Assignment 4 Responding to a theme – Research and background tests

31st May 2020

For Assignment four we are asked to create a series of 3-5 still-life photographs based on a theme.

Still life is a traditional art form. The term ‘still-life,’ begins its origins in the seventeenth century Dutch language as ‘stilleven’ when paintings of still life became popular.

I studied still life in great depth when studying on the OCAs drawing and painting courses and found the development through history an interesting one. From Egyptian and Roman, from Renaissance to Post-Impressionism, bowls of fruit and flowers through to modern day conceptual still life works, there is so much to gain inspiration from.

For me though, the paintings symbolic meanings will always win me over. Simple visual story telling at its best. From the representation of life, death and time to lands far away, mythical Gods, beasts and objects of yesteryear, to serving our spiritual needs of religion and belief systems.

When it comes to the genre of still-life in photography today, technology in camera as well as the development of post-processing and image adjustments techniques means we have the capacity to really use our imaginations, thoughts and ideas and present still-life work traditionally, conceptually or artistically.

I have decided that to help me with my planning and to gain some inspiration, I will research still life in photography and look at those photographers and their work that I have interest in, especially the earlier photographers and their practices.

Still-life Photography

Inspiration: In the Beginning

The first still-life photograph was taken by the inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1827.

The Set Table 1827, Nicéphore Niépce

Earlier photographers kept to the traditional still life matter as they were trying to get the practice of photography accepted as an art form as it was viewed as simply a mechanical device. Photographers such as Hippolyte Bayard, Jacques-Louis-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, not only kept to the still life tradition to try to gain acceptance but because of early photography experiments having long exposure times, the still life was perfect for them as a genre because they had much more control over their subject and working methods.

I love the imperfections of the early photographs where there are over exposed and under exposed areas, and sometimes the lack of details, the harshness or the softness of the printed image also adds to the aesthetics of the image.

The Set Table 1827, Nicéphore Niépce

I particularly find Fox Talbots shelf still-life images very pleasing to my eye because unlike traditional still-life compositions where objects are closely grouped together, the shelf still life presents objects in rows. This enables each object to become important to the viewer in their own right and are not lost or fighting . We as the viewer get to see the form, textures, patterns and colour as a separate entity.

Fox Talbot, Left: A Scene in a Library and Right: Articles of Glass
images from The Metropolitan Museum of Art met

02nd June

These shelf still-lives also remind me of conceptual art where objects are placed on shelves as a presentation such as Damien Hirsts ‘Medicine Cabinets’ 2012. However boring the cabinets may look, for me it is the concept that is the driving force for the series.

This quote is from the web sight Damien Hirst:

“You can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway. You can’t arrest decay but these medicine cabinets suggest you can.”

He then created a group of twelve which, explaining, “I like it when there is more than one way of saying something, like songs on an album”, he titled after the twelve tracks on the Sex Pistol’s album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ (1977), with two named after ‘God Save the Queen’, (‘God’ (1989) and ‘god’ (1989).

Damien Hirst
Medicine Cabinets 2012, Damien Hirst
image taken from Damien Hirst

The following two images show how other contemporary artists have used shelves within their installations. However they have made their objects and shelves one colour.

Another one of my ideas is to paper mâché objects and place them on shelves and photograph them. I already paper mâché objects and reinvent their forms to produce secondary sculptures of my own designs. So photographing them on shelves could be a next step in their presentation for exhibition.

Shelves (i) 2008, Dean Hughes
image taken from Saatchi Gallery
Someone Else 2011-2012, Shilpa Gupta
image taken from Aesthetica

The examples that I have shown are conceptual art and have been staged. As I was researching still life and reading about it in some dedicated still-life photography books, I am finding the images are ‘perfect’ so perfect in fact they look like they have been produced in a parallel universe for perfectionists. They have perfect lighting, they create the perfect mood, perfect chosen colours that compliment each other and chosen themes which seem to be repeated in one form or another. For me personally, it is not only boring but untrue to life, in other words it all becomes fake and staged.

The still life genre feels to me to be over populated by objects that are important today. They are either advertising goods or a specific idea for the general public or in its pure creative form it becomes an aesthetic battleground to see who can out do the other with gimmickry.

Examples of advertising still life which are in popular culture include products such as make-up, sports shoes, food and drink to name but a few all which fall under the heading of consumable advertising and the subjects can be listed in their hundreds. The aim with these still life images is to sell products so they have to be bright and energetic, colourful and attractive to the eye. One example, make-up can be seen below.

Selection of make-up still life images image taken from Google Search make up still life

The Yawn Factor: Todays Technology

With todays technology and development within photography, which includes image concept and manipulation, ordinary households are able to take still life images. Photography is becoming a normal past time and more and more people are producing images for pure satisfaction. The bridge between knowing more techniques rather than not in photography is becoming a smaller gap as YouTube and online help is in its plentiful and is available for people of all abilities. However, to top the learning and practicing of such techniques are the inventions of apps. These apps are now accessible in camera within the creative mode and also in the apps on those mobile phones that come equipped with good cameras.

Not only do we have in camera apps but dedicated apps for Windows, Mac and iPad etc…. Here we can load our images and literally alter them to produce great end photographs of still life. If mistakes are made either in camera or post processing you can alter them in the apps, so with patience and work so much can be achieved to gain that ‘great’ image.

If we look at the images below from the website The Photo Argus and the post titled, ’35 Superb Examples of Still Life Photography,’ we can see that apart from the lighting and composition which is a skill that has to be learnt, other parts of the images such as throwing backgrounds out of focus, miniature effect, soft focus, one point colour, flare etc… can be shot in creative mode and also adjusted in post-processing. Other images which seem to have technical genius, for example the pencils in the water shots can be learnt on YouTube, the gap between creative genius and an awe struck beginner is closing.

Flickr is full of photographers who are learning everyday the skills needed to produce amazing end results. The content can easily be copied or tweaked so that it runs along the same theme but contains different imagery objects. I also have many apps I use for post processing for my creative art photography and they have examples of other photographers work for inspiration and text to help you develop your own theme and/or style.

I believe this is where concept and theme become important in todays photography. If you want to produce something less ordinary than that which is readily available to view on many online platforms, and indeed even in exhibitions, then concept and theme are the go to things to push your photography in a different direction to the rest.

So where does it leave photographers who want to step outside of the now standard practice of still-life imagery which is easily produced by so many?

This is not to say that I am a photography snob. I enjoy producing cliche images and content just as much as thought provoking images. However, I want to give the viewer something slightly different that will keep them looking at an image for more than a couple of seconds. I also want the images to be personal to me but of interest to others. How would I go about this in the still-life genre?

I have already discussed how I like the look of the photographs from the past with their less technical ability to produce a perfect visual end outcome. I also like the idea of un-grouping objects for still-life photography. In fact, one of the images in the OCA Foundations in Photography course folder pg 127 by the student, Nigel Haworth, is just this. His objects for his still life are created and presented to us in two distinct lines as well as having an excellent theme of infertility.

Nigel Haworth, OCA student OCA Foundations in Photography course folder pg127

The next step for me, therefore is to research a few modern conceptual photographs to see how the photographers have stepped beyond that which is accepted as ‘everyday’ still life. I want to be able to use them as a springboard out of the norm and what I perceive as cliche or boring and into a realm of images that once again engages the viewer.

03rd June 2020

Contemporary Still-life: Pushing the Boundaries

I was not surprised to find that, when looking through the book, ‘Still Life in Photography,’ Getty Publications, that, when I found still-life images that I liked, they were actually produced by some of my favourite photographers. I have included photographs of a few of the still-lives from the book that I liked and discussed the reasons why, below.

Paul Martineau, (2010). Still Life in Photography,California, Getty Publications

Top left: Tools with Blueprint, 1939, Paul Outerbridge. I chose this image because it has an image within an image to set the storyline. We have the tools as still life with the blueprint above. At first I thought there was a window setting the scene outside of the shed, however it is a photograph, so this illusion was a very clever device. Then there is the composition. Here Outerbridge frames the house with vertical and horizontal wood pieces. This draws our eyes inside the wooden frame to the house.

Top right: Untitled (Jelly and Butter on Plate) 1995, Martin Parr. This image was chosen because of how it looks at the end product of an action. It documents the finished meal and shows a plate with a knife, alongside open containers of jam and butter. This was a series of images showing the viewers images of everyday food that they eat and is typical of Parrs work that explores social issues and identity.

I also have chosen this as a still-life as it is something I regularly do, which is show the ‘left overs’ after we have eaten out. The reason I do this is because it is opposite to the ‘food porn’ craze that we easily find on social media platforms. I especially take finished still-life images in McDonalds because of the different colours, textures and forms that their food and drink comes packaged in as well as the fact that in some of the circles I move in McDonald’s is a cuss word when relating it to ‘food’.

Bottom left: Shoes from Abandoned Soda Works 1937. Edward Weston and Bottom right: Beato Salvador, 1950. Frederick Sommer, were chosen because they also show images that I regularly take and which I call, ‘ready made still-life’ because they are found laying around, already in situ for me to shoot. I also obtained my titled of these types of images from Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready mades.’ Duchamp’s readymades became art by simple manipulation for example tilting them, however when I come across ‘readymade’ still-life I try not to alter where they lay but take photographs from different perspectives.

Above we have ready made still life subjects in shop windows. Again this is something I shoot often, as well as objects inside of the shops. I always ask permission and enjoy how different shops present their goods differently especially the second hand shops where their goods are not in lines or prettily stacked.

Below shows a kitchen cupboard full of objects of all textures and materials, forms and text included, perfect for me as I love text all lined up on shelves.

Untitled (Joy of Cooking), 1971. Bill Owens image from Still Life in Photography,California, Getty Publications

04th June 2020

Theme and Concept

I have enjoyed reading books on the subject of still-life, although quite a lot of the presentation techniques are quite the opposite to how I would want to produce my still-life.

After lots of thought about what I do like in both the art and the photography worlds I came up with the title ‘Involuntary Still-life’. Due to the fact that I like to work in series I will have this shoot as ‘The Secret Life of Shelves, and then another series could be ‘The Secret Life of Shop Windows.’ Shop window displays are another subject that I shoot as a still-life so this could be an ongoing theme of looking for ‘Involuntary Still-lives’ in many different environments. Other areas that I shoot are shop shelving still-life and related objects and lastly food shelving in the kitchen because they really do tell a story of peoples ability to cook and what they like to eat.

For this series though, I will shoot objects as they are, where they lay on peoples shelves. The idea is that the ‘Involuntary’ means two things. Firstly, it is regard to me the photographer, in that I am to take the photograph without conscious control over the still life objects positioning, they will stay as and where they are.

Secondly ‘Involuntary’ also relates to the concept and where I will find these objects. The objects will all be located on shelving that belongs to people, it becomes involuntary because they also must not change how their objects lay. They must not tidy the shelf up in any way, as it is ‘a compulsory’ rule for the series, all must be shot as found. In fact the objects are a ‘ready made’ still-life.

I am hoping that the concept will enable the viewer to think not only about the objects that will be present but how they relate to their owner. I will only give a first name as the title of the images, if there are more than one image for a person they will be numbered, name 1, name 2 etc…

The still-life images will enable the viewer to question the origins of the shelf’s contents with questions such as, Who do these objects belong to? Why have they got these type of objects on their shelf? I am hoping that human inquisitiveness will mean that the viewers attention will be held longer as they look at and reflect on individual objects on the shelf and make up their own story to who the person could be.

Other aspects that I am hoping people may think about will connect to the overall meaning of an object, whether it is a personal one, cultural, social or religious etc… Will they move the viewer emotionally, will they tell the viewer a story of a person or a family? I am hoping that the viewer gains far more than the simple response of ‘Oh, just objects on a shelf that belong to XXXX.’

The objects are mementos of a person, belongings that hold specific personal meanings that only that person can access as well as belongings that may be used for specific personal tasks, for example a hairbrush or make-up. Therefore the theme is ‘It’s my life’ and the concept is photographing peoples shelves with their belongings on them and engaging the viewer as if they are a detective looking at clues to who someone may be and to get them to question and arrive at some conclusion.

The only problem I have in completing this exercise is that because of the lock down I cannot shoot the shelves of my friends that have said I could, although if the subject arises I could follow up this concept in the photography degree. This therefore means that the range of still life objects for this assignment will not be as varied as I would have liked them to have been.

Background, objects and subjects

Due to the fact that the idea for this series is ‘Involuntary,’ ‘readymades’ I actually cannot set up a background or gather objects and arrange them. My relation with these areas of the shoot will be to look at the compositions on the shelves and taking into consideration the background and objects that I am presented with.


It will be the lighting and camera positions that I will be specifically planning for within this shoot. I am presuming that each shelf will need different settings and camera positioning due to the available light within the area. There will also be other things that I will have to take into consideration such as will the time of day be uniformed for each shot, say for example all taken within the hours of 10am – 11am in the morning with available light or light added, or perhaps at night with the additional lighting which I have to set up. Would this be boring? Should I produce a variety of times of day to make the series more interesting?

Maybe I could shoot in the dark and use a torch to highlight the objects similar to Assignment two Painting with light. This would bring a secret element to the image to add to the already secret identity of the shelf owner. The viewer would also have to look more closely into the image to study the details and the clues. Hand drawn light can linger on specific areas to create atmosphere reminiscence of memories and obtain images that take on Talbots essence. This ‘old’ style of image represents memories which is how I see people’s shelves when they have personal belongings on them. Each object with a memory, a place or time they were bought, an event or a person they represent etc…

Another thought I had is whether I should make one specific object more brighter than the others. The idea behind this being that this specific object holds a specific meaning to the person whose shelf it is.

Another format I would like to use is my Polaroid cameras. Here the concept would be ‘a snap shot’ of someones life. However I know that using Polaroid cameras would probably be frowned upon for this course, so I will leave it to my own practices.


I will take photographs of various compositions of the objects on the shelves from whole shelf shot to small close ups. This will enable me to really present the overall theme which different visual stimuli which includes texture and isolated text.

This will enable me to present the persons shelf within either a triptych layout or a grid depending on how much visual interest can be gained from their shelf.

Triptych compositions 1,2 and 3

10th June 2020

The contact sheets for the shoot can be found using this link.

I have been busy looking through the images in the contact sheets and I have chosen few shots that are interesting. The chosen and adjusted images are on the contact sheets below.


For the completed work I decided to present the images in square grids as if they were framed and in a gallery space. However I would place the images on shelves rather than hanging them and I would want them to be tightly grouped with little spacing between them as they are below as although they are separate still lives I want them to be read as one unit of information.

The grids enabled me to present more detailed sections which provides the viewer with more interesting lines, forms, text and colours etc… The grids for me give ‘glimpses’ of objects which forces the viewer to look and think more as they have to decipher more information than if a still had been presented to them in one image.

The completed images

Mum’s Shelf 1

Mum’s Shelf 2

Rose’s Shelf

Poppy’s Shelf 1

Poppy’s Shelf 2

11th June 2020


I feel as a stand alone series these images do not work as well as they could as they lack ongoing interest. The series needs a variety of peoples shelving to become engaging as the viewer would be presented with miscellaneous objects and other peoples essence and memories. Unfortunately our house is filled mostly with books, plushies and pop vinyls so the themes that run through the completed images are quite similar in certain ways. Bringing other peoples lives and memories into the equation would enable more inquisitiveness and provide more interest.

Another question I need to address is does the images work being presented in a grid or should they be shown as individual images? Are they more dynamic and informative when viewed in isolation one after another or as a group showing multiple glimpses of the one shelving?

If we compare the two images below, the first being the complete shelf and the second ‘glimpses’ or ‘snap shots,’ we can ask which visual source serves the concept the best?

The first which is a full shelving shot seems to give, for me personally, too much information in one go. It may be informative and interesting but it does not give the same punch as the grid collection of images does. With the grid we as a viewer are encouraged to move our eyes around the composition and linger more on each individual section which are made interesting by their cropping and their specific focus.

Overall I cannot fully judge if this concept has fully worked due to the fact I was unable to widen the series to include other peoples shelf stories outside of my immediate house. It will be interesting to see how my view may change if I extend this series later by photographing my friends shelves and indeed if more stimuli and stories means more interest.

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