View Full Version : Purpose and Message of Still Life?

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07-30-2008, 12:45 PM
Thanks for a great thread and new (to me) term! I've just recently ventured into the still life realm and this is wonderful food for thought. And a new assignment for my photo students: Vanitas.

07-30-2008, 03:40 PM
Thanks for a great thread and new (to me) term! I've just recently ventured into the still life realm and this is wonderful food for thought. And a new assignment for my photo students: Vanitas.

indeed - I also force my students to do Vanitas images..

07-30-2008, 05:40 PM
This thread is inspiring to me too - the company I work for was taken over by another recently and I have a wall of my office dedicated to what I now know to be Variatas - symbols of 'Vergänglichkeit' or transience that I will try to incorporate into some other images in the near future. Thanks Gandolfi!

Willie Jan
12-02-2008, 02:49 AM
I also did not see the still life forum until now...

For me shooting still pictures in my created studio is a way to come through the dark days of the autumn and winter.
I shoot mainly parts of flowers/plants that look interested to me. Whole year I collect these parts and put them away.
now I unwrap plastic bags with all kinds of things I found in nature and try to make interesting pictures of that.

I want to show the viewer how detailed and beautifull these things can be if you look carefully.

12-02-2008, 03:00 AM
The message of all good still life work, IMO, is that life is fleeting and you can't take it with you. It shows that which is to be enjoyed in life, while at the same time stating that there is more to life than it.

05-07-2012, 12:34 AM
Hi, gandolfi

I'm very interested in this kind of subject, like the symbology in still life painting & photography... I suppose you had read about it, as you talked about Vanitas, and I wonder if you could recommend me books where I can find more complete informations about the theory and symbology of still life.

thank you!

Vanitas is the term used in old Dutch paintings.
it is not about death as such - merely the fact that ALL things on earth has its time (except the love of God).

in this kind of imagery, you can put all kinds of symbols in it to make a sort of statement.

if you think about an old painting og flowers, then you'll notice that some of these flowers are dying - that there proberly will be butterflys in the picture - and maybe a snail or two...

it is the eternal fight between Life and Death ot Good and Evil..

quickly there were lots and lots of Vanitas symbols to use (you can make up your own..)


Skull = death (there is a famous painting/drawing of a toddler boy sitting on top of a skull with the text under: "Quis Evadet" (who will excape!)

skull with grain lying on top o fit= Life's victory over death.

Grain= (rye/wheat/oat and so on (harvested)= LIFE (it is most potent when it looks most dead..)

Evy= LIFE (grows on dead items(trees) or dead things as walls)

butterfly= innocense

Lizard= evil/death (often with a butterfly caught)

snails and flys: decay/death

candels= life - and how short it is

glas (one often broken), eggs (again one broken),music instruments with strings (one string often broken) = how beautiful but fragile life is..

monkey= evil (the devil, as it looks almost human, but isn't)

lilly = life

thistle = death/flower of evil (looks alive when dead and dried..)

"life is like the sound coming from a violin - and as short"..

flute = musicality

Raven = evil/clever

coins = wealth

chess board = clevernes

flowers and fruits are often going bad..

soap bubbles = fragile but perfect in form

images on a wall; if not framed, one corner will be bent = death is coming soon

the border of a table (maybe the one where you put your still life) = death (if things are hanging down from it)

and so on, and so on


if you try to look for modern Vanitas Symbols, I can give you four here and now:

in fashion photography the theme "the beauty in a place of decay" (like an old factory, long abandoned..

the "Best before" note on fresh food!

the Y2K problem (everybody thought the world would "end" in year 2000...)

and the most powerfull in our time: 09/11

the symbol can be used as the image of the twin towers (two candels?)
or as a time set on a watch..

This is a fun world to explore - never ending.
the "message" you put in an image doesn't have to mean anything specific

have fun.

05-07-2012, 11:27 AM
I love shooting still life and table top. For me, I get to create my own world and capture it on film. This genre has reminded me of creative endeavors like set design and lighting design. I have total control. For me, the process is more important than than the final shot. I started to shoot 8x10 still life recently and it's a whole world I've created on my ground glass. Most of my sets are no bigger than 4'x5'. One thing I have to learn how to get along without Polaroid. I'm still learning.

05-07-2012, 12:59 PM
Four-year-old thread alert!! :P

Tom Hensley
05-07-2012, 03:28 PM
Four-year-old thread alert!! :P

Saw that, but I'm kind of glad that someone resurrected it. This thread gives me a few nice ideas for a photo concept that I have stuck in my head.

Thanks to those that contributed over the years ;).

05-07-2012, 03:37 PM
Four-year-old thread alert!! :P

Well - the Vanitas symbolism has been alive for about 500 years so.....

05-07-2012, 05:19 PM
I would like to add game (as in: dead birds, dead hares, etc) as a frequent subject, suggesting prosperity for the table, but, to another level of reading, the ultimate common destination.

All that is "multiple" is a symbol of abundance, that's why, in my country at least, sheeps, spiders, grapes, lentils, pomegranates "bring good luck". One often find this "multiple" objects, especially a pomegranate or and bunch of grapes, to express wealth. A few tarnishing, shrinking grape etc detached from the bunch might, again, subtly suggest how easily richness is lost.

The idea behind a Vanitas has probably changed: we nowadays see it as a carpe diem statement: enjoy life while it lasts. I suppose in the mind of the authors of centuries past there was more of a religious meaning: remember you have to die, and be judged! You cannot escape death, so behave!

This changes the perception of the owner radically: if you were a Dutch merchant exhibiting a Vanitas, or a Memento mori (which I think is more specifically referred to an open reference to death, with a skull etc.) you didn't do this to show an "epicurean" message about yourself but, on the contrary, a "religious" message: you are rich but you don't forget thinking about your soul.

As a side note, they say crows are considered to bring "bad luck" by the ancient Romans (and so by us modern westerners) because they appear to say "cras", short in Latin for "hodie mihi, cras tibi", typical inscription on Roman tombs: (it happened) to me today, (it will happen) to you tomorrow, a writing often associated to skulls, skeletons etc also in modern illustrations.


David Brown
05-08-2012, 02:37 PM
Four-year-old thread alert!! :P

The information has hardly expired.

I, for one, found this an interesting read. The Vanitas concept is new to me, although now that I know what it is, I can easily see it. I shall have to discuss it this evening with my wife, she's the professional painter with all the art degrees. ;)

I've also been contemplating for some time, a series of table-tops (still life, as it were) but had not considered any symbolism. My "purpose" is just to explore the design of and play of light on different objects. Maybe someone else will be able to tell me what it all means when (and if) I start producing images in the series.