Large-format Still Life
A note on shooting still life with large format. This is something I haven’t done at all before, on any format, but somehow large format black and white seems to be its natural home – here I’ve been recently influenced very much by the beautiful work of John Blakemore for instance, and also by Paul Barden on flickr and the large format photography forum. While I don’t use an 8×10 for black and white as Paul does (though this is something I may seriously consider at some point) and nor do I use traditional darkroom print-making or alternative processes (still a digital half-breed in this respect!) the tonality and detail that you can achieve with large format is precisely what is required (I have taken the liberty of adding some digital selenium toning in photoshop).
Another thing here is that – while I’ve only lately come to think about this – the meditative aspect of using a large format camera – the care required to set up the composition on the ground glass and the metering – may become a natural extension of the meditative process of collecting and arraying the composition of the objects before you have even set up the camera. This aspect is something that I haven’t been able to think about until recently because the very idea of creating a scene to photograph had always seemed to me to be hostile to the idea of authenticity required to be a ‘proper’ or serious landscape photographer. I’ve no idea really why I thought this before because it’s obvious nonsense, and reveals a basic failure to appreciate that the photographic image can never itself be authentic, even though it can ‘animate’ the viewer (cf. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida).
If the viewer also happens to be the creator of the photograph, the final image can also serve as a reminder of the process that led up to the creation of the image with the camera, and this can be empowering and enriching in a huge variety of ways; I envisage a whole range of possible projects here, including the process of collecting a range of artefacts or natural objects to photograph to remind me of or to celebrate encounters or places, even in the absence of opportunities to photograph landscapes or scenic details in the usual way. This is important because if the photograph doesn’t mean anything to me then I’m very unlikely to bother to make it in the first place. This in itself would prevent any resulting images from becoming emotionless, precisely because of their artifice.
This process actually presents a more direct way for me to engage art-historically with traditions of photography, again in ways that I hadn’t quite appreciated until recently. The idea of collecting objects to photograph also has the potential to produce typologies of objects, which obviously slot into the history of 20th century photography via the well-known work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, founders of the influential ‘Düsseldorf School’, whose work is displayed accessibly in Tate Modern, London. On the other hand, the ironic or emotionally distanced work of the New Topographics school that the Bechers influenced is not in keeping with what I think I’d like for this image-making possibility, since the whole point for me will be to engender some kind of emotional response or connection rather than having the rationale driven by implicit critique of embedded aesthetic practice. Here I’d be more with Andreas Gursky (another influenced by the Bechers) – ‘the pure joy of seeing’ (see https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/hayward-gallery-art/andreas-gursky) – though his own images are of course far from straightforward in their interpretability or emotional claims on viewers.
In fact, the very idea of using a large-format camera to create black and white images of found objects collected over time is intended as an attempt – though not at all reactionary – to suggest alternative approaches to image-making than are more widely considered in today’s image-saturated culture, even as I am using those same channels of distribution (this blog; twitter; flickr; instagram) to circulate the results.
The idea of emotional connection is still problematic, and photography perhaps more than any art form is inherently aware of this. Its rhetoric of attraction, truth, and immediacy also carries with it the technology of difference, distance, framing, and artifice; there’s a problematic sense that, however much photographers and artists might want to separate out style and technique, with photography the two dissolve into one another in the nature of the medium.
Thanks to John Blakemore, I’m reminded of the relation between still life painting and religion, specifically via the concept of the vanitas. I am not remotely religious, and find – momentarily – problematic the idea that still lives are considered as a momento mori rather than a momento vivere, as it were. It is the case, of course, that the history of still lives is the history of the portrayal of loss, decay, mortality and death, rather than life: the pointlessness of earthly goods. One can hope to claim that the artistic process of producing work that preserves these scenes is somehow redemptive (yes, religious word!), but by the same token those images of mortality, and their very act of photographic preservation, bear ever onward their message of loss and absence. The photographed decay of nature reminds us of the world of nature in general, just as it might remind the photographer (me) of the specific encounters which brought the photograph into existence in the first place; those universalizing, as well as particularizing, reminders of nature can be uplifting especially if the photograph is a success and deemed beautiful or pleasing. But they do so only as the decaying objects remind us that they are always with us: reminding us of their realities in spite of the artificiality of the setup and of the photographic medium used to project it. Made secular, these images bear the tension between momento mori and momento vivere, encouragements to go on, to explore, to look to the future, while reminiscing wistfully or mournfully over, or contemplating sadly, the essence of past experience never fully to be recovered.
Below is the final image shot on 5×4 with Ilford Delta 100, followed by two compositional sketches shot on iphone. The dark image is fascinating and is the first setup I tried – though this was soon abandoned when I calculated an exposure time of over 5 hours taking into account reciprocity failure (I think: it was too dark for my Sekonic, so I was making calculations via a lightmeter app on my phone)) – the location was the dark garage of my parents’ with only a small distant window for natural light, after which I moved to a greenhouse. The flat light on the final image is a result of the changed lighting, but one day I will try what I’d call ‘the full Edward Weston’ and go for a really long exposure on large-format film. I also perhaps prefer the perpendicular shooting angles of the phone shots, though I didn’t risk this with the large format setup given potential problems with shadows and the tripod.