Still Life - The Pleasure of Stopping Time
11/12/2016 - 12/7/2016
“Still Life – The Pleasure of Stopping Time” surveys the manners in which photographers have explored and refreshed the great traditional genre from early in the twentieth century to innovative practices of today. Within photography, still lives have served as both conventional and experimental forms across many periods of significant aesthetic and technological change. By using straightforward as well as latent symbolism such as the motif of memento mori, or the impermanence of life, the camera came to be regarded as more than a straight recorder of objects. It came to express the ambiguous nature of the world and the individual’s role in perceiving it. Considering the amount of control exerted over still life arrangements, photographers would create deeply personal compositions. Modernists, as well as pioneers of twentieth century photography, would experiment with elements of pure form, arrangement, and lighting in order to create an aesthetic emotional response within the artist and the viewer.
Two such seminal Modernists were Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. Weston began making still lives during the late 1920s, emphasizing a kind of “pure” photography with an emphasis on form through his compositions deftly using balance, viewpoint, and lighting. Cunningham’s pictures stylistically explored the sensuous shapes of flowers and nudes with subtleties in depth of field and unconventional shadowing and framing of the subject. During the post-war period, Jan Groover would create pioneering kitchen still lives by employing color and a large format as dynamic and integral elements of her work imbuing energy in inanimate objects. The revival of interest in the genre at the turn of the twenty-first century comes as the digital age is transforming the medium with contemporary still life photographers modernizing the classic tradition.
Olivier Richon’s color work that has preoccupied him since the 1980s focuses on staged portraits of animals and still lives, subjects that recall the classical allegorical tradition yet confuse conventional meanings. Richon often references Old Masters through his highly adept understanding of perspective, composition, and chiaroscuro lighting while also employing elements such as draped material that recall traditional still life painting. Approaching from a painterly and occasionally surreal direction, Richon’s photographs appear to imply highly specific meanings but resist simple interpretation. A Swiss born artist, today he is head of the graduate school of photography at London's Royal College of Art and continues to probe the possibilities of the genre.
Paulette Tavormina’s lush still life photographs of flora and fauna directly reference the lavish detail of Old Master painters of the genre. Through her use of the medium of photography to capture the Baroque style, her painterly work hovers between past and present in a way that is both stunning and somewhat perplexing. Tavormina delicately unites the visual and symbolic connections between quotidian objects to produce images of powerful emotional resonance. She scours farmers’ markets and flower shops for the “perfectly imperfect” subjects for her lavish arrangements that can take a week to perfect. Tavormina began photographing in the 1980s and today is based in New York City where she continues to create enduring and meticulous still lives.
Ben Schonzeit is a multi-dimensional artist who has been called the best photographer to emerge from the 1970s Photorealist painting movement. Originally he created hyper-realistic paintings of perfectly rendered arrangements of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other objects that were enlargements based on his own photographs. In the mid 1980’s, Schonzeit began photographing still lives of flowers that he would artfully arrange in front of both his own paintings and reproductions of master works by such artists as Claude Monet and Joan Miro. The prints that used the alternative process of the cibachrome formed an artistic dialogue between art historical painting in various genres and contemporary still life.
John Dugdale approaches photography with a nineteenth century sensibility incorporating still life to emphasize the poetic transcendence of time and place. Unconventionally for today, he works with some of photography’s first techniques of “fixing” a photographic image by employing large format cameras and creating cyanotype prints, platinum prints, and using the albumen process. This contributes to his historically referential work that looks back to the original masters of the medium who placed much importance on their work with still lives. His highly personal images in which he presents still lives are all reflections on domestic life and the close connections that can develop with objects, often basing his work on allegories and poetry.
Since still lives have served so well as both conventional and experimental forms in the past, they may well be the anchor that allows photographers to explore new and yet unimagined territory. The subject of the still life allows the artist the ability to comment on a larger world while bracketing, organizing, controlling, and commenting on specific objects and establishing relationships within a time and space continuum.