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HomeContentsThemes > Still life photography

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Because of the links with commercial photography still life has long tended to be a poor relation of the major themes but this does not do justice to the photographs produced. Since the earliest days of photography in the late 1830's one of the principal uses that it was put to was the recording of everyday objects and the placing of them into artistic settings.
1.   Early still life photography
The origins of still life is firmly routed in ancient art with the carvings and paintings of everyday objects on the walls of Egyptian tombs and recorded on the ash-protected frescos of Pompeii and Herculeneam. Early Roman wall paintings included two dimensional imitations of shelves containing food and artifacts, the generally used term for this is 'Trompe l'Oeil' - a French expression meaning ''to trick the eye'. Art of this type was generally held in low esteem as it was seen as copying from nature and therefore lacking in creativity - a view that was supported by Pliny the Elder in his 'Natural History' of the first century A.D.
 
The English term for 'still life' may have its origins in the Dutch term 'still-leven' and both terms imply that life is still present even if it is stationary. In Southern Europe the same style of art is called 'dead nature', as in the Italian 'natura morta' or the French 'nature morte' which has a very different connotation. Although symbolic inanimate objects were regularly incorporated into paintings from the Renaissance there was a major shift in still life painting in Holland in the early years of the seventeenth century. It may be that Protestant Holland was well suited to a break from the stiffling religious and historical painting traditions that dominated Catholic Europe. When in 1606 Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) painted his 'Bouquet', now in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Milan), the abundant flowers were the center of attention with little else to diminish the impact. The canvas was painted over an extended period to show flowers from different seasons in a manner that could not be achieved in nature.
Still life painting
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Jan Brueghel the Elder
Bouquet 
1606
   
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In the earliest era of photography the 'stillness' of a still life was essential as the longer time required to create an image necessitated it. The control of the overall composition and lighting also made it a means of experimenting a reduced number of variables. Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) and William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) both took still lifes in the late 1830's and it was the obvious subject because of a lack of mobility and the long exposures required by the early Daguerreotype and calotype processes. Far later Edward Steichen sometimes used exposures as long as 36 hours to capture the subject to the level of detail he required. The choices of what the early photographers chose to photograph are indicative both of their lifestyles and their need to publicize the process to the influential people of the day. Given this requirement it is perhaps not surprising that they selected sculptures with classical themes and arrangements that appeared that they came from painting.
 
Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in his first surviving 1837 Daguerreotype appropriated titled 'Still Life' (now with the Société Française de Photographie, Paris) selected a window setting as bright light was essential. He included a bass relief, several cherub like plaster casts, a rams head, a framed picture and some fabric. Daguerre had an artistic background and his fame prior to photography was in dioramas so it was natural that he should select objects that reflected his interests. William Henry Fox Talbot likewise used objects that illustrated the everyday life of his estate at Laycock Abbey. His salted paper prints made from calotype negatives sometimes hinted at a life outside the photograph in the way that a composed set of plaster casts does not. For example his photograph 'The Open Door' (1843) shows a broom made from twigs leaning against a doorway as if showing a task soon to be or recently completed. Nobody could pass through the wooden door without removing the broom. A still life can therefore be not only about the objects and people seen but also about those not in the image forcing us to ask questions about the image.
 
Hermann Krone in his 1853 'Still Life of the Washerwoman' (Munich, Deutsches Museum) showed the variety of tubs and water containers used with clothes draped over them all set against a dark fabric background. This is not a found moment but a studio shot of the utensils of everyday existence.
 
  
 
  
 
  
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