Authenticity and analysis

4 February, 2020

How do we evaluate what we see? Does it matter the source of the material from which light is reflected into the eye and processed by the brain?  Do we value light reflected from one source more than another? We do value in the sense that the brain interprets certain wavelengths of reflected light as color. If the light we perceive is red, does it matter if it is reflected from a bug’s wing, oil paint, printing ink on paper, or on a computer monitor?

No matter what the source, the evaluation occurs through a cognitive process of forming or accessing perceptions.  “Perceptions are not regarded as internal pictures or sounds, but rather as language-like descriptions coded, we suppose, by brain structures of what may be out there. We carry in our heads predictive hypotheses of the external world of objects, and of ourselves. These brain-based hypotheses of perception are our most immediate reality. But they involve many stages of physiological signaling and complicated cognitive computing, so experience is but indirectly related to external reality (Gregory, 1998).”

The predictive hypothesis that our brains employ are based on our own limited experiences. Past visual experiences may be very important in interpreting or valuing contemporary data.   For example, when we see a large furry four footed animal, we may “see” horse, but in actuality, a moment later we realize that we are seeing a moose.  Because photographs, prints or oil paintings are processed through a bio-behavioral neurological system, I would argue that the methods used to evaluate photography are the same as evaluating anything else which we “see”.

I am including an example (see top of page).  I created this drawing using oil pastels around 1990 when I was living in Alaska.  I drew what I had in front of me—and I drew on the floor (this does not aid in accurate rendering of perspective- so forgive the imperfections! In addition, I took a snapshot with my i phone of this drawing as it hangs in my sister’s dining room in Sweden, so there are odd reflections .) When considering systems of photographic image or art theory, how would you judge my photographic image of a drawing?  

Gregory, R. (1998). Brainy Mind. British Medical Journal. P5.


The Index and the Icon

3 February 2020

Reading the title for coursework in week 2, “The Index and the Icon“, I note that I can’t parse meaning from the phrase because I do not have a firm grasp of what these terms actually mean within the context of the image. I found an article from University of Chicago School of Media where the author provides context and outlines definitions of symbol, index and icon.
Index and icon are utilized in semiotics, or the study of signs, and have specific connotations when used in this type of analysis. The index and icon relate signs to objects. The index is something that serves to guide or point out, or facilitate a reference. “The index focuses the attention”(Huening, 2004). Atkin (2010) states that if a sign is fact which connects an object to an interpretation, it is an index. He states that the connection between a murder and the victim is an index.
The icon, states Huening (2004), has properties in common with the object. He goes on to say that a photograph is “an icon, it is directly and physically influenced by its object, and is therefore an index; and lastly in requires a learned process of reading to understand it”. However, Atkin (2010) asserts that Pierce had indicated that portraits are an example of an index as, if in a realistic style, it would share qualities with the object from which the portrait was modeled.
So I wonder, what is the relationship between the index and the icon? True, they are both a form of sign according to this philosophical system. But how do leverage this system of typology in our work of creating images?
Bradley (2016) states “Signs can communicate by resembling what they represent, by implying what they represent, or through arbitrary representations that must be learned before we can understand their meaning.” I think that I have now connected this philosophical theory of signs to work which I am doing today.

This post is illustrated with a composite image that I created a few weeks ago which may be interesting to unpack using the terms index and icon. In this image, I think that the image of me with long flowing robes surrounded by a sparkly sky serves as an indication (index) that this is a constructed image. Clues include that the figure appears too large in proportion to the mountains and that the figure is scantily dressed for this mountain environment.
The icon is the mountain scene in that it visually represents the original object.

Icon
Index

I think that I have a better understanding of the lexicon of symbols, and why it might be important to appreciate the differences and uses of these terms. While I am aware that there are signs in my work, I wasn’t really sure how I would approach maximizing the use of signs as interpretive communication. As I am now exploring momento mori, or veniere, I can consider how I want to express signs in these images: Do I want to include an index in my work? Or an icon? And how might the viewer appreciate these additions?

Atkin, A. (2010). Peirce’s Theory of Signs. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed from:https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce-semiotics/#SigEleSig

Bradley, S. (2016). Icon, Index and Symbol- Three Catagories of Signs. Vanseo Design. Accessed: https://vanseodesign.com/web-design/icon-index-symbol/

Heuning, D. (2004). The University of Chicago: Theories of Media: Keywords Glossary: symbol-index-icon. Accessed at: https://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/symbolindexicon.htm

Memento vivere

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.

Claesz, P. (1623). The Turkey.

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).

Jan Davidsz de Heem. 1630 ? Vanitas.

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.

Claesz, P (1643). Turkey Pie.
Sophie and the banquet

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.

Vee, red flowers, blood orange

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.

Pawn shop violin.
Prussian cocoa pot.

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

Still life with oyster basket
Lars Drakkelsen and the picnic

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.

Cotan, J. (1602). Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber.
Eilertsen, A. 2020. Pear, pepper, grapefruit, lemon, melon and grapes.

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.

Eilertsen, A. (2020). Grapefruit, grapes, melon, cucumber and goose.
Behind the scenes : Anton with an accusing look.
Hanging grapes swing when nibbled.

Critique:
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.

Eilertsen, A. (2020) Remember that you are alive.

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.

DeBarde, A.I.L. (1700). Birds.

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:

Eilertsen, A. (2020). Birds on book shelf.

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?

Eilertsen, A. (2020) Scissors.

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

Eilertsen, A. (2020). Gerbera daisy.

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.

Eilertsen, A. (2020). Shells.

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

Eilertsen, A. (2020). Lemon and rosemary.

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

Eilertsen, A. (2020). Mandarin orange.

15 March 2020

Eilertsen, A. (2020). Icarus.

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.

References

Petry, M., 2013. Nature Morte: Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still-life Tradition. Thames & Hudson.
Sontag, S. (1978). On Photography.

Reflections on Witkin, Tavormina, Richon & Litensky

Joel Peter Witkin: 8 February, 2020


Witkin’s grotesque work appears to be that of a provocateur, one who seeks to shock provoke disgust from viewers. His images often feature human and animal body parts, humans with unusual morphology such as hermaphodism, and backdrops which are not dissimilar to ones pictured in Bosch’s Hell.

Witkin, J.(1987) Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs.
Bosch, H. (1482)The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

While Witkin’s work has been described as “calculated madness”, Witkin employee classical elements into his work. Characters stand as if marble statues, such as in Bacchus Amelus (1986), while book piled at the figure’s feet are topped by a skull are reminiscent of momento mori. Abatemarco (2018) states that Witkin’s works “call to mind the Dutch vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries- compositions depicting objects that are symbolic of death and human transience.”  Witkin’s Las Meninas, however, appears to have similarities in composition and tonal variation to scenes from Bosch’s The Last Judgement. For example, the plane that supports the figures creates a sense of depth to the work, while the figures themselves are not fixed to perspective formed by the plane.  They appear to be flat pieces stuck to the canvas/ image. Witkin states that he sees beyond the surface of the objects in his work, and believes that, although the objects may be disfigured or dead, “my work shows the beauty of difference” (Abatemarco, 2018).

With a few exceptions, I don’t agree that Witkin is showing the beauty of difference.  Witkin’s choices of material and subject vary greatly from what might be identified as beautiful.  In Las Meninas, a skirted figure appears to be sitting on or in a hooped, dome-shaped device—the wheels are distributed on the round base in a way that suggests that the hooped seat is meant to pivot in circles, never going anywhere.  The skirted figure smiles enigmatically.  While beautifully lit and constructed, I do wonder, is this meant to shock me? 

Witkin’s use of severed body parts appears to be less about the beauty of the part itself, but more about that nearly anything can be arranged and lit in the manner of the Dutch or Italian masters and pull a viewer in, who, only after seeing the body parts, becomes repelled. Sontag (1977) states “Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals—that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.”

Witkin has a reputation for allowing his negatives to get scratched and damaged, which to me is akin to “aging” a wooden chest by sandpapering the sharp edges, and creating artful dings and damage by the application of carefully aimed hammer. In addition, his use of silver gelatin printing gives the images a look from a former century – which Glueck (2006) calls “19th-century horror”. I wonder if part of Witkin’s appeal is his images often appear to be aged– which can encourage the viewer to place more value in them, while also creating a feeling that, what ever these contain, they are not contemporary. If these images are from another time, they can provide the viewer with psychological distance from the subject, which makes the images easier to accept as they are not occurring in this world.

Despite the subject matter, his technique is interesting and beautifully constructed.  I am interested in applying the chiaroscuro, or cellar light to scenes incorporating contemporary objects, like toothbrushes and toilet paper, or fast food.  Witkin provides an inspiration for further exploration, as Glueck (2006) suggests “You don’t have to buy into Mr. Witkin’s Stygian visions to realize there’s a master of surrealistic photography at work.”

Abatemarco, M. (2018)  The beauty of difference: Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Pasatiempo. Santa Fe New Mexican. From- https://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/art/the-beauty-of-difference-photographer-joel-peter-witkin/article_61829c74-e5de-51df-ad12-63b5d1ae46e9.html.
Bosch, H. (1482). The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
Glueck, G. (2006). Art in Review: Joel-Peter Witkin. The New York Times. p 37.
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography.
Witkin, J. (1987). Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs. From: https://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/collection/artwork/meninas-self-portrait-after-velazquez


Tavormina, Paulette 10 March, 2020

Tavormina, P.(2010). Peaches and Morning Glories, After G.G.

The byline of Paulette Tavormina’s commercial website states: “This beauty all around us is fleeting, and yet can be embedded forever in a perfect moment that is the photograph”. Tavormina indicates that her work is a “personal interpretation of timeless, universal stories” in “response to the Old Masters” (2020) which she hopes that will affect others like the 17th century painters affected Tavorima.  Critics have raved about Tavormina’s work, such as this from The New York Times (2016): “At first glance, you might easily mistake one of Tavormina’s images for a Zurbarán or a work from the Dutch Golden Age of painting”

Paulette Tavormina’s still life photographic images have been described as “beautifully collected and displayed …[and] have the ability swallow you whole. They embrace the viewer in a dark, lush sense of nostalgia that is dually intimate and larger than life”(Glembocki, 2016). Tavormina’s 2015 book, Seizing Beauty, features her nature morte images inspired by 17th century European masters.  Her use of cellar light and dark backgrounds illuminate the artfully styled fruit, vegetables, flowers, insects and sea creatures. Her work mimics and can be mistaken for an oil painting. Tavormina’s images are sensuous, visually pleasing, detailed and – almost perfect. So, what’s not to love about Tavormina’s Seizing Beauty?

After creating images depicting America’s nuclear testing program in the 1950s during last term, I had a desire to focus on lighter and more relatable subject matter.  I just wanted to create pretty pictures.  I studied art history for two years in college and, like many people, was enamored with the high-angled side-lighting, deep shadows and chiaroscuro pervasive among the master painters in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Dutch painters appealed to me, especially the memento mori and vanitas styles. However, I wanted to convey that life exists right now, in this moment, which is a slight shift from the “remember you will die” refrain featured in the Dutch paintings. As I began my visual experiments, a friend recommended Paulette Tavormina’s work. 

Tavormina, P. (2010). Cabbage and Melon, After J.S.C.

Paulette Tavormina’s images in Seizing Beauty are visually arresting.  While paging through Seizing Beauty, I was simultaneously amazed and jealous (l realize that nothing is new under the sun, but I do try to be original). Tavormina’s lighting is sophisticated: She captures a full range of tones, from the very dark, to the very light without having an issue with overblown whites or flat blacks  Each individual leaf, grape and insect is equally well illuminated, an effect that is at once flattening and freshening.  Many of her images are inspired by the masters such as Spanish artists Zurbaran and Cotan; Flemish painters such as Claesz and Heda (Tavormina, 2020). Malaguzzi, writing about Tavormina’s work, states “Heda achieved a trope l’oeil effect with pictorial proficiency while in Tavormina’s work it is a natural consequence of photographic technique…[through photography] the artist turns something intended as an illusion into something real (n.d.). When is a copy of an original an addition to human culture? Is it more of the same? Roland Barthes (1975) had written “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.”

Her work is voluptuous and strangely distant. Not a particle of air stirs, and butterflies hover with strangely straight wings. Fruit, perfectly placed, appears float in masses, like clouds, undamaged by the burgeoning weight of the arrangement. The New Yorker (n.d.), of Tavormina’s images, describes “Fruits, vegetables and flowers spill from their containers in an almost obscene display of abundance…Everything seems poised between voluptuousness and rot, at once gorgeous and doomed.” The irony of my desire to display life through still life is not lost on me here.  Indeed, life itself is always moving and changing, something that is not appreciable in still life.

I searched for a deeper grounding in theory or message in Tavormina’s work. What does Tavormina want the audience to experience?  Her artist statement reads “I have made in response to the Old Masters are intensely personal interpretations of timeless, universal stories. Years from now, I hope that the photographs I create will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters’ paintings have affected me (Tavormina, n.d.). I would wonder: Will a photograph of a still life inspired by a painting outlast the original?  I begin to hold suspect her statements, like this one: “I am particularly fascinated by Zurbarán’s mysterious use of dramatic light, Garzoni’s masterful compositions and color palette, and Coorte’s unique placements of objects.” Artists have a unique opportunity to market themselves and their work through statements. The introductory essay in Seizing Beauty explains “the artist’s personal cipher is revealed within this complex and refined intellectual operation, as if by an enigmatic game, through meaningful individual touches that rightfully earn her a place in the art scene and cast it in the internal play between illusion and reality (Malaguzzi, 2016)”. Reads to me like word soup. So, what’s wrong with Tavormina’s work?  It’s visually pleasing and demonstrates a talent for food design.  Tavormina does have an opportunity to better describe her motivations and message.

Barthes, R. (1975). Image Music Text.

Glembocki, A. (2016). Mar 9 Book Review: Seizing Beauty by Paulette Tavormina. Musee: Vanguard of photography culture. Accessed: https://museemagazine.com/features/art-2/features/book-review-seizing-beauty-paulette-tavormina

Malaguzzi, S.(n.d.) Paulette Tavormina “The Oysters”. Paulette Tavormina Website: https://www.paulettetavormina.com/silvia-malaguzzinew

Malaguzzi, S. (2016). Gossamer Threads: Paulette Tavormina and the Golden-Era Still Life. Paulette Tavorima: Seizing Beauty. Monacelli Press: New York.

Tavormina, P. (n.d.) Paulette Tavormina website. Accessed:https://www.paulettetavormina.com/artist-statementnew

The New Yorker. (n.d). Goings on about town. The New Yorker. Accessed: https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/art/allison-schulnik-2


26 May, 2020
Olivier Richon: Real Allegories

“There is something more satisfying for me with the photograph. Maybe it is due to the transformation it undergoes: I have always been amazed how a photograph does not look like the thing that is being photographed.” Olivier Richon.

If smooth waters indicate depth of a river, Richon’s simple images, such as a lemon laying in a book, belie the complexity of his intention behind the images in “Real Allegories”. The eponymous title refers to a Gustave Courbet self-portrait (Harris & Zucker, 2020). Real and allegory are literally in opposition, however, this word plays fits well for both artists work: what is being depicted is an allegory, though its existence makes it real. Example image: A large carrot lies perpendicular to the plane of the film. The image of the carrot is reflected on the shiny surface it sits upon; the back-right side of the image is dark cerulean.  What is Olivier saying? “The shift from multiplicity, a bunch of carrots, to uniqueness, a single carrot, transforms this vegetable -whose form after all isn’t totally innocent- into an emblem for realism. In the economy of science, this solitary carrot ‘pregnant with revolution’ recalls that synecdoche and metonymy are the privileged tropes of literary realism… A single, solitary carrot stands for all carrots” (Richon, 2006). There, a perfect lesson on symbolism.

Olivier Richon- from Real Allegories

In Real Allegories, Richon’s images are fresh, calm, simple and consistent. He gives his objects space and character, employs minimal props and his and lighting often emerges from single source rendering objects dimensional against subtly lit backgrounds. His work demonstrates a wry sense of humor such as the image titled “after Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius”. This features a theatrically painted image of an erupting volcano in the background, while a stone plinth lies shattered in the foreground next to a velvet curtain. Viewers are inhabiting the perspective of a homeowner finding themselves experiencing a major earthquake. In the section called animals looking sideways animals are literally looking sideways (such as sheep, geese, a goat on a step). In his section called The Hunt, velvet is draped over a table, and mysteriously titled is “it is high time to know what ought to be done with the Sophist” p.115.

Olivier Richon, from Real Allegories
Amy Eilertsen. Memento vivere

These images are beautiful thoughtful and inspiring. From them I could learn to employee more space around my featured images, more subtlety- and perhaps fewer objects. I have an opportunity to continue to include bits of my sense of humor in my work because here in his work it’s delightful, and very intelligent. As I flipped through this book I see more with each turn and understand his work it’s actually hilarious. Technically I think that Richon retains light and color ads in his shadows . My shadows, such in the work above, are starkly black: while I had wanted to develop a more painterly and flattened style, the the black I used in the shadows created was quite harsh. I appreciate the subtlety of Richon’s shadowing across the backdrops. He blends dark to light in a dimensional and softer way. This effect imparts dimension and a softer flow to the light. I will continue to look to Richon for instruction and inspiration.

Harris, B. & Zucker, S. (2020). Smarthistory. Gustave Courbet, The Painters Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my life as an artist. https://smarthistory.org/courbet-the-artists-studio/

Kulakova, K. (2015) Artist Olivier Richon|Interview. #ViennaContemporaryMag.

Richon, O. (2006). Real Allegories. Steidl: Gottingen.


28 May 2020: Laura Letinsky

Hardly More Than Ever: Photographs 1997-2004

Laura Letinsky: Table for none?

Laura Letinsky has been exploring still life since the 1990s.  Interestingly, she states that pursued still life because of the association with the feminine- such as food preparation and eating.  Letinsky is also interested in still life because the genre is deemed ‘less important’ (Sholis, 2013).

Niepce, N. A set table. 1828.

Letinski’s imagery presented in Hardly Me Than Ever: Photographs 1997-2004 are more Niepce than Utrecht. Tables are spare, the colors are pastel, and the light glows hazily.  Unlike Niece’s 1828 image, Set Table, food and food debris are huddled somewhat haphazardly on tables or countertops in Letinsky’s work. Her images are subtle,  sublime yet easy to appreciate. Her work develops over time: In the earlier shots, Letinsky allows her props more freedom.  The food is intact, but it is clearly in a food preparation area.  These images make food look not like remnants, rather somehow independent from their surroundings. One example is Untitled #6, 1997: Four fruits are informally displayed on a white-clothed table; a loop of round cord—perhaps from a telephone- is seen on the moss-green carpet (Letinsky, 2004).

Letinsky, L. (1996). Untitled #6. – the carpet is green in the book

Letinsky’s still life is contemporary and intellectual. Still Life, by Utrecht, 1644, is a classic example of still life in a time where food was scarce images of imported exotic food demonstrated wealth. Europe had suffered many waves of the Black death over a period of hundreds of years, reducing the working population and food production.  In the early 1600s the population was starting to recover in foods were being imported from all over the world that people had never seen. Pieces like Utecht’s banquet may have been painted to demonstrate the wealth of family who commissioned it.

van Utrecht, A. (1648). Sparkling Still Life.

By contrast, Laura’s work shows us barren tables, refuse, food that is gone-off, crumbs and plates that have been licked clean. Letinsky created these images in a time when food is plentiful, in fact, so plentiful that the American waistline has grown prodigiously over the past 30 years.  If creating images of food in a time of starvation shows wealth, then showing empty plates in a time of overabundance shows– greed?

So what have I learned reviewing Laura’s work? Laura seems not to formally arrange her props; however, her compositions are well-balanced and beautiful.  I can learn that I must be engaged with my composition, but the composition does not have to be perfect-or formal. The composition should be balanced and should be interesting. When I think back to the work that I did this past term, I was going for that classical composition and food groupings to emulate images from the 1600s. I think my images, like the duck in the fridge,  or the chicken on the cookbook are interesting, and perhaps more like Letinsky’s work.

Letinsky uses color and shadow to create dimensional images. For example, there’s an image of an oval kitchen table that’s pushed up against the wall. It is covered by a white tablecloth, the light is coming from the right hand side at a fairly low angle. The table is casting a shadow to the left, and there is an apple or some other fruit at the far end of the table next to the light-colored wall. The shadow of the table creates an interesting shape– and Laura allows room for this shadow in the image. Though the table is placed more to the right side, off-center in the room, the shadow balances out the placement of the table and works beautifully. In my next series of still life, I’m going to be looking for is not only the lighting on the particular objects, but the darkness on the objects as well. I want to ensure that I have shadows that retain color, shadows that have room to breathe, and shadows that create a dimensional structure to make the image more interesting.

Letinsky, L. (2004). Hardly More Than Ever: Photographs 1997 to 2004. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago: China.

Niepce, N. (1823-8). A set table. Heliograph.

Rijksmuseum. (1648).van Utrecht, A. Sparkling Still Life. Oil Painting.

Sholis, B. (2013). Interview with Laura Litensky. From https://aperture.org/blog/interview-with-laura-letinsky/


Photography, the shape-shifter

31 January 2020

Nature: I think that the nature of my photographic practice is self-expressive. I can only imagine that there are as many motivations to create an image as there are people.  Common reasons may be to appeal to an audience, such as in commercial photography.  My practice, at this point, is exploratory as I am still climbing a steep learning curve- and have many interests.  Though I have been connected to photography for years, I am growing my technical and expressive skills.  I have been exploring the theme of willful blindness using the tableau using both people and miniature models.  The type of photography could be described as the constructed narrative.  My intent has been to challenge the viewer to think about the situation portrayed as it relates to their experience. 

Context: Last term I created images which explored the dichotomy of America in the 1950s.  American’s were portrayed to themselves, through the growing advertising industry, as optimistic, white, wealthy and perfect. However, at the same time, the American government was conducting an atomic testing program which produced radioactive fallout, leading to the death of three quarters of a million Americans.  I am fascinated and horrified by this fact—and juxtaposed miniature people- maybe typical Americans—leading their lives literally against the backdrop of the atomic testing program.  I have described this in detail because, as it turns out, context may be everything to understanding the images.  My siblings and I grew up during the cold war and were fascinated by atomic technology.  People in the UK, such as my classmates, probably do not have the same perspective, and therefore, may not appreciate the images in the same way that an American of my age might. Barthes states that there are three components to a message- the emission, the transmission and the point of reception. Humans make meaning by using inferences based on information, humans take cues from placement, timing, color and all the senses to understand an object, moment or communication.  These inferences may be concluded so quickly that the decision/interpretation may almost be instantaneous.  Therefore, the message may not be received with the same intent as the image creator.

Consumption: I think that my past work would be consumed as art, such as in a gallery or a book.  Reading about the Benneton campaign, some of the images could be used to support an advertising campaign.  I have one that I think could be used as a gun control advert.

Practice:   Szarkowski’s  characteristics of photography seem, at first glance, to be a description of the choices a photographer makes with every single image. However, while all the elements are present in images, any one of the elements can be exploited in an image for different effect.  I am currently developing a still life project where the thing, the detail and the frame are of more importance than time or vantage point.  I also am intrigued by Shore’s idea that the image is a flat rendition of a 3 dimensional world where every image is a record of something that never really existed.  When I consider how the eye sees, the brain interprets; how experiences form contexts which then inform perceptions in context with Shore’s idea of the flattened image, i can only say… mind blown! 

Barthes, R. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

Szarkowski, J. 1980. The Photographer’s Eye. London: Seckler and Warburg. P. 6-11.


Alternative processes: cyanotype

November 11, 2019: I had hoped to use cyanotype as a background for the gum bichromate process. I am looking for the flat, painterly quality that the combination creates. These processes are labor intensive and depend on UV exposure as a fixing process. As I live at about 45 degrees in latitude, sunlight is not reliable during the fall and winter months, I am using a very old (1960s) single-bulb sunlamp which I clamped to the rafters above my clothes washer in the basement. If the sunlamp works, then I can work on cyantype or bichromate at any time.

The power of the tanning lamp. Foil covers the outside of the lamp to protect my eyes from exposure.

The sunlamp DID work and I am pleased. I purchased cyanotype chemicals on Amazan, and the two component parts are now mixed and in light proof containers in the basedment. I am using high quality water color paper (hot pressed 140lb). I don’t know why this happened, but I seemed to get some pooling of the chemicals on each of the sheets which created big blotches. I don’t know if I added too much fluid but suspect that this was the problem. These were just experiments, and I will try to prepare the other sheets more carefully.

Rinsing the print. The UV light fixes the cyanotype mixture to the paper. The remainder of the non-exposed areas become light after rinsing.

My first efforts were under exposed. I added an additional 30% to the time and I think that these results are much better. I do wish that I could get rid of the haze that the overhead plastic leaves on the image. I may need to purchase some of the more expensive “negative” material designed for this purpose.

Close up of a panel I created for the CityID Brief. It’s a sample and I was going for a blueprint look.

The best of times.

October 28, 2019: Received a shipment of HO Scale train layout figurines today which I had ordered from ebay. I think I now have a concept that will work. I am going to juxtapose the perky little 1950s figures against nuclear testing backgrounds. Make American Great Again has been a call repeated over and over here in the USA in the past few years. The question is, when was America Great? I think that many people think America was great in the period of increased middle class and baby boom in the time following the end of WWII. Yet during this time, the USA was engaged in a very dangerous cold war and the risk and threat of nuclear strike was high. I grew up during the Cold War and believed that nuclear destruction was a distinct possibility. The hubris governments had, especially during the US was staggering. The nuclear test were carried out with only rudimentary knowledge of the dangers of nuclear blasts. I would like to demonstrate that the USA wasn’t the great country people thought in the 1950s.

October 30th, 2019: I am pleased with the result of my experimental work using the nuclear testing-related images and HO scale figures to create a juxtaposition of real/unreal. This photo, like most of the Theolgieon/little theater pictures, took over an hour to set up and shoot. I experiment with the lighting, gels and position of the characters to get a result I like.

Waiting for the end of the world.
Rockwell, Norman. (1955). Home for the holidays.

November 3, 2019: In 2016, The New York Times published an article which explored the question of “what year was America great”. Two research groups polled thousands of Americans and the results of the poll were analyzed according to the respondent’s self-identification with a political party. Interestingly, Trump supporters indicated two different years in which America was great: 2000 and 1955. Sample reasons for choosing these years were “strong family values” and “life was simpler”. As I am a Generation Xer (or late Baby Boomer), I grew up under the influence of the “family values” of the 1950s. Therefore, I am focusing on life in 1955 America for this project.

Nuclear testing in South Pacific. High five!

Critical research

This page is dedicated to displaying a collection of quotes and notes relevant to my current practice, Theologeion. I consider this a working draft which will help to inform my oral presentation. I am critically locating my practice after I have established my practice. As I mentioned in another post, this feels a bit like I am working backwards: justifying a project after the project has launched. From a research perspective, it’s best to create a hypothesis before creating the intervention. But in photography, one might pursue a project because it’s interesting, but ultimately, the work we create arises from our experiences and feelings. So it’s perhaps fair to do first and ask why later?

In talking about photographers, Susan Sontag states that “a doubt persists about the value of realism which keeps them oscillating between simplicity and irony, between insisting on control and cultivating the unexpected…” location 1481. Sontag goes on to say that the “cult of faster…alternates with a wish to return to a more artisanal, purer past when images when images still had a handmade quality or aura.” location 1463.

Sontag, S. On Photography