Saturday, February 03, 2007

It's Still Life, But Not As We Know It

I'm lucky enough to live a short walk from Edinburgh Central Library, which has, tucked away in a turret at the top of the building, one of the best arts libraries I've encountered. The photography section is excellent, and among its many gems are a number of books by the great Irving Penn. Having already borrowed Penn's 1990 retrospective Passage: A Work Record, I decided this time to go for Still Life. There's a lot of overlap between the two books, but Still Life devotes whole pages to pictures that appear as mere thumbnails in Passage.

Penn's still-lives broadly divide into two groups. There are those shot on commission for magazines (mostly Vogue), as illustrations for articles. These usually tell a story or express a theme; the items a lady would take to the theatre, cholesterol-rich foods, moisturising face-masks, frozen foods (above).

The second group are personal projects, groups of photographs themed around subject matter or technique; animal skulls from Prague Zoo, blocks of metal and sections of bone, photographic distortions made by painting with light, tulips.

What unites all the photographs is Penn's bold, modernist approach, his rigorously balanced compositions, his eye for form and texture. Everything he photographs looks lusciously glamorous, yet at the same time there's always a little nod to imperfection, wear and tear, decay; smeared lipstick, rusted metal, rotten apples and dying flowers all play their part in his compositions, even the commercial work. As T.S Eliot said of Webster, "...(he) saw the skull beneath the skin." That dash of memento mori is what saves his work from becoming an empty collection of beautiful surfaces.

The effect is at its most striking in Penn's food photography. He treats foodstuffs purely as raw material for compositions, without any concern for making them appetizing; raw frog's legs, oysters and live snails make up one composition, yet the photograph itself is still beautiful.

Fired up by all this, I decided to pick on some mushrooms bought at the farmer's market this morning; though somewhat limited by having only one on-camera flash (and a fifteen-year-old SB-24 at that), I'm pretty pleased with the results.

Mushrooms On The Loose

Nikon D50, Sigma 18-70 f2.8 EX, SB-24 Flash

F9 @ 1/125 sec, ISO 200, Auto Flash set for f8

Flash bounced off a white wall to the left

Background is an old baking tray

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