Still life
(Forgotten gems of vintage photography)
(Volume 1)

Free Chapters

Paperback: 136 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
1 edition (February 27, 2018)
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.3 x 8.5 inches



Briefly about the book

The present book on photographic still life, as well as the entire series of books Forgotten gems of vintage photography, originated as short lectures on genres that I presented at various photographic workshops. Since I wanted to present as much interconnected and concurrent knowledge as possible in these theoretical lectures, as an introduction to practical photography, I highlighted various key points when describing each photograph. As a given work’s title itself is the leading element in the description of a still life photograph, I often complement the title of the work with information about important photographers, brief descriptions of technical procedures, and mentions of the development of styles. In addition, I present essential but often overlooked details and give other facts concerning general photographic knowledge that are important for the development of a good photographer.

Since the visual language of photography is based on painting, until has developed his or her own language in modernism, I will first briefly acquaint you with the basic foundation of the fine arts. Thus, in this book I first present a kind of historical review of still life photography, but after this introduction follows the interpretation of the photographs.

Many photographers who first meet with photography through my lectures are often surprised in the first few hours. Their knowledge of photography, which comes primarily from texts on the Internet and from various photography clubs, often differs greatly with my explanations. This difference is mainly due to two basic directions in photography, which I somewhat humorously refer to as paintography and extractography. The first direction tries to produce a painting with the help of photography, and the second requires that the photograph follows its own expression in the extraction of reality. But the concern generated by this surprise is unnecessary. Here, with some exceptions, I present only paintographic products, i.e., vintage photographs, in most cases based on painting ideals. Visual elements of the upcoming new language of modernist, self-made photography will thus be seen only as coincidences, at first.

The reason for choosing vintage photographs in this book is easy to explain. Modern photographs are copyrighted and are out of reach of my financial capabilities. Additionally, I am also quite well-known as a great fan of old photography and historical photographic processes.


The term, “still life,” which refers to an artistic representation of still nature and, as such, defines a new painting genre, first appeared in the Netherlands only in the 17th century, which is actually quite recent. And because of that, we observe a relatively uniform naming convention of this genre in other languages of the world. For example, in addition to “still life,” we come across quite similar phrases such as silent life, still objects and dead nature. The definition of the original still life is, therefore, quite simple. This is an artistic representation that depicts static, dead things.

However, our understanding of still life has changed over time. From the first antique presentations of fruits, vegetables, and game, after a pause during the Middle Ages, the first still life of various objects and flowers appeared in the middle of the Renaissance period. At that point, still life becomes more complicated. In still life paintings, we see more and more symbols. And the emerging messages that they represent reach a significant magnitude in so-called vanitas, meaning pictures painted with visual symbolic messages about the worthlessness of the Earth’s goods. On the other hand, at the same time that these complicated still life pictures appear, playful trompe-l’œil pictures (from the French ‘deceive the eye’) became increasingly popular. The purpose of this rather unpretentious genre was to create a mentally undemanding optical illusion that would mislead the viewer into the belief that he is observing the real object. 

With the growing wealth of the merchant class, there are also more and more displays of luxury objects, which then lead to the creation of the cabinet of curiosities and, ultimately, to the hall (future museums), a room full of unusual items and works of art.

Thus, from simple displays and the desire for abundance of foods, this stillness turned into a fairly diverse branch of art, composed of displays of plant food, catches, flowers, displays of various everyday or art objects, and vanitas, which in photography does not have any significant importance. For this book, I have also defined a new category of still life, which is typical of photography. These are the so-called found scenes, extractions of photography-framed reality, in which the previously mentioned elements of still life, and sometimes also some unpredictable elements, are “found.”

The first still-life of food

Although we mentioned above that, according to our contemporary concept, the genre of still life was first named only in the 17th century, we find the first independent food images in Egyptian and later Greek and Roman cultures. In Egyptian culture, we can not yet talk about real still life, since preserved food images of the period are more like lists of gifts than aesthetic, artistic food presentations. But in ancient Greece, there is an initial turning point. The presentation of food becomes an aesthetic pleasure and at the same time a presentation of abundance.

According to descriptions of his competition with his contemporary Parrhasius, Zeuxis (500 BC) was depicted as exceptionally admired for his realistic still life images, and he shows great admiration for the realistic techniques of paintings. 

Preserved presentations from that time and paintings from later dates show the other essence of still life, abundance, or at least the desire for abundance. Food of related species is always displayed in large quantities, in most cases completely ripened and prepared, ready for the feast. And this type of still life imagery already had a name at that time: the Greek sophist, Philostratus*, names it as xenia in his work Imagines. Let’s see what he said about the still life of fruit.

* The Imagines was written in ancient Greek and consists of two books. The first was most likely written by Philostratus of Lemnos (Philostratus the Elder), and the second by his grandson, Philostratus the Younger. These books form a kind of a theoretical textbook on painting, and describe works of art that were most likely located in Naples around 230 AD.

Xenia 1

It is a good thing to gather figs and also not to pass over in silence the figs in this picture. Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped on vine-leaves; and they are depicted with breaks in the skin, some

just cracking open to disgorge their honey, some split apart, they are so ripe. Near them lies a branch, not bare, by Zeus, or empty of fruit, but under the shade of its leaves are figs, some still green and “untimely,” some with wrinkled skin and over-ripe, and some about to turn, disclosing the shining juice, while on the tip of the branch a sparrow buries its bill in what seems the very sweetest of the fijjs. All the ground is strewn with chestnuts, some of which are rubbed free of the burr, others lie quite shut up, and others show

the burr breaking at the lines of division. See, too, the pears on pears, apples on apples, both heaps of them and piles of ten, all fragrant and golden. You will say that their redness has not been put on from outside but has bloomed from within. Here are gifts of the cherry tree, here is fruit in clusters heaped in a basket, and the basket is woven, not from alien twigs, but from branches of the plant itself. And if you look at the vinesprays woven together and at the clusters hanging from them and how the grapes stand out one by one, you will certainly hymn Dionysus and speak of the vine as “ Queenly giver of grapes.” You would say that even the grapes in the painting are good to eat and full of winey juice. And the most

charming point of all this is: on a leafy branch is yellow honey already within the comb and ripe to stream forth if the comb is pressed; and on another leaf is cheese new curdled and quivering; and there are bowls of milk not merely white but gleaming, for the cream floating upon it makes it seem to gleam.

The excerpt is from the book Philostratus Imagines, Callistratus Descriptions, translated by Arthur Fairbanks. London: William Heinemann LTD, 1931.

Re-discovering still life images

With the advent of Christianity, all non-religious content disappears from European art for almost a thousand years. After that period, the first presentation of non-divine themes appears only in the Renaissance period, with the rediscovery of old and ancient knowledge. Then, the quality of artwork suddenly increases, and the technical painter’s knowledge and the range of permissible themes are expanded. Artists begin to portray ordinary people, re-discover mythological depictions, and, of course, turn to still life.

One of the first still life images, and one of the first attempts to create trompe l’oeil after a millennium of silence, is Still Life with Partridge and Gauntlets by Jacopo de Barbari (c. 1460/70 – 1516), as well as Vase of Flowers (1480) of Hans Memling (1430-1494).

The picture by de Barbari is a simple but extremely realistic representation of a partridge, a pair of gloves, and an arrow from a crossbow. Attached to the image is a note on a piece of paper with the signature of the painter, a feature that tries to deny the very existence of the image through a non-painted message, and simultaneously turns it into a higher, real reality.

In those times, this exceptional three-dimensionally painted scene probably awoke feelings of the impossible. It emphasizes shadows that are slightly faked artistically, to look sharp but at the same time to look soft. They fall on a precisely plotted wall, with a gleaming metal glove full of details, and for the viewer of the time, more used to looking at the rougher images of the Middle Ages, this was only the beginning!


In the Netherlands, which became one of the richest countries in the world during the Renaissance through maritime trading, interest in botany and an obsession with flowers began to develop. Traders invested an extraordinary amount of money in the cultivation of exotic flowers, and much of that money also arrived into the pockets of painters, who were delighted to immortalize their best specimens. But soon there was something unpredictable in this most developed country: in 1637, the first stock market crash in the world took place.

In the still life images of that time, we see all the elements of earlier, antique still life images of foodstuffs. It is an extremely realistic and aesthetic presentation, a booming and huge amount of flowers that point to abundance, and most likely a certain boastfulness of the owner.

In an image by the master Hans Bollongier (1600 – 1645), we see an exceptionally rich bouquet with a central, oval composition, featuring masterfully illuminated and extremely precisely painted precious flowers from various seasons. But what surprises us most in this picture is the presence of a story, vanitas, the idea of the transience of everything material. On the right side of the still life image, we see that someone has removed a nasty, trimmed little branch. Next to the branch, an aggressive lizard opens its mouth. A snail has spotted the lizard and is frightened, so it moves away from the still life. But, despite the danger, a new threat to the flowers, a caterpillar, moves toward the bouquet. Everything is short-lived, everybody has enemies as well as friends, but time marches on. From a still-fresh bouquet, a first petal falls near the caterpillar.

Still life images of objects

During the period of commercial materialism, when hunger and food were no longer a daily problem, the next major reversal occurs in still life imagery. Mankind becomes burdened with luxury and material goods, which become a new way of presenting abundance.

In many paintings of just-finished feasts, in which we still feel the echo of the problems of the previous hungry generations, items of value begin to appear. In a Dutch painting of still life, produced by one of the best-known masters of still life, Willem Claeszoon Heda, we see an expensive imported Venetian glass, oysters, which require a drop of good wine, a left-over piece of white bread, a beautifully decorated knife handle, a golden cup, a shallow bowl for confectionery, and a lemon, which is still used today for washing and dipping fingers while enjoying seafood in the Mediterranean region.

But food is no longer important. The desire of people who are born rich, who seemingly lack nothing, is shifting to valuables, luxury, and material abundance.


Found still life

And then came photography. The painted scene as described by Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) in the book Della Pittura was supposed to look like the view from a window but has become dynamic, viewed from different angles. Classical painting views of fully featured objects were cut off through photographic extraction, full of wanted or unwanted elements of reality, which then became part of the composition. The photograph can now show a kind of ready-made painting scene, which has become a “found still life.” 

But not every photographer knows how to notice the message of beauty in the chaos of modern life.

The first experiments on photographic still life with fruits

Roger Fenton (1819-1869) is mainly known for photographic documentation of the Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856. However, despite being one of the first war photographers, we should not ignore the fact that Fenton was also a painter, who in later years was also a photographer of still life, although not too successful, unfortunately.

His still life images are quite artistic but not so innovative. This can be seen in Still Life with Fruit and Decanter. Strawberries, currants, grapes, peaches, plums, and exotic pineapples show an abundance like the almost standard still-life images of the middle class, but we are soon quite negatively surprised by the almost unprofessional positioning of various scarves in the compound background. Then he continues to surprise us with a bottle that is simply a sort of filler in the composition arrangement, with an unrelated theme. The lighting of the scene is quite deficient, since the photograph gives more a sense of two dimensions, rather than the depth of the third.

The possibilities for corrections are therefore quite significant in this photograph, and Fenton successfully overcame the deficiencies to some extent in some of his later still life images.

Scientific still life of beautiful nostalgia

Dutch lawyer Eduard Isaac Asser, who was involved considerably in photography, but as an amateur, has already been introduced in this book through his humorous Still life with a cock (see “Escape from the artistic vision” on page 74). But his true mastery we find only through various found still life images (see “The atmosphere of cosiness” on page 124) or still life images with objects.

His Still life with scientific (physical) instrument is again a somewhat unusual still life image for that time period. Asser does not deal with the imagery of art objects, like most of the then-photographers, with statues, relies, vases, and jewelry, but has used various physical measuring instruments for his still life work. He puts them on a table, partly covered with napkins, in front of a monochrome background that emphasizes their unusual shape, and at the same time draws our concentration only to the exhibited objects. An interesting, rather dynamic composition directs our view in a seemingly precisely mapped spiral circulation, looking at the surface of the photograph. This leads us, unlike the then-approved views of his technically educated contemporaries, to the gently blurred world of beautiful nostalgia.

Idyll of garden tools in two plans

Olympe Clemente Alexandre Auguste Aguado de las Marismas (1827 – 1894) was a Franco-Spanish nobleman and photographer, and in particular a great expert in photographic techniques. He was also creatively practicing almost all genres of photography. Just one of his most beautiful photographs is shown here, a somewhat “unsuccessful” still life image with gardening tools.

Due to the oval shape of the frame, the photograph predictably and quickly moves our focus to the center of the action. Here we first notice a chopping block with a billhook, and in the next minute a broom with three contours. These were probably made inadvertently because the broom shifted while exposing the photograph.

A new surprise awaits us behind the broom. There is a new plan, which is rarely seen in classic still life images. An open window with a large number of outlines, probably created by the broomstick movement, leads our view into a new space, almost a new still life scene, with a kind of box and a container.

When we depart from this space, the leaves of the vine and the rest of the tools are settled on the other half of the image. An almost new polished watering can and some grass behind it lets the viewer expose himself to the afternoon summer sun, inviting us to stretch, calmly smile, and relive once again the tranquil idyll of former times.

Still life simple familiarity

This still life image by the pictorialist Heinrich Kühne (1866 – 1944) is a typical paintographic still life work, saturated in an impressionistic dreamlike state, which nonetheless is adorned with elements of modernism. His choice of everyday objects, like the presence of an empty plate and a bottle, thus the absence of abundance which is more typical of classical still life images, creates for us an atmosphere of pleasant intimacy, a gentle feeling of a stolen moment, which occurs at the moment of our instantaneous awareness of the aesthetics of this simple bourgeois or peasant table.

The details of old Paris

Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927), a French actor and, in particular, a photographer, is known for his extremely extensive opus of photographs of Paris and its surroundings. Since he sold his photographs primarily as study templates for painters and architects and to various French institutions for documenting old Parisian buildings, his photographs, quite unusual for that period, were quite modernist, and extremely precise recordings of Parisian reality.

This objective approach with full details, which will soon become a kind of motto of modernist movement, is also seen in the following photograph of found still life with old clothes and hats.

The shot is a photographically extracted reality, a sharp shot, which is intended to show all manner of details. Old, humiliated, crumpled, partly torn hats contrast the white basket and take the eye of the observer further into the photograph, leading it to then slowly explore the uniform with shiny buttons, its dark belts, extremely polished military boots, and a beret on a pile of crumpled trousers with modernistically accented textures of soft wool and cold flax. At the top of this still life image, a modern, high-rise skyscraper reigns from the sky but is basically nothing more than a cluster of boxes with labels, in a store where we again see suspended belts. Meanwhile, outside the store suitcases are offered, visually enriched with fabulous textures of fabric and leather.

New photographic views of the world

The most recent still life image in this book is one of found still life and is no longer part of vintage photographs. It represents one of the first and very radical leaps from paintograph, a vintage photograph that wanted to become a picture, into the world of a extractography, a new photograph that is liberated from the “tyranny” of painting. Or, if we slightly change the Moholy-Nagy’s exclamation from his book* Painting, Photography, and Film into today’s language: “The photographer is now using the camera photographically, rather than using a photograph as a painting medium.” The photo begins to discover its own strength and expression. The shadow becomes part of the composition, the frames are increasingly dynamic, often inclined, and the point of view of the camera is no longer seen, as the most important avant-garde photographer Rodchenko said, “with the eyes of the history of art,” but it is often shot from dizzying heights or from low camera angles; elements are becoming more and more surrealistic, and photography adopts symbolic meanings. 

In our case, there are two toys that are no longer wonderful but broken, dolls with dead gazes directed to the sky, under sharply shaped shadows, sunbathing, caught in the limited, high-raised, bridged space of the balcony of the residential block: this is a cage of the new era, sliding against the surrealistic black square, in a time in which the old aesthetics will soon be replaced by rebellion against almost everything.

* Originaly, this slightly cynical text of Moholy-Nagy from his book is under the pictorialist (impressionistic) image of Paris by photographer A. Stieglitz, and it reads as follows: “The triumph of Impressionism or photography misunderstood. The photographer has become a painter instead of using his camera photographically. 

Copyright Peter Mrhar © All rights reserved.