View Full Version : Purpose and Message of Still Life?

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05-27-2008, 09:26 PM
I was bored tonight, so I ventured into forums I never read before. Here I find that the Still Life sub of the Photo Aesthetics and Composition Forum didn't even have a post!

I shoot still life mainly because it gives me unlimited compositional control. I shoot many seashells and household items, and enjoy the ability to arrange the items in a fashion that makes the message truly unique.

Anyone else have any thoughts on why they shoot still life?


05-28-2008, 03:35 AM

I shoot a lot of still life although I think the reasons are as much to do with practicalities as a love of the subject.

The challenge of creating a work of art out of a mundane subject is very appealing.

I also think convenience and being in control is a major attraction for me. I get jittery when trying to photograph outdoors when people are around and I have never learnt to drive a car so landscape photography is not so easy.

Reading John Blakemore 'Black and White darkroom workshop' has inspired me to work on still life projects rather than individual images.


05-28-2008, 04:23 AM
On a simple platform, I like stuff and I like looking at stuff and showcasing it. I'm also interested in meaning and symbolism, though most of my still lifes kind of lack that at the moment.

Early Riser
05-28-2008, 05:20 AM
Forgetting about the practical aspect of still life work, product photography, there is a lot to be said about creating an image completely from scratch, completely on your own and having nearly unlimited control over the image.

05-28-2008, 05:35 AM
If an artistic purpose (commercial excluded): study, research on composition, textures, light, symbols, feelings, a.s.o. All these put you in a particular subject to object position (like lesd and Akki14 mentioned it above): you have to be in love with what you are shooting or better said, with what you are looking for in what you are shooting.

05-28-2008, 06:35 AM
I shoot still life mostly flowers or fruit just to comtemplate them.

05-28-2008, 06:48 AM
It also involves a double level of artistic creation: not only the photography, but first the object/composition you are shooting.

(Note: I don't like the term "controlling", I rather prefer the term "create".)

rob champagne
05-28-2008, 07:28 AM
I think that many artists use still life as learning exercise for composition and practice in the use of colour and lighting. These all apply equally well to photography and if you master the techniques involved, then you can make some beautiful images too.

05-28-2008, 03:53 PM
I love to shoot still life images. I have this urge to collect small objects and arrange them in different ways. It's so much fun. My still lifes are shot mainly with a macro lens. I have these images in my head and I just want to try to reproduce them.
What started me shooting in that direction was the opening sequence of the American film, "To Kill A Mockingbird". The focus was on a child's box of small objects and they were shot in close up and I was struck by the preciousness of the items. I also like to combine natural items with man made ones.

05-28-2008, 06:40 PM
When I went to RMIT to do photography (Australia's answer to the Brooks Institute in the US) we had to do still lifes. For most of the students this was their first time using a 4x5 camera and it was a steep learning curve. I think I was the only one who had their own 4x5. We were given a list of things we had to photograph over the course of the year, so we really had no choice of what we shot. I still really enjoyed the challenge of taking something as mundane as biycle parts or spaghetti or a bowl of eggs and making it look great by using the right lighting, background and props. We were using Fijichrome 64T and shooting polaroids to see if we had the lighting right. I haven't done any still lifes since then (1989) but I've been wanting to do some B&W's of flowers for a while now. This thread has firmed the resolve and as soon as my tax return comes in I'll buy a few boxes of film and get started.
I might even learn how to scan the results and post them here.

05-28-2008, 07:44 PM
I'll typically turn to still life if it's bitter outside and I have some new lenses that I want to see what they will do. Paper negs lend themselves to still life.

The antique toys (http://www.apug.org/gallery/showphoto.php?photo=12791&ppuser=33) way on page 4 of my gallery here are some of my very favorites.

05-28-2008, 08:48 PM
Many of the still life photos I make are based on some of the ideas and imagery that I incorporated in my sculpture. So the transition from 3D work to 2D was an easy one for me.
At the current time, my little attic studio has become a repository for family stuff and my basement... well I can't seem to get a handle on cleaning it out. So I have not had the chance to get much still life work done.


07-27-2008, 08:39 AM
I have never been trained in photography, and the books I read about it all show various shots they describe as "still life" pictures. However, noe of them ever really defines just what is a still life. Generally, the pictures are stereotypical table-top type images of fruit, a vase of flowers, and other small objects. Is that the limiting factor . . . where the line is drawn?

What about other shots? Is the typical picture of the rusty old 1939 Plymouth pick-up out in the woods with a tree growing through it a still life photo? What about an old barn or privy? An interior shot of a mechanic's shop with a car on the lift, a work bench, tools & mechanic's equipment lying about, beam of light coming in from an out of view side window, . . . etc?

I ask this because I have never read a good definition for a still life, yet I find that genre of shots is often a category in our local county fair photo contest. They don't define it either!

What is (and what is not) a still life picture?


07-29-2008, 05:24 PM
I used to hate the idea of doing still lifes..
to boring I thought.

Then I heard of the term "Vanitas", and I was totally hooked.

so when I do still lifes, I always have the vanitas idea in my head. And I like to use these symbols in a indirect/surreal way.

If you don't know what Vanitas is, the ask.. I'll explain..

07-29-2008, 05:32 PM
The term 'Vanitas' made me very curious so of course I googled and found the meaning: 'still life consisting of objects that symbolize death'. Very intriguing as I am fascinated by such images but never knew the word.

07-29-2008, 11:21 PM
Isn't that "Vanitas" form the one that usually always has a human skull somewhere in the picture? Explain it to me, Gandolfi.

07-30-2008, 03:56 AM
Yeah, I'm quite interested in the Vanitas/Memento Mori type still-lifes too,in addition to my little fruit series which is a useful distraction from coming up with symbolic compositions. I did a sort of vanitas yesterday and now realise that having a large duck egg next to an egg timer just makes it look like breakfast possibly :rolleyes: I was going for fragility of life in the form of the egg, and brevity of life with the egg timer going.

07-30-2008, 06:50 AM
Isn't that "Vanitas" form the one that usually always has a human skull somewhere in the picture? Explain it to me, Gandolfi.

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.

sun of sand
07-30-2008, 08:05 AM
no idea if there is really anything to this but I've always seen still life as a way of collecting. Instead of collecting the actual things you take a photo of them. I think there is a difference between that and appreciation of objects.

I don't shot still life and I always hated drawing still life
I like some still life
But no matter how great a photo I believe something I see could make
Have no real interest in taking one

I appreciate things but have no desire to really collect them

Bob F.
07-30-2008, 10:42 AM
Of course, this may be a different David Bailey to the one I am familiar with... http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:David_Bailly_Vanitas1651.jpg