I recently completed a short still life photography class at School of Visual Arts. I don’t normally photograph still lifes, so it was refreshing and challenging to step out of my comfort zone, and as always, I learned things I can apply to the genres of photography that I do practice.
The course didn’t address technique but rather the history and philosophy of still life photography. The instructor lectured on a different sub-genre of still life at each session, and students were encouraged to come up with their own assignments to address each topic.
Upon presenting my first assignment, the instructor suggested I try to develop the theme throughout the remainder of the course. I didn’t come to class thinking I’d end up reconciling my Jewish upbringing with my casting off of religion while continuing to live with a Jewish cultural identity. I learned as much about myself as I did about still life photography.
The Memento Mori
In the first lecture we discussed the classic still life genre of the memento mori, the reminder of our mortality. Traditionally these artistic representations contain skulls, hour glasses, dying flowers, and other objects that mark the passage of time leading to death. I had the idea to include the tallit and tefillin that I had put away and hadn’t seen since my bar mitzvah. I tried the religion my parents brought me into, but it never spoke to me, so I quickly gave it up after filling all the requirements to be inducted into it. I had removed all the other symbolic religious objects from my life, but for some reason I packed away the tallit and tefillin, perhaps out of some superstition over discarding them. I rented a skull and made the still life above that started me on the path to exploring my cultural Jewish identity.
Death and the Grotesque
The second lecture dealt with death and the grotesque, a popular still life genre that, according to Merriam-Webster, is “characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.” I immediately visualized the photo above and then went about creating it.
When I was a child, my mother often served sliced boiled beef tongue, a very eastern European Jewish preparation. I rather liked it, having only ever seen it presented sliced thin on a platter. One afternoon I shouted to my mother upstairs asking what’s for dinner. Before she could answer, I lifted the lid of the pot on the stove and for the first time saw the intact tongue boiling away. It looked so grotesquely like an enlarged human tongue that I never ate it again. In this photo I depict a tongue escaping from the pot.
I suspect it was very easy to get a beef tongue back in the day, but not anymore, even in New York City. A few butchers offered to order one for me, but there wasn’t time to wait for it to arrive and have my assignment ready for the next class. I finally located a frozen tongue at an old-fashioned butcher shop in Greenwich Village on Saturday, thawed it in the sink overnight, and shot on Sunday morning.
Commercialism is one of the most relevant genres of still life photography today, since any product photograph in advertising is a still life. It was a stretch to make my assignment conform to the exploration of my cultural Jewish identity. My paternal grandmother died 30 years ago, and somehow I ended up with a box of her costume jewelry. I thought that laying it out almost as a schematic might shed some light on who she was and possibly who I’ve become as a result of her influence which ended just as I was becoming an adult. The objects were long ago severed from their commercial roots, yet they must still hold intrinsic value, because many of my classmates admired some of the pieces for their beauty.
Documentary / Slice-of-life
While most still life photographs are highly arranged, the documentary/slice-of-life genre concentrates on objects as they naturally appear. The timing was perfect since this class session coincided with a visit with my parents for Passover. When they moved from the home I grew up in, they took with them the bar mitzvah portraits of each of their three sons. But instead of hanging them in their new home, they stored them in their attic. Both of my brothers reclaimed theirs, but I left mine. The attic is the place things go that you can’t live with but you can’t bear to throw away. If I had an attic, that’s where my portrait would be, but since I don’t, I left it in my parents’ attic.
With my mother’s help, I lowered the staircase, switched on the light, and popped my head into the attic, and sure enough, there was the portrait nestled among other rarely seen items, faded and collecting mold. It was so warm in the attic that I worked quickly to get the shot. Now I have a representation of the portrait more interesting than the portrait itself. It’s sad to think that someday I’ll be faced with the decision of whether or not to keep the portrait, but for now I have this photo.
Portraiture and the Human Body
Objects in still life photographs are normally inanimate or dead. Rarely still life photos incorporate portraiture and parts of the human body. For this final image in my series, I returned to my studio with a pair of borrowed shabat candlesticks and a fresh challah (it made great French toast afterwards). It was Friday evening, and I was tempted to say the traditional prayer over the lighting of the sabbath candles, however I did not, since this photographic exploration confirmed my drift away from actual religion, though not from cultural identity.
I first shot the still life with lit candles in the candlesticks. Then I removed the objects from the set and photographed my hands with the same lighting and camera settings. Swapping my fingers with the candles was simple. While I’ve lost my religion, I respect those who hold on to theirs, so while I was tempted to use my middle fingers for the candles, I opted to use other fingers instead. So I’m not raising a middle finger to religion, rather I’m holding on to the values that shaped me while I continue to live in the present with a different set of values.