Still-Life Photography: Learning about Objects and Their Significance from Paintings
An introduction to a presentation of two portfolios of still-life photographs
James F. Armstrong
Still-life paintings of the late Renaissance to the early nineteenth century in Europe were my inspiration in making these two portfolios. In 2004, I discovered my fascination with the genre after seeing a catalogue from an exhibition of Spanish still lifes of the period from Velázquez to Goya. The images in the catalogue caught my imagination. I was curious: Through what eyes were those artists looking at the world? I began my search for the answer by making photographs using their subject matter and lighting, and by studying the genre’s literature. My reading led me to wonder why the still life flourished when it did, and what conditions may have promoted its development. In this inquiry I came, ultimately, to see the obvious, but I had to arrive at it in my own way— through practice, and observation.
It seems that starting in the late Renaissance, artists began to acquire a greater sense of independence in determining subject matter and style as the influence of the church and aristocracy diminished. Scientific developments— the emergence of the scientific method— along with a flourishing interest in the natural world and new philosophical thought tended to remove the veil of symbolic significance from the everyday and permitted artists to follow their natural instincts in making images of the things that had always fascinated them. Most relevant to my search was that an acute and rational vision emerged with these trends, permitting artists to make paintings that revealed the nature of even the smallest surface details of ordinary objects, virtually endowing them with lives of their own. This vitality, it seems to me, is what educated the viewer’s perception; it stimulated our looking more deeply at the things around us.
Then, as now, artists examined the world and represented it, drawing attention to things we otherwise would not notice. They chose to depict products of nature and of human skill and ingenuity, from food and domestic objects to instruments of study and learning, often representing tangible evidence of intellectual activity. The true-to-nature rendering of those objects most likely arose out of the artists’ compulsion to understand what was before them, the significance of which could not be articulated except in a picture. The choice of subjects seems to have had less to do with religious or cultural meaning than with their significance to the artists personally. Once rational observation became a legitimate mode of representing everyday objects, still lifes were accepted generally. Artists were then freer to exhibit their personal visions, exposing the public, through their insight, technique, and often their sheer intensity of concentration, to the tactile and spiritual character of things that populate and enrich our lives.
Although the still life was traditionally placed lower in the art-historical hierarchy than works whose subjects represented events or figures out of Western cultural history, these studies— and to my mind they are just that— constitute what was a revolutionary view of physical reality. It may not have been recognized at the time as the legitimate expression of a culture, but the still life is certainly evidence of a new and rational vision in tune with changes in Western thought. The form is also a declaration of artists’ irrepressible fascination with the character of objects.
One of the most compelling revelations I encountered in my search came as I stood before a painting by the Spanish Baroque painter Juan Sánchez Cotán— his Quince, Cabbage, Melon, Cucumber (c. 1602, San Diego Museum of Art), in which he had rendered convincingly the translucence of the moist coating of the melon’s seeds. It is astounding to see such mastery of a medium, but even more exciting to feel a kinship with his intense examination of the fruit. I was similarly struck by another work and by a citation on its wall label— Chardin’s painting of a domestic water reservoir, La fontaine de cuivre (1733–34, Musée du Louvre). The label bears a quotation from André Gide (1945), a portion of which I translate roughly as, “[The painting’s] substantial gravity moves me as well as the devotion [Chardin] has given to the object, a devotion instilled with the reverence of a meditation by Descartes.” The still-life artist is capable of showing the rest of us ways of seeing that deeply move us, and can even change our lives.
I owe to these earlier painters a debt of gratitude for intensifying my appreciation of my own everyday surroundings. Through them I learned to trust my curiosity and to follow my instincts in making images. It is an obvious and natural outcome, but for me the result of a necessary inquiry. Objects can hold for each of us a reference to experiences that resonate with our sources of self-definition. In photography I think the same characterization applies. With regard to my own process: It seems that whether I paint a still-life image or capture it instantaneously with my camera, it takes the same creative effort— the same intensity of looking at the subject, scrutinizing it, arranging the ensemble and rearranging after seeing the first few images, the same concentration on seeking the undefined visual conclusion. The motivation is also the same— to make an image that satisfies my visual exploration of the objects and their relation to one another. By “satisfies” I mean I find that the image acquires a sense of completeness visually and literally with respect to the coherence of the group of elements. Often, after I’ve finished with one day’s work— possibly the second or third day with a particular subject— I find myself having missed a meal and having shot almost a hundred images.
My labors in arranging and lighting and the diversions created by new discoveries often carry me well beyond my original notion. For example, in the image of the cylindrical periodic table of the elements I was trying to choose between two versions of the same ensemble, each of which was fine and seemed to satisfy my original purpose, but I discovered nuances that made them distinct from one another, and in ways that became important. The two images I liked had subtle differences that I hadn’t noticed in the shooting process: one was from a higher angle than the other. The higher angle connoted to me a documentary function, whereas the lower angle presented the subject more intimately, in close proximity, as you would see the ensemble on the table when seated before it. These variations were accidents of the process and challenged me to another level of choices to be made. Such events are greatly satisfying and energizing, and they continually remind me that these things I’m doing with the camera are fulfilling my need to understand both the nature of the objects and the significance of the viewpoint. I am pursuing an idea that is purely visual.
Sometimes, however, as I look at the last image in a working session I detect a narrative aspect: a characteristic that suggests an expressive notion, beyond its purely physical appearance. I received a book from a friend and was moved to photograph the package because of the methodical use of tape on the kraft-paper wrapping. The sender’s personal characteristics, which I admire, are to some extent exhibited in his choice of materials, their economy of use and rationality of application. The resulting image is a sort of portrait of that part of his mind used in designing buildings, or in planning a menu for a dinner party; it is, first, a handsome, utilitarian object, out of which emerges a character sketch.
What is it about the subject of a photograph that gives the work its meaning? Why is one subject— or set of objects— part of the learning or exploratory process and another of an expressive process? There is, to me, no distinction before I begin a piece of work, though one often arises as the work progresses (as I describe above).
I may start with an expressive intent and end exploring, but the reverse is also possible. At times, but seldom, an idea for a photograph will begin with a found image: a group of objects in place. On occasion I will begin to make a still-life arrangement without much planning, combining possessions that I see daily. Or I’ll plan an assemblage based on an event or societal tendency of some political or philosophical significance, such as the photographs containing weapons or a cellular phone or a model of an explosive device. Then I will gather objects with characteristics that are meaningful to us today, whose images constitute what I consider to be essential elements of contemporary life. At times I may borrow from sixteenth-century masters in trying to understand how an artist represents intellectual activity. The image depicting white spheres, templates, and diagrams is one such work. This photograph of a collection of sketches and models preparatory to a classroom demonstration on the orbit of the moon around the earth was inspired by a “still life” that is part of Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors (1533, National Gallery, London). The two men stand at a table covered with mathematicians’ and astronomers’ paraphernalia, including models of geometric solids and measuring devices. These artifacts have no apparent connection with the two ambassadors and seem to form a separate subject in the painting as representations of the higher order intellectual activities that made use of such objects.
I also choose objects which, in an ensemble, make concrete or emblematic reference to episodes in my life or to passions I have followed, things that have absorbed my interest and that have drawn my concentrated effort to know and to understand— in essence, my sources of self-definition. The moon model I made for the classroom demonstration image reflects one such passion. I titled the first portfolio Nature Morte, to evoke the style I had used in emulation of European traditions (the image of the salmon, for example). Ultimately, my own vision emerged and I saw the need for another portfolio that recognized the change. The subsequent portfolio— Still Life— is a logical development of the more emulative style (any of the pictures that include accoutrements of contemporary life; the fish tins in homage to Joseph Cornell). The spirit of observation is functionally the same as in the first portfolio, but the subjects, motifs, and content reveal my own interior view of the exterior world.
This project grew naturally out of my visual education, my personal history, and my curiosity about the structure, composition, and contours of the physical world. These two portfolios, then, represent an aspect of my vision: This is an inanimate world, but one shaped in the mind.
© James Armstrong 2010
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