Random Detritus

In contemplation of objects. In search of simplicity. In creation of minimalism.

Studies of the random things that people no longer need.

 

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Winter Time – with a hint of chiaroscuro

 

 

It’s been a long couple of days shooting this series. With nothing really to “aim” for with it, apart from my own enjoyment. I really just wanted to shoot something that captured simplicity. Some more traditional Still Life, with produce rather than detritus, on two planes, the vertical and horizontal. Without complex heights, layering or position. Natural light and one reflector.  Without a “polished” background, something rough and in tone.

Winter vegetables and winter flowers.

Here’s what I came up with:

Winter Pumpkin_013

Winter Pumpkin_001

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Caravaggio and a Basket of Fruit

I don’t really shoot fruit and veg and food as still life. I had one brief foray into the genre when at college, painting with dim, coloured torch light to make extremely simple and chiaroscuro heavy images of such edibles as pears, plums, bananas and potatoes sitting on textured tiles (click on the thumbnails for larger images):

Entwined 1

Entwined 1

Entwined 2

Entwined 2

Entwined 3

Entwined 3

A Pair of Plums

A Pair of Plums

A Pair of Plums 1

A Pair of Plums 2

Pair

Pair

Pair 2

Pair 2

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Together 1

As much as I love them and their mystery of shadows, I have found that once I start trying to add them to a more complex still life, it doesn’t work the way I want it to. I lose interest. The meaning is changed into something more traditional, more “Dutch”.  But not successfully, my talent doesn’t lie with photographing fruit!

The more I look at Dutch still life the more I come to understand the meanings and the beauty and skill which went into their creation, but the more I move away from it. From the very beginning my interest in still life has been piqued by the careful constructions and object wistfulness of photographic artists such as Olivia Parker. Even the use of organic produce in an Olivia Parker image is objectified, made strangely dislocated and then reconnected in new meanings all at the same time:

pods of chance

Pods of Chance, Olivia Parker

That said, when I first starting reading about still life painting and its history, I knew there was going to be a lot of fruit, vegetables and lobsters… I was expecting not to be very interested, and merely to use any theoretical information to develop the way I shot my photographic images. True to form, the first time I looked at the image of Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio, I thought, meh, like his people more. It’s a basket of fruit and not much else. The photo was a small grainy black and white in Norm Bryant’s book “Looking at the Overlooked”, it wasn’t very impressive, but what he was saying about it did make me think. Bryant was using the painting to demonstrate how in many still lifes, especially of earlier periods, the planes of expression and reality are flattened. There is no “here and elsewhere”, the image does not draw you into another world to find yourself in the beauty or action in the background or from which you have been existing in the foreground. There is no contextuality, no greater universe for this basket of fruit. It’s only reference is to the table top, but which we only see as a line – the depth of the table is not given to us as a measure of perspective, as Bryant puts it:

“The third dimension is taken out, and the image seems strangely monocular: it is a painting which supplies to both eyes open the look the world has when seen with one eye closed.”

This in itself I thought was fascinating – by taking out dimensionality, and painting in a flat plane, there was no other focus. There is no flight of fancy here. This is a bowl of fruit. When you look at the painting you can search for otherness, but you wont find any – you will return to the subject; the “objects”. Every little detail becomes of equal importance in a way that you would otherwise not notice in ordinary life.

Having realized this I went and did some more research on Caravaggio – firstly finding a colour image of the painting…

canestradifrutta

Canestra di Frutta, Caravaggio

And suddenly, now I was interested. The simplicity of this image in colour is a thing of wonder. Whether you like still life (and especially the rather now cliched basket of edibles) take a minute to really look inside this work, and admire the ability and dedication of Caravaggio for his subject:

The leaves are not perfect, some are aging and withered, some have holes. Look at the apple, how would it be if you went to eat what you thought was a perfect apple and saw that brown worm hole in it? How dusky are the grapes not wiped down yet?

And if you look closely, you realize that there is one very subtle but vital clue about the planes of vision here: there is a shadow on the edge of the table under the basket, it is not sitting just on the table top, it juts out over the edge into a foreground that isn’t depicted in the image.

Why is this important, what does this add to the image? I think it’s best summed up by another article I read on the internet:

“Caravaggio compensated for the apparent loss of contextual gravity in an astonishing way. The basket is at eye level and juts out over the edge of the table into the real space of the spectator.

In this formal exaggeration and with a viewpoint liberated from all attributive connotations, the otherwise trivial object takes on an unheard of monumentality that renders the secret lives of objects, the play of light on their surfaces and the variety of their textures worthy of such painting.”

I had this concept of the lack of dimensionality further pushed to the forefront of my mind when I went to visit the still life exhibition on at the NSW Art gallery (I’ll say more about that in a later post, and how terribly disappointed I was) The below image is called Kitchen Utensils by Cressida Campbell – excuse the grainy fuzzy image, taken on an iPhone!:

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Kitchen Utensils, Cressida Campbell

In this image all depth perception is removed. The immediacy of the image is created by a sense of forcing the objects on the eye. There is no “other” to escape out of, no negative, empty space even, to give the mind a break. These are the mundane, apparently ugly objects that we use for everyday tasks without thinking. They are not beautiful, they would not otherwise be noteworthy – though they are the utensils by which we might create the more traditional, food based still life. They are set in their proper location – on the magnetic strip, but this is the only context.

There is something about this image and the (very different) image from Caravaggio that links them – the lack of depth. The lack of dimensionality and visual planes in these images makes interpretation cerebral, not emotional. The basket of fruit is impeccable in its depiction and interesting in it’s reality, but it is not emotive, and neither are the utensils. In contrast to the  work of Olivia Parker, there is no “soul” to be found, no longing, no wistfulness.

So why did this work of Cressida Campbell’s pique my interest? I stopped and looked a second longer, I even snapped the image on my phone to comment on in this blog later – why? There was the immediate recognition in me: this is what my husband’s workshop looks like. Tools lined up on a magnetic strip. Not the kitchen utensils, but the standard useful tools of a workshop. All together in the one plane of existence, and the single visual plane as well. Useful, unromanticized, and unremarkable.

All this had made me think about my own initial forays into still life, where I too was unintentionally working without dimensionality. The choice was deliberate but at the time I couldn’t understand why I had used the objects laid directly on background with no space between them to say what I wanted. And I didn’t know enough to understand why the statements I made were flat.  Eye catching, occasionally, but not of a kind to make a viewer stop and feel….

So I thought to finish this rather long-winded post I would show one of those examples. Here is one of my early still lifes, Honeyeater Sage and Time.

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Honeyeater Sage and Time

This was an image created to depict how our knowledge is dependent on time, and yet how frozen it is, how stunted and how full of holes. The swift, agile and light honeyeater is cast in metal and does not move. Time is upside down and not passing, and the sage leaves, so symbolic of our learning and our wisdom either are small and unformed or starting to be eaten away, one fades into the empty space as if it had never been.

And yet – does this image make you feel? Or is it too simply a statement of its objects. Stunted by its lack of dimensionality and by its single plane of vision into a form that did not suit it?

These are the questions I ask myself when I look at it, an image that I am both happy with and strangely frustrated by at the same time.

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