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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Irving Penn Dies at 92: Pioneer of Modern Fashion, Portrait and Still-Life Photography

Irving Penn, 1960s

Kate Moss, 1996

Kate Moss, 1996

Vogue, Fashion Photograph (Café in Lima), Peru, 1948

Salvadore Dali, New York, 1947

Truman Capote, New York City, 1948

Collette, Paris, 1951

Jean Cocteau, Paris, 1948

Nicole Kidman, Vogue Magazine, May, 2004

Irving Penn Dies at 92: Pioneer of Modern Fashion, Portrait and Still-Life Photography

Irving Penn, a renowned master of American fashion photography whose more simple aesthetic, combined with an often startling erotic sensuality, defined a visual style that he applied to such varied subjects as  fashion design, celebrity portraits and everyday objects, many of them now-famous photographs owned by leading art museums, has died at the age of 92.  In 1943, Penn started contributing to Vogue magazine, becoming one of the first commercial photographers to cross the schism that had separated commercial from art photography.  He did so in part by using the same technique no matter what he photographed: isolating his subject, allowing for scarcely a prop and building a work of graphic perfection through his printing process.  Art critics considered the results to be icons, not just images, each one more artistically powerful than the person or object in the frame.

A notorious perfectionist, he traveled widely, carrying his own studio to the ends of the earth to photograph Peruvians in native dress, veiled Moroccan women or the Mudmen of New Guinea.  Despite his appreciation for the art and craft of beautifully designed fashion, Penn later reached outside of the unreachable world it represents.  To escape or perhaps contest it, in the late 1960s he started photographing crushed cigarette butts and street debris.  He shot the cigarette butts in the same manner that he often photographed fashionable designer dresses, close up, with an intense graphic precision, against a white background.  He then built his negatives into “platinum-palladium” prints, a meticulous and expensive process that involves repeated printings of a negative on one piece of paper to create an extraordinary sense of depth and richness.  New York’s Museum of Modern Art found the cigarette butts exhibit-worthy in 1975. Far-sighted reviewers praised Penn’s ability to turn discarded objects into art, but the contradictions in his work still bothered some critics.

In 1950, while in Paris he went from a session of photographing the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti to photographing French butchers.  His collection of more than 250 photos of butchers, bakers, street workers and others in the series entitled The Small Trades, was acquired last year by the J. Paul Getty Museum and is on view now through January 10th.

A Tribute: The Photography of Irving Penn

Slide Show: Irving Penn/A Pioneer of Modern Fashion, Portrait and Still-Life Photography

(Please Click on Image to View Slide Show)

Readers can read more about the life and accomplishments of Irving Penn in The New York Times here, and in The Los Angeles Times here.

Reader’s can access a wonderful audio-slide show of Irving Penn’s series entitled The Small Trades, which is presently on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum here.

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