Vanitas Still Life Compositions / by Neal Auch

"For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth." Psalms 102:3

The images in this diptych were loosely composed in the style of 17th century Dutch "vanitas" still life paintings, which were meant to show the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.  Often this was achieved by contrasting symbols of wealth and power (books, expensive silverware, etc) with symbols of death and mortality (skulls, clocks, rotting fruit, etc).

Pieter_Claesz_002.jpg

 To adapt the vanitas to my aesthetic I opted, as always, to come at the underlying themes a bit more confrontationally.  For these shots I borrowed the compositional style from the works of Pieter Claesz.  For comparison I included an example of his "monochrome" work that served as a source of inspiration for me. 

One of my favourite metaphors for death in these kinds of works is the extinguished candle.  The smoke wisps suggest a life extinguished and even the candle itself is a reminder of the transience of all things: the passage of time is recorded as the wax burns ever lower.

Capturing the wisps of smoke in those images was the only non-trivial part of these shots, from a technical standpoint.  I could have faked it in photoshop, of course, but I wanted to give a shot at getting the effect in camera.  I quickly realized that the smoke doesn't show up in the exposure unless you have a fairly harsh backlight coming in through the smoke.  Since this would have over-lit the scene and spoiled the atmosphere, I opted to do these shots as composites.  I did one exposure with the backlight off to capture the majority of the scene, then another with the backlight on just for the smoke.  It was then trivial to open these two as layers in photoshop and simply paint the smoke wisps from the second exposure into the first.  Voila!