Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Going Dutch

There appears to be a new trend going on in still life photography.  

Yet, it's ages-old.  Its beginnings can be traced to the luxurious homes of the Medici in sixteenth-century wealthy Europe, to the origins of modern botanical study, to the first widespread attempts at natural realism in painting.

This retro trend is, in fact, the second coming of vanitas still lifes.

Just yesterday, Alison Zavos of FeatureShoot fame posted a series of images by Australian photographer Marian Drew, who has been rescuing the carcasses of animals killed on the highway in order to bring them to her studio to shoot in this style:  

Drew, who studied still life painting in museums around Germany, says:
‘On my return home these ideas united with the imagery of the animals I saw killed on roads in Australia. In the course of daily life these native animals are killed by cars, domestic pets or power lines and are easily found scattered beside the roads throughout our urban environments. This new perspective made me question our existing relationship to wild animals. The wealthy landowners in Renaissance Europe believed that the abundance of nature was there for human consumption. I found correlations to these ideas within the local attitudes to wildlife that are killed in the drive for urban expansion and economic growth. By imitating the historic painted forms of the ‘Still Life’, but replacing paint with photographic verisimilitude, and familiar European animals with Australian native species, a discord is exposed. This work aims to overlay the historical and the present, the European with the antipodean and photography with painting, while exploring contemporary notions of death and a changing relationship to animals.
Here, the body of each roadkill animal is laid out as if in a final memorial, a funerary display upon silk and linen tablecloths.  They are accompanied by fruits and botanicals which serve as subtle reminders of our fleeting existence, some even positioned to appear as if straining in their last breath to reach the other rich table adornments.

Drew's work started me thinking about the wave of photographers I know of who are currently working in this tradition.

Kevin Best, a New Zealand–born photographer, has also been producing Dutch still life–inspired work:

In Kevin's biography:

Kevin takes us back to that golden era, he has amassed an extensive collection of items which featured in the original paintings, giant glass Roemer’s, delicate “Kraak” porcelain, German Westerwald jugs, agate and silver knives and 300 year old bronze candlesticks that have miraculously survived many attempts to be turned into cannon.

What he can’t find he makes, acquiring skills as a wood tuner, carpenter, set painter and jeweler.
He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the significance of every item in each work and how they interact with each other to form a narrative that had a deep significance in a time of great wealth and fear. A narrative that resonates to this day.
Using each element in a constructed narratives, he creates not photo-realistic works, but instead makes images meant to appear as though they are paintings.

Prior to photography's acceptance as an art form in its own right, it was formerly a tool for painters to use in the creation of their work on canvas.  When the photographic medium grew in popularity and clout, its ability to make clear representations of subjects became the unique asset which set it apart from other artistic mediums.

Now, turning this notion on its head, Kevin (and the other photographers mentioned here) uses studio lighting in order to make his photographs appear as paintings.  To further confuse the issue, he recently commissioned this reproduction of the above photograph as a painting through an online "masterpiece recreation service," with the intent to insert it back into one of his scenes to create a painterly photograph once more.

Here, realism and painterliness continually trade places with one another, past becomes present and present becomes past.  So what is the future?

Reproduction of Kevin Best commissioned by Kevin Best. (Read more here.)

At Food Arts, ushering in the start of a new decade, I commissioned Zachary Zavislak – whose work I had seen at Bonni Benrubi Gallery – and prop stylist Tiziana Agnello to create a still life in this tradition that would at first glance be seemingly believable for our January/February 2010 magazine cover.  (Zachary and Tiziana worked together to create another still life in this style for a December issue of New York Magazine.) This scene would appear to be centuries-old – sans one element – a strikingly modern, obviously out-of-place, Japanese knife.  This knife would represent all that is to come in the future of the culinary industry, while maintaining an obvious connection to the past through its placement in the scen, thus embodying the magazine's cover theme:  "Yes, the Past has a Future."

Zachary Zavislak. Styling by Tiziana Agnello. from New York Magazine's "The Apotheosis of Fresh."

William Brinson and Tiziana had previously worked together some years back to produce the cover below, accompanying a story about aging ham.

 William Brinson. Styling by Tiziana Agnello.

In this post-conceptual/conceptual era, all of the above artists are extraordinarily well-versed in the history of the medium of photography and in their European still life ancestry.  It is this self-awareness which creates added layers of depth in each of their works, as they re-examine their roots in an attempt to seed future growth in the genre.

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