Remember to live.
15 May 2020: Final images from my project, Memento vivere.
For an account of the emergence of this project, see below:
2 February, 2020
This body of work represents the images which I will use in the work in progress. These images are inspired by the still of the Dutch, Flemish and Spanish still life painter of the 17th century. For the first set of six images, I created still life with live (instead of dead or cooked as traditional) poultry to suggested life can exist in still life. The second set of images explores the idea that humans can feel enormous compassion for poultry, yet still eat them.
In the early part of the 17th Century, Northern European values and culture were changing secondary to the Great Reformation. Though the population had been decimated by decades of the plague, inexpensive foodstuffs and budding economy revived the arts. As religious symbolism had been eradicated from the arts, Flemish and Dutch artists embraced still life for ” the forms potential for allegorical meanings and moralizing messages” (Petry, 2013).
For example, in de Heem’s Vanitas above, the coin on the bottom middle and the wine glass symbolize gambling and moral excess. The skull and extinguished candle symbolize death, meant as a warning for those who might stray. The Turkey is another example of a vanitas: the objects displayed on the table demonstrate wealth, while fruits, vegetables and meat remind the viewer of the inevitability of decay and death (Petry, 2013).
The idea that life is occurring now, in this moment, is much more appealing to me than the reminder of impending loss of life. I am adopting the use of momento vivere, a Latin term which translates to approximately “remember to live” as the basis for my current project. The quote from the Bible, below, captures how I feel about paying attention to what is here and now. Everyday, I go to work, I check my email, I eat, I talk to my husband, I see my animals, then go to bed. The only thing new under the sun is now:
- “5. The sun rises, the sun sets; then it speeds to its place and rises there.
6. The wind blows south,then it turns north;the wind blows all around and keeps returning to its rounds.
7. All the rivers flow to the sea,yet the sea is not full;to the place where the rivers flow,there they keep on flowing.
8. Everything is wearisome,more than one can express;the eye is not satisfied with seeing,the ear not filled up with hearing.
9. What has been is what will be,what has been done is what will be done,and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes 1: 5-9.
And what does NOW look like? I am going to experiment with creating the idea that a still life can contain life.
My objective: Employing the lighting and classical arrangements of the 17th century, I will create images to remind people that they are alive. I will substitute the dead (decaying, cooking, hanging) animals with real live poultry.
9 February, 2020
I created two scenes this weekend, one inspired by the Dutch painter, Peiter Claesz, and the other was more of a free-form still life. I used Peiter Claesz’ work to recreate the scene he painted in Turkey Pie (1623). I used objects I already had at home for the scene, and took a trip to the grocery store to obtain reasonable substitutes for the food he includes in this painting. I was excited to try using my new flat LED lamp by NEEWER, and a soft box which is made for this model. When I had styled the shot, my husband brought in Sophie, a very docile hen who would add life to the still life. She was great– very calm and didn’t seem to be bothered. I shot about 400 frames from many angles some with Sophie and some without. I am thinking of creating a triptych with a long shot of the entire setting in the middle and two smaller, detailed images.
I was excited for the process and happy with the results, but after putting the image on the discussion board, I get really sad and anxious. It’s a lot of social pressure and I would like my work to be liked. I am working on this issue– as in finding ways to support myself and my work without getting external feedback.
Critique of the image, above: What went well– I was very pleased with the overall look of this image. I had set out to recreate Claesz’ The Turkey, with a twist– the elephant in the room is actually a chicken on the table. What I mean is that the meaning change when the cooked turkey becomes a live chicken. Is it surreal? I think so.
In my second image, Vee the rooster posted in a red-themed formal still-life. He was a very good chicken, but got into a crowing jag which was a bit loud. I am not entirely sure where I am going with this project yet. I don’t think I am The Chicken Portrait person, but it may appear that way from my images. This coming week, I will study the work of Paulette Tavormina for more inspiration.
14 February, 2020
Constructive criticism of this work, above:
Overall, these are interesting and well constructed images. The exposure is too dark, so some of the detail is lost. I am working on the puzzle of the correct amount of light. I am concerned that, if I turn up my stationary light that I will blow out the whites and the shadows. What I have found, though, is that I consistently under-estimate the recorded light- I look through my lens and it appears that I have more than I actually do.
Lighting: The desired effect was to mimic the Dutch 17th century still-life: Deep shadows and marked contrast supporting the sense of dimensional. This appears to be successful. I have noted that, in works like Claesz, the shadows are deep, but not black.
Composition: Successful as the placement of the teapot, the knife and the chicken form a triangle which keeps the eye moving. In addition, the bread color, the lemon and the chicken are similar.
Next time: I will crank up the light to see if I can get good results with a better exposure curve.
15 February, 2020
I have been designing a few different scenes in my head over the last few days to shoot over this weekend. I will be styling the images in the manner of Peiter Claesz’, but will not be using any particular image as a reference. I picked up a few items at a charity shop last night to utilize as props, and bought a truck-load of fresh fruit. The good thing about this project is we get to eat the leftovers.
There is too much ambient light to shoot indoors during the day, so I will style today and shoot tonight.
I had planned to use three small, identical hens for this image. I placed the props to create a classic triangle, where the vase with flowers is at the top, the copper container to the left and the three hens to the right. The three hens were not interested in a photo shoot, and after a long week we were not interested in convincing them. Instead, we went with our two friendliest and most easygoing chickens, Vee and Sophie. They do not appear to be bothered by the photo shoot, and they receive a grain reward when the shoot is over.
I feel that both of these images are successful. The images are balanced, visually, through the strong compositional triangle. The violin neck on the right forms a boundary and pulls the eye back to the main subject. While Sophie stares admonishingly at the viewer, Vee is off in his world of making music. I am not sure which version I prefer. The image with Vee is more open and there are contextual elements which provide the viewer with information about the scene. It’s easier to recognize that the piano is in a home, for example.
Critique of these images, above: The styling worked really well– the colors of the flowers, copper pot and chickens are very complementary. The composition is the classical triangle which allows the eye to move around the image. The piano glows, and the lighting angle is perfect. Really happy with these. What could I improve? While the image is really cool, I do have to ask myself if I achieved my objective: Does this promote the idea of being alive? I am not sure, and people have assumed that the chickens are stuffed. Will think about that…
17 February, 2020
Styling this set took more than an hour: preparing the food, hanging the drape and taking sample images. I am amazed at how the scene changes when I look through an iphone camera versus what I see with my eyes. I employed the classic composition triangle, elevating the vase in the back to form the top of the triangle, and balancing the composition with the light colored fruit bowl and the colorful fruit. I folded the rug to create a path for the eye to the flowers. I used a blood orange to create a fruit spiral with the intention that the color may inspire questions regarding the future of the duck.
Critique of the work, above: Composition rocks, and the colors are gorgeous. I am wondering, what the greater message is here. As my son asked ‘why duck in basket”?
19 February 2020:
I am intrigued by the work “Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber of Spanish painter Juan Sanchez Cotan. His work is known for his realism, though I find the idea of dangling produce improbable and a bit surrealistic. Having an indoor window which somewhat resembles the one he used to internally frame this work, I attempted to emulate his work.
Critique of this work: I was not happy with the lighting and positioned my light in various places in a 160 degree arc. I think that working with a light background (with the dark grid) was radically different and more difficult than working with a solid black background. When I looked through my images, I laughed because of the resemblance to a primary school science fair project failure. The window is quite large and the props get lost in the space. Interestingly, I received the most positive feedback on this image. It is a bit surreal, and, as a group member put it– resembles the old 8 bit video games. It’s so helpful to receive feedback as it helps me to find possibilities and direction.
21 February 2020
I had an unofficial 1:1 with our course leader today to talk about my project direction. I have enjoyed creating these memento vivere and have been pleased by the lighting effects and structure of the work. However, I wonder where am I going next? After receiving positive feedback on the image which I had felt was a mistake, I have wondered if I could incorporate more experimental and less traditional styling. I am glad to learn that my WIP can contain sets of images (sounds like a minimum of 6 per set) as I can look forward to creating something related by different. I have four solid images for the first set and am hoping to create an additional one today.
23 February 2020
I worked on a new version of Cotan’s quince/cabbage/melon/cucumber last night in hopes to create a tighter image which is more in proportion than my experiment with the chicken, above. I created a set outside in an open bay of the garage so that I could include the geese. My objective was to capture the flock of six geese decimating the fruit. They moved in very quickly and snatched the watermelon slice and the whole cucumber — I struggled to get a shot as my husband attempted to wrestle the props away from the geese and return them to the stage. The stage was a bit of a stretch for the geese, therefore I wasn’t able to get as much neck and body as I had hoped.
What went well– I was able to recreate the scene with fidelity. The relationship between the fruit size and the window opening was more in proportion to my previous efforts with the indoor window. The placement of the fruit was also very similar to the original which will assist the consumer to relate this image to the still life painting of the 17th century. What could be improved: The shadows may be too strongly black- I will try to fix this in post. The set was too high and very little of the goose was visible. This may make the image a bit more difficult to unpack. The image quality is limited as it is grainy and underexposed. I will experiment with adding a second light at a lower sitting at approximately 45 degrees to the first to catch more of the subject.
29 February 2020
I am aiming to create 6 reasonably interesting and technically fine memento mori/vanitas images for my first series. I will create another 6 images of a different style– most likely surrealism. The image which I created tonight (image 5/6 of series 1) is modeled after the painting at the top of this page called Vanitas by Jan Davidz de Heem, from 1630. I swapped the straw adorned skull with a small hen whose markings remind me of a skull. I bent a single piece of straw in recognition to de Heem’ “crown of thorns” reference. It seems to me that de Heem warned the viewer of the hazards of money (gambling?) and drink. The tattered book in his work appears to be a small, well-worn and perhaps neglected Bible. In my work, the hen is alive and the flowers are past their prime. The message changes: remember that you are living right now.
3 March 2020
Image 6/6, series 1. I worked with a new concept this past weekend where I explored the work of Alexander Isadore Leroy DeBarde. He is a French artist who worked in England in the 18th centure. A work called “birds”, displayed in the Louvre, depicts a bird collection in a display cabinet.
I styled a scene which is meant to recall this work, replacing the owl with a live chicken. I am still working on cleaning up the image, and am displaying a draft below:
7 March 2020
Nature morte: I am changing the subject of my project slightly– it may be a darker turn, or more provocative. The images which I created above were intended to demonstrate a spark, or memento vivere, in traditional still life. The momento mori and vanitas still life were meant to convey a warning against the excesses in life as through the inclusion of symbols signifying death. Going to hell for a badly-lived life was a high price to pay. The feedback I received regarding my images was that the animals looked like they were not alive, rather, like they were stuffed. I can understand that as the images represent a moment in time, and an immobile animal would be perceived as dead. Susan Sontag, in On Photography states “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.“
In the next six images I am going to utilize the same cellar lighting, fresh flowers and other stylized elements of the nature morte. I aim to convey a more complex relationship of the predatory human and the vulnerable bird.
My over-arching theme of my work in this MA has been that of willful blindness, of denying a truth because acknowledging it could create an existential threat to the psyche. It strikes me that people can love ducks, rescue ducks from storm sewers, or coo as a mama duck and babies swim by — and buy and eat a roasted duck. How can humans entertain both thoughts: Ducks are so precious AND I want to eat a duck? Is this a demonstration of willful blindness?
This is the first image of the second series. I styled this shot with an emphasis on the color blue. The chicken featured, Phyllis, is a Bantam Silky and has hair-like feathers, black skin, blue cheeks and legs. The effect which I desire is that the viewer interprets that the hair products are being applied to the chicken. I have included two symbols of death: The scissors on the table, and the snuffed candle. I was surprised that this image worked so well– the lighting, composition and content are complementary. What could be better: there is a lighter area around the scissors which I will tone down in the final image.
8 March 2020
Second image (2/6) of the second set of images, meant to be more challenging and surreal. The duck in the fridge is a sign that the duck could be meant as a meal. The duck has a prominent beak color, so I used a similar color as a compliment throughout the image (orange). Green and white were the base colors, giving a cleaner look to the image. The brightly colored and almost comical daisy adds to the surreal feeling of this image. Achieving the “cellar lighting” used in the Dutch still life was a challenge because of the white interior of the fridge. I turned the fridge off to prevent the interior light from coming on. Of note, the duck did leave a large amount of droppings.
Second set of images, third image. The placement of the duck in the toilet symbolizes the practice of flushing goldfish down the toilet. Aesthetically, the toilet is the same shape as a large Roman vase, and the flowers placed next to the bowl capitalize on this allusion. The toilet is also referred to as “the throne”– which demonstrates the idea that we can both love these animals and toss them away. NOTE: Toilet had been cleaned, then emptied of water. The duck is standing on two folded towels.
9 March 2020
The images above and below (third and forth out of six) make use of food preparation as a symbol of impending danger for the fowl. The one above recalls the formal composition and lighting of a nature morte image. The salt and pepper, lemon and rosemary and presence of the knife are clues about the future of the chicken. The image below is less formal, but more visually obvious. The chicken is standing on a recipe book which is open to the directions for roast chicken.
10 March 2020
15 March 2020
This is the final image of the second series. This image demonstrates the most obvious peril for the animal– it is falling from the sky. I am hoping to provoke a feeling of concern for the rooster. I don’t know if this will translate into a thought provoking exercise about the strained relationship humans have with poultry– that we want to cuddle with them, but are also fine with eating them.
But it’s mitigated by the bed of flowers in which the bird will land. I choose to create a surreal image to ensure that the message remains light-hearted. This image was taken up-side down: the flowers are dangling from cardboard. The chicken was placed on his back which causes the chicken to become hypnotized, briefly.
NOTE ON POULTRY HANDLING: I constructed the scenes with safety and comfort in mind for the animal. These all are well loved: They have names, bear-proof homes and more than an acre is fenced for them in which to free-range. My husband selected and cuddled with the animals, carefully placing them into the scene only after they were calm. It’s not visible, but my husband acted as the handler throughout and watched the animal’s reaction and stress level. These shots were taken over a period of seconds to minimize the animal’s stress.
Petry, M., 2013. Nature Morte: Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still-life Tradition. Thames & Hudson.
Sontag, S. (1978). On Photography.