Still Life Photography

Variations of a Theme: Pig Foot with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch

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"And as in the daily casualties of life every man is, as it were, threatened with numberless deaths, so long as it remains uncertain which of them is his fate, I would ask whether it is not better to suffer one and die, than to live in fear of all?"  —St. Augustine, from City of God.

These new still life images continue with my explorations of variations of a theme in vanitas composition.  Both images use the same basic ingredients, and both speak to the same underlying themes of mortality and transience.  Both images use the same pig's foot and both revisit the "tipped cup" visual metaphor which appears frequently in my work, and in vanitas composition in general.  For the image above I particularly enjoyed the interplay of colours between the pig bowels spilling out of the glass.  These start out reddish, like the gore coming closest to the bottom of the frame, but get increasingly pale and grey after having been thawed and re-frozen over and over and over.  (I reuse the same organs over and over in my shots, replacing pieces only when absolutely necessary, in an effort to minimize my financial support of the meat industry.)

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While I've already spoken at length about the relation of my work with "meat as art" to vanitas compositions, I have said rather little about another, perhaps even more obvious, comparison with art history: paintings of butcher's shops and market scenes.  Such works were a sort of precursor to the golden age of 17th century Dutch still life paining.  The analogy with my own approach goes beyond the simple choice of subject matter, since to some extend a critique of butchering seems implicit in many of these works.  Painters like Passarotti and Carracci depicted butcher's shops and sought to emphasize the rough crudeness and lack of sensitivity of the butcher's assistance.  In the 16th and 17th centuries theologians often viewed a slaughtered animals as symboling the death of a believer and to combine it with the warning:

"You who with much pleasure

Slay a swine of calf,

Think how on the Lord's Day

You will stand before God's Judgement." --Groote comptoir almanach, Amsterdam 1667

I don't know if it was intentional or not, but I certainly feel a similar sense of sadness and critique of butchering when I look at Goya's famous still life with the rib and head of lamb.  Of course the state of the meat industry in Europe in the 16th century is in no way analogous to what we have in North America today and I certainly don't imagine that Goya, Passarotti, or Carracci were coming to their subject with the same kind of political biases that I have.  However, I do find it fascinating to muse on what analogies there are.

Enjoy!

Variations of a Theme: Cow Foot with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch

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"You're on earth.  There's no cure for that."  --Samuel Beckett, from Endgame

Memento mori -- meaning "remember that you have to die" -- refers to a medieval Christian practice of regular reflection on mortality, the vanity of earthly life, and the transient nature of earthly goods.  The theory behind this practice forms the basis and logic behind vanitas still lifes, an art form which I've developed something of a fixation on of late.  I've always thought of Beckett's Endgame as a kind of literary version of a vanitas, a stunningly hopeless meditation of the essential themes of the meaningless of life and the transience of all things.  I don't know if Beckett had this connection in mind when he wrote his play, but I like to imagine he did.  (He had a great love of art and was extraordinarily well educated, so it's completely unfathomable.)

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These latest additions to my still life gallery.  Both are variations of a theme, using similar ingredients arranged in slightly different ways.  This kind of variation of a theme is something that I used to avoid in my work, but lately I have been embracing more and more.  In part this is because I think that the repetition helps to drive home the underlying message, and in part this is because I'm more and more aware of the tradition of still life painting from which these works have emerged (where repetition and variation of elements in this manner were quite commonplace).

Enjoy!

A Vanitas Composition for Easter by Neal Auch

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"Now from noon until three, darkness came over all the land. At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.”  Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink.  But the rest said, “Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to save him.  Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart.  And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised." -- Matthew 27:45-53

Christian imagery shows up fairly regularly in my works, and I've recently developed something of a fixation on vanitas compositions.  With Easter at hand, it was only natural to combine these elements.  As I have discussed previously on this blog, the extinguished candle is a frequent visual metaphor for death in vanitas compositions, and the tipped cup is a symbol of the fragility of life.  The reddish intestines spilling from the cup suggest blood, but also wine, and have always reminded me of the last supper.  I added the intestines draped over the cross  as a final touch.  (Readers who, like me, were subjected to a Catholic upbringing may note that the colour of the draping is off: traditionally the cross would be draped in black on good Friday, representing the death of Jesus.)  Enjoy!

Floral Still Life Compositions by Neal Auch

The Sick Rose, by William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This image is my interpretation of a floral still life arrangement.  I've always been fascinated by those old paintings of flower arrangements that were so popular amongst Dutch still life painters in the 17th century.  In part, this fascination stems from the fact that the pretty trappings of such images were ultimately meant to convey a rather morbid message about mortality and the transience of all things.  Here I constructed my interpretation of such an image, using cow trachea "stems,", chicken foot "flowers," and some fallen duck gizzard "fruit" for the finishing touch.  I chose to use only chicken feet with visible sores an disease markers for this shot, in part because I liked how the sores make up the central region of each flower, and in part because I felt like it worked better with the underlying visual metaphor of the piece.  

Initially I composed that image vertically, since most of those old floral still life paintings were composed in that manner.  But, for whatever reason, I just couldn't find a crop that I liked and ultimately I ended up breaking with tradition by adding the negative space to the (camera) right of the image for a horizontal composition that I like much better.  (Probably all for the best anyway, since the web punishes you for shooting tall...)

This wasn't my first pass at building a floral arrangement from those ingredients.  A less minimalist variant is this one:

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Here I kept the same basic ingredients, but also added some real dead flowers and plant life, along with the pig heart and intestines.

Enjoy!

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).

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 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!

Still Life with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch

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"Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die." 2 Samuel 14:14

The image of a cup tipped on its side is usually a metaphor for death in still life. This composition is built almost entirely around that metaphor. I wanted to create a sense that the image is itself tumbling over, spilling down onto the ground as the eye moves from left to right across the page. I borrowed this "cascading" compositional techniques from still life painting, where it seems rather more common than in photography. The rule of thirds is still operative here, but only marginally so, and the main guiding principle is in creating a sloping geometry from the various elements (cow foot, sheep head, and pig intestines). The sheep's head is, perhaps, a reference to Goya's beautiful Still Life with Sheep’s Head and Ribs, a grim piece of meat art that had a huge impact on me, and is often interpreted as a reaction to Goya's experiences during the war. Enjoy!

Still Life with Rotting Apples and Pig Organs by Neal Auch

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"All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls." 1 Peter 1:24

The idea of confronting themes related to death in still life is hardly my invention; nearly all still lifes include, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things. While those old 17th century Dutch paintings of flowers and fruit baskets can look quaint by contemporary standards, viewers at the time would have understood these kinds of works as a reminder that life, like the fruit and flowers, will soon be gone. Here I played around with the roots of still life, incorporating some rotting apples, in addition to the rotting porcine organs: heart, foot, and lower intestines. The tipped over cup is usually also a symbol of mortality in still life, it's meant to remind the viewer of the fragility of life. The intestines spilling out, perhaps suggesting blood, is my own little touch, because I love me some pig gore in art. Enjoy!

Studies of the Pig's Head in Various States of Disassembly by Neal Auch

It's just a couple of weeks until the Shadowood Collective's group exhibition Betwixt & Between the Monsters we Dream, and I'm gearing up by sharing some of the images that will be part of the show.  These four images form a series -- a quadriptich? a tetraptych? -- and are part of my ongoing studies of the pig.  Here I've shown the animal's severed head in various states of disassembly.  Moving from left to right we have the head more-or-less intact, a section through the head showing internal organs, the head with the skin peeled off, and the skin mask that was left behind after removing the face.  I don't often work with the square crop, but here I really liked the simplicity of the compositions coupled with the semi-narrative quality of grouping the images together in this way.  Enjoy!

Cover Art Review: Steven Dunn's Potted Meat by Neal Auch

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I reviewed Steven Dunn's wonderful book Potted Meat some time ago, well before I had taken to blogging about cover art.  Although thinking about cover art critique was not on my radar at the time, nevertheless I did feel compelled to comment on this glorious image by Angel Whisenan, a still life arrangement of some kind of organ meat (looks like pig stomach to me but I could be wrong) and bones.  This kind of thing is, of course, quite in keeping with my own still life work, so I kind of can't help but love this image.  I love the textures in this shot and the soft light falling off to deep black shadows.  I love Whisenan's placement of the bones; the two skulls at the base of the piece almost suggest feet and make me think about this as a sort of abstract representation of a figure.  Here Whisenan has taken the concept of what the highly processed potted meat "food product" actually is (namely, a big mess of organ meats and other scraps of the meat industry) and she has distilled it into a form that is readily recognized by the viewer.  Beautiful stuff.

Framed Dead Things by Neal Auch

Over the last couple of weeks I've been exploring framed dead animal parts.  Of course regular fine art prints of all these images are available, but I'm also doing one-of-a-kind prints where each photo is framed in the same frame that appears in the photo.  Those unique pieces are signed, sealed, ready to hang, and the frames have been thoroughly cleaned of all traces of animal gore.  As always you can contact me about prints here , but I'll also have a table set up at the Hamilton Ontario Art Crawl (on James St N) on Friday November 11.  Enjoy!

New Still Life Arrangements by Neal Auch

 Crucifix with chicken feet and pig casings.

Crucifix with chicken feet and pig casings.

I've added several new arrangements to my Still gallery.  Probably my favourite is the image above.  For whatever reason the arrangement reminds me of Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi,  a nun and Christian mystic who would be canonized as a saint some years after her death, in the late 1600s.  I've always been fascinated by de Pazzi, whose self-flagellation and nail-lined corsets suggest something more like masochism than religious ecstasy.  The Wiki page on de Pazzi contains this delightful quote about her death, from Armando Favazza's Bodies Under Siege:

At about age 37, emaciated and racked with coughing and pain, she took to her bed until she died four years later. Her painful gums were so badly infected that her teeth fell out, one by one. Her body was covered with putrefying bed sores, but when the sisters offered to move her she warned them off for fear that by touching her body they might experience sexual desires... A large statue of her holding a flagellant whip can be seen in her church in Florence, where people around the world still come to pay her tribute.

Enjoy!

 Book bound in sheep stomach with dead flowers and sheep stomach lampshade.

Book bound in sheep stomach with dead flowers and sheep stomach lampshade.

 Dead flower with chicken feet and cow tongue.

Dead flower with chicken feet and cow tongue.

New Still Life by Neal Auch

 Still life arrangement with chicken feet, cow foot, pig intestine, duck gizzards, and dead flowers.

Still life arrangement with chicken feet, cow foot, pig intestine, duck gizzards, and dead flowers.

I've added a couple of new still life arrangements to my Still gallery.  The arrangement above, which mixes animal parts with dead flowers from my backyward, was loosely styled after the still life compositions of Cezanne and, in particular, Goya whose work with meat has always fascinated me.  Enjoy!

 Still life: candle holder with chicken feet.

Still life: candle holder with chicken feet.