life or “nature morte” (literally dead nature) was a popular subject matter for painters. They would arrange and paint a number of objects, typically of a luxurious nature such as game, fish, fruit, and flowers. There was very often an underlying sense that the objects depicted would fade away thus presenting an allegory on the transience of life, and human vanity. Sometimes this would be rammed home by the inclusion of a skull or some other symbol of death!
The genre became popular with early photographers. Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of one early photographic process, used his invention to photograph objects such as the statues around his home in Wiltshire, England, for example. There were some very practical reasons for choosing still life. Early photographic processes required long exposure times and inanimate objects don’t move.
Also, it gave early photographers a chance to practice their new artform.
Initially they would emulate the older still life paintings partly because they had no other frame of reference but also because they wanted to gain respectability for their new artform and showing it as a continuation of an older tradition was one way of doing this.
Gradually though they began to exploit the new technology, cropping objects at the edge of the frame and using focus to emphasise parts of the subject. Some still life photographs became almost abstract.
Why take still life photographs?
Here are four reasons why I take still life photographs.
First of all, I feel I am completely in control of the process and the subject matter. I can choose and arrange the objects as I wish. And I don’t have to worry about asking permission before photographing something!
Secondly, still life photography is a way of bringing order out of chaos. This can be said of any form of photography, of course, but there is something unique about still life photography where I bring the chaos in the form of a disparate choice of objects and then order them in such a way to tell a story in front of the lens.
And there is also something quite immersive about still life photography. It is very easy to lose myself in the small world I have created on the table as I re-arrange objects and the lighting to get the pictures I want. In the strange world we find ourselves in at the moment it is very comforting to focus in on a small world that I have complete control over.
Finally, It’s also good for observational skills. I can give myself plenty of time to really look at the objects in front of me. How are they laid out? What’s in the foreground? What’s in the background? Is something unintentionally obscuring something else? What’s the best composition for these objects? Where is the light coming from? Are there any unwanted shadows? What about reflections? Unlike other forms of photography I have the luxury of time and complete control to be able to answer those questions to my (almost) complete liking.