Still Life Photography: Courting Surprise and Allegorical Meanings

Ori Gersht (Israeli, 1967 – ), Blow Up: Untitled 15, 2007

Marian Drew (Australian, born 1960), Lorikeet with Green Cloth, 2006

Edward Weston (American, 1886 – 1958), Bananas and Orange, April 1927

André Kertész (American, born Hungary, 1894 – 1985), Bowl with Sugar Cubes, 1928

Sharon Core (American), Early American: Still Life with Steak, 2008

Still Life Photography: Courting Surprise and Allegorical Meanings

In Focus: Still Life is a selection of photographs from an installation of wonderful still life photographs presently on view at The J. Paul Getty Museum Center for Photographs. The collection presents a survey of some of the innovative ways photographers have explored and refreshed this traditional genre. During the 19th century, still life photographs tended to resemble still life paintings, with similar subjects and arrangements. Beginning in the 20th century, still life photographs have mirrored the subjects and styles that have more broadly concerned photographers in their time.

In addition to early experiments of pioneers of the photographic medium, some of the works that have been newly acquired by the Getty Center are presented here: Still Life with Triangle and Red Eraser (1985) by American Irving Penn, Lorikeet with Green Cloth (2006) by Australian Marian Drew, and Blow Up: Untitled 15 (2007) by Israeli Ori Gersht.  Gersht loosely based his Blow Up series on traditional floral still life paintings. His arrangements of flowers are frozen and then detonated; the explosion is captured using synchronized digital cameras, with the fragmentary detritus caught in remarkable detail.  This contemporary approach to still photography belies the notion of still life as something motionless, as it explores the relationships among painting and photography, art and science, and creation and destruction.

This piece also presents the experimental video Still Life (2001) created by the English artist Sam Taylor-Wood, a three-minute short film that focuses on a classically composed bowl of fruit as it decays. Also, there’s a pen. Still Life has been said to be one of the most classical works in contemporary art, carving a permanent record for itself in art history with hardly any commentary. This is not just a Still Life; it is based upon a particular type of still life painting that developed during the 16th and 17th centuries in Flanders and the Netherlands, part of a classical genre that contains symbols of change or death as a reminder of their inevitability. Its focus was upon confronting the vanity of worldly things through often subtle signs of elapsing time and decay.

Sam Taylor-Wood’s film represents yet another step in that direction: the image, beautiful as ever in Taylor-Wood’s universe, decomposes itself. By the end of the short film, nothing is left but a grey amorphous mass. But upon closer inspection, one detail distinguishes this picture from its predecessors. The plastic ballpoint pen, a cheap contemporary object. One that doesn’t seem to decay and doesn’t seem to be a part of the universal process of self-disappearing life. Is this what is really left here to stay after we are gone, this nothingness, this ridiculous attribute of ourselves?

Sam Taylor-Wood: Still Life (2001)

Slide Show: Still Life Photography/Courting Surprise and Allegorical Meanings

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