Still Life Photography

The Crucified Rat: A New Easter Vanitas by Neal Auch

Still Life with Crucified Rat: This piece is now  available for purchase .

Still Life with Crucified Rat: This piece is now available for purchase.

“Our Saviour.  Two thieves.  One is supposed to have been saved and the other…damned.” — Vladimir, speaking to Estragon, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

As the story goes, Christ was crucified alongside two thieves. One thief mocked Jesus in his agony, while the other used his final moments to beg for forgiveness. This he was granted; Christ promised the second thief salvation. (“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” Luke 23:43)

This episode is often interpreted as a call to piety. “Do not despair,“ St Augustine tells us “one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.“ My take on the story of the two thieves is rather closer to the musings of the derelict vagabonds in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For them, the story of the two thieves illustrates only that the whims of fate are arbitrary and capricious.

This new still life image was composed specifically with Easter in mind and draws considerable inspiration from the story of the two thieves. (The piece is currently available for purchase in my online store.)

Taking a cue from Beckett’s taste for ambiguity, I will leave it to the viewer to decide which of the three men crucified at Calvary the rat is intended to represent…

Happy easter friends!

Still Life with Raccoon Skull by Neal Auch


“I carry death in my left pocket. Sometimes I take it out and talk to it: "Hello, baby, how you doing? When you coming for me? I'll be ready.” ― Charles Bukowski

I first spotted this little beast last fall, just off a route I walk most days, nestled discretely amongst the dead grass and pop bottles and abandoned beggars’ signs.

I meant to collect the corpse and use it for art while it was still fresh, but no sooner did I formulate this plan than the snow and ice came hard. Excavating the corpse would have required a shovel and some elbow grease and — as those of you who know me in real life can attest — I’m far too pretty for manual labour.

And so I waited for the spring thaw to free the beast. All that could be salvaged was the skull; the rest crumbled to dust when I tried to pick it up.

The Last Supper: Harry Charles Moore by Neal Auch


In June of 1992 Harry Charles Moore murdered two people. The first victim was Thomas Lauri, who Moore gunned down in front of a Salem post office. Moore then drove to the home of Barbara Cunningham where he shot her once in the stomach and then three more times, point blank, in the head.

Moore claimed that he killed Lauri and Cunningham out of fear that they would move to Las Vegas with his estranged wife and child, exposing them to the moral corruption Moore associated with that city. (Cunningham was Moore’s mother in law -- also his half-sister because Moore had married his niece -- and Lauri was Cunningham’s ex husband.)

Moore was executed by lethal injection on May 16, 1997.

His last word was the name of his daughter, Jennifer.

His requested final meal was 2 green apples, 2 red apples, a tray of fresh fruit, and a 2 litre bottle of cola.

Still Life with Severed Pig Head by Neal Auch


Years ago, in another life, I wrote extensively on the subject of instability.  I understood the word in terms that, at the time, seemed essential but now, in retrospect, feel baroque.  I traveled and moved constantly; I was all the time in airport bars scribbling mathematical proofs in a little notepad.  I owned next to nothing and functionally lived out of a suitcase in a seemingly endless series of rundown apartments, my memories of which have blurred together at this point.  I published my ideas on the subject of instability in myriad academic journals, and it would never have occurred to me to consider any application of the term in relation to my own life.

This image is about balance and instability, an attempt to unify the various meanings associated to those words.  These words have a literal meaning, of course, in relation to the arrangement of items on the table, the placement of the pig’s head, the way the cup threatens to roll from its perch on the cake stand, the way the platter full of intestines dangles over the ledge.  These words also have a meaning in terms of photographic composition, in reference to how the eye is guided across the image by successive points of interest. And, finally, these words carry metaphorical meaning. The tipped cup and precariously balanced dish are well-known motifs in still life, commonly understood as reminders of the fragility of life.  Dead animals and rotting foodstuffs carry a similar meaning in memento mori art and these usually serve as reminders of mortality and the transience of all things.

These days I spend less time in airport bars.

The Last Supper: Jonathan Nobles by Neal Auch


On Sept 13 1986 Jonathan Nobles broke into the home of Mitzi Johnson-Nalley and Kelly Farquhar under the influence of a combination of drugs and alcohol. Nobles stabbed both women to death. Mitzi’s boyfriend, Ronald Ross, was stabbed 19 times and lost an eye, but he nevertheless survived the attack. Nobles was executed for his crimes on Oct 7 1998.

Nobles requested the Eucharist in place of a final meal.

Nobles had converted to Catholicism on death row. While in prison he corresponded with infamous euthanasia proponent Dr Jack Kevorkian and attempted (unsuccessfully) to have his kidney donated to a willing patient. In a lengthy final statement Nobles quoted extensively from Corinthians and expressed love for the witnesses.

Nobles sang Silent night as the lethal injection was administered, the performance broken by a gasp as the drugs took effect.

The Last Supper: James Smith by Neal Auch


On March 7 1983 James Smith entered the office of a life insurance company, armed and masked. During the course of the robbery Larry Don Rohus, a district manager, was shot fatally through the chest.

Smith was executed by lethal injection on June 26, 1990, having waived his final appeals, although 4 US Supreme Court justices believed there were serious reasons to doubt Smith’s mental capacity to make such a decision. In his final statement, Smith said: “I myself did not kill anyone, but I go to my death without begging for my life. I will not humiliate myself. I will let no man break me.”

Smith’s requested final meal was a lump of dirt.

The media widely reported that the dirt was supposed to be an important ingredient in some kind of Voodoo ritual. (Smith was apparently a former Voodoo priest.) This claim may well be true; a cursory online search does indeed turn up some confirmation for the idea that dirt is used in various occult rituals. However, these mostly focus on dirt specifically from a graveyard, as opposed to just any old dirt, which is ostensibly what Smith was asking for. It also seems plausible to me that Smith’s final request was intended as a political statement, and that the associations with Voodoo and magic sprouted from the machinations of a racially biased media. In any case, the true meaning of Smith’s final meal request died with him.

Smith’s request for dirt was denied.

He was given yogurt instead.

Still Life Studies: Soap Bubbles and Decaying Flesh by Neal Auch


“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn't enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death.” —Louis-Ferdinand Celine

The first time I came across soap bubbles as a motif in vanitas still life was in the context of a well-known painting by Jacques de Gheyn II. That piece contains all the staple tropes of memento mori art: reminders of transience (human skull, soap bubbles, cut flowers, wisps of smoke) placed alongside reminders of human folly (coins, a medal). I remember being fascinated by de Gheyn’s bubble and the surrealist imagery that he painted reflected within its surface (the leper’s rattle and the torture wheel). After seeing de Gheyn’s work I had long mused on the idea of incorporating soap bubbles into my own works, because they provide a very literal visual depiction of the central ideas of transience that underpins all memento mori art. However, I was a little put off by the challenge of the proposal; I had initially feared that the bubbles wouldn’t mesh well with the visual aesthetic of my work.

Recently, I finally got around to playing with bubbles and the results are this triptych of images. In the end I’m quite happy with the results. On a metaphorical level, of course, the bubbles resonate perfectly with the dead flesh and human remains; both are reminders that the beauty of life is fleeting. On an aesthetic level I think these images work better than I had expected. The bubbles add a welcome splash of colour to the otherwise largely desaturated palette and, from a compositional perspective, they provide interesting new options for filling in negative space.


While I usually prefer to talk about metaphors and meaning in these posts, these bubble still lifes do provide a good opportunity to talk a bit about craft and camera technique. The reason that bubbles are technically challenging to shoot in the context of still life is precisely the same as the reason that they are thematically relevant: the bubbles do not last very long. In my studio work I use continuous lighting rather than speed-lights. This has the advantage of making it easier to adjust the lighting to get things exactly right (because “what you see is what you get” with continuous lights, no need to squint into your camera’s viewfinder after taking the exposure to figure out if things are looking right). The disadvantage of continuous lights is that you end up with somewhat long exposures. Shooting around the sweet spot on a 35mm lens at ISO 100 I will typically end up with shutter speeds as long as 0.1-1 sec. This kind of exposure is way too long to capture soap bubbles, which drift about and pop on a much shorter time scale. I don’t want to open the aperture and sacrifice depth of field, because sharpness is a big part of my aesthetic. So bumping up the ISO is the only option. To freeze the bubbles for this project I needed to push the ISO up to about 4000 which, on my camera, means dealing with a lot more noise than I’d like. So I ultimately opted on doing some composite work for these images. For each image I blended together 2 exposures: one clean shot at ISO 100 that I used for the majority of the arrangement, and another noisy shot at much higher ISO that was used only for the bubbles and their reflections in the silverware. Normally I don’t like using too much noise reduction on high ISO images because noise reduction algorithms generically blur the image (at least in terms of small scale structure). But here because it’s only the teeny tiny bubbles and nothing else that’s coming from the high ISO raw file it meant that I was able to apply noise reduction software in post production rather aggressively without sacrificing any important detail in the final (composited) image.


Anyway… Enough camera technique bullshit. Next time I promise to talk more about death and less about ISO.


Still Life Studies: Peeled Lemons by Neal Auch


… After my cousin died,
my father died & then my brother. Next, my father’s older brother
& his wife. And, finally, after my mother died, I expected
to die myself. And because this happened very quickly
& because these were, really, almost all the people I knew,
I spent each day smashing dishes with one of my uncle’s hammers
& gluing them back together in new ways. …

—Kathleen Graber, The Magic Kingdom (full poem)

These two new vanitas still life compositions both use one of the most common and perhaps most cryptic motifs from the history of still life painting: the peeled lemon. Lemons show up frequently in the paintings of the Dutch masters that act as my primary inspiration for this project.

There seems to be some disagreement amongst critics about what, precisely, the lemon represents in art. Of course there is the obvious fact that the lemon, like any food items or flowers in still life, can act as a reminder of the passage of time. As with human life, these items and the pleasure they bring will be gone all too soon. Lemons were also a very expensive fruit at the time; this might suggest an interpretation that the fruit is meant to remind us of the vanity of wealth. The fact that the lemon almost always appears partially peeled also seems significant. Presumably where the fruit appears in this way it is because artist intended to draw attention to the contrast between the beautiful saturated tones of the peel and the sour taste of the flesh. It seems likely that this presentation is intended to convey a message of warning about superficial beauty. Often the peel hangs precariously over the edge of the table giving the composition a sense of depth and, perhaps, also implying a deeper meaning about the fragility of beauty.

For the first image in this series I paired the rotting peeled lemon with chicken feet and dead baby mice. One of the mice has been placed inside the flesh of the lemon, adding a secondary layer to metaphorical interpretation discussed in the previous paragraph.


For the second image of this series I kept the motif of chicken feet, but added in a few new elements: human teeth and a broken ceramic plate. The broken plate is a fairly obvious metaphor for fragility and mortality. Here I was inspired not only by the history of still life painting, but also by the wonderful poem by Kathleen Graber that is quoted at the beginning of this post. (Do yourself a favour and go read the whole poem at the New Yorker; it’s a beautiful piece of writing.) Graber’s poem addressed fear of death in an intimate way and resonates with the central memento mori themes of my work. There is something very touching and human about the passage quoted above, in which the narrator attempts to cope with the loss of her loved ones by smashing dishes and glueing them back together. In my interpretation this is about denial of death and a hope for an afterlife; the narrator is engaged in a vain attempt to convince herself that what has been destroyed can somehow be remade.


Still Life Studies: Apples and Dead Flesh by Neal Auch


Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:

Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,

The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,

The costly aversion of the eyes from death—

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs. —Philip Larkin

This new series of still life compositions continue in my efforts to reinterpret 17th century vanitas still life through the lens of a more contemporary (and secular) worldview. Images of this genre have historically emphasized the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. I do not know if the term “vanitas“ as it is used in association with these works is a reference to the famous quotation “All is vanity!“ from the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, but the analogy is certainly fitting and I believe that any sensible reading of that text will yield interesting resonances with the history of still life painting.

As in all still life compositions the fruit, meat, and flowers are intended as reminders of mortality. The (largely Christian) 17th century audience of the “golden age” Dutch paintings that serve as my primary inspiration would have understood these items as reminders that all is transient because, like us, these food items will soon rot and decay. However, to make the underlying memento mori message of such works resonate with a modern audience I believe that one must adopt a rather more macabre and confrontational aesthetic. Otherwise one runs the risk of producing imagery that appears trite and quaint which is, after all, how I believe that most modern viewers think about classical still life art.

Both of the images in this series incorporate rotting apples. These are usually understood as a metaphor for temptation and sin, due to the association of the apple with the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve. Interestingly, the “forbidden fruit“ of the book of Genesis isn’t actually named in the bible; the popular tradition of putting an apple in this role comes from artists’ renderings. Of course the distinction is immaterial for my work, since I’m drawing off the artistic and cultural meaning of such symbols; I have no investment whatsoever in theological accuracy.


While both images in this series show the apples in a rather decrepit state, for the second image the fruit is completely destroyed and spilling out over the table. I mixed some rancid pig bowels in with the rotting fruit to emphasize the decay. I also hid a teeny tiny dead baby mouse in the broken apple. I feel like this resonates well with the themes of temptation associated to the apple because mice have historically been used in still life painting as a sexual metaphor. (The extraordinary fertility of mice means that they are often interpreted as symbols of lechery and destruction.) It’s a bit hard to see this detail in the online version of this image but it will be very clear in a large format print, so I think of this kind of thing as a sort of Easter egg for customers.


New Vanitas Compositions by Neal Auch


“He blossoms like a flower, then withers; he flees like a shadow and does not last. ”  -- Job 14:2

I’ve completed 3 new still life composition. These images, like the 17th century “golden age“ Dutch still lifes that serve as my primary inspiration, are intended to provoke meditation on the inevitability of death and the transience of all things.

The first image in this series is a kind of floral arrangement. This image blends dying pink roses with my own somewhat macabre interpretation of plant life, constructed from various dead animal organs. (In particular, I employed chicken foot “flowers,“ cow trachea “stems,“ and pig ear “leaves“ in this arrangement.) Flower paintings of the 17th century often presented bouquets that would have been impossible to realize outside the confines of the canvas; often flowers that bloom in different seasons and derive from disparate geographical regions were depicted side-by-side. Such paintings, though often stunning in their apparent realism, were very much the products of the artists’ imaginations and were based on botanical illustrations rather than real live flowers. In an era of year-round produce and global imports we take for granted that almost any kind of flower or fruit can be purchased at the local supermarket at any time of year. Here, in an effort to reclaim some of the unreality of classical still life, I have constructed my own imaginary flowers of decaying flesh. This choice also serves to drive home the underlying memento mori themes of the piece. (Of course all floral still life compositions contain, to some extent, a lament about death. But those old images of flowers and fruit tend to look quaint and trite to contemporary audiences; I believe that one must adopt a more confrontational approach in order for the underlying metaphors to make sense in a modern context.)


Photography tutorials emphasizes a few basic “rules“ of composition (like the rule of thirds, etc). But the Dutch masters employed a whole slew of interesting compositional techniques that are seldom found in more contemporary works. The second image in this series is based off one such approach. Here the organizing principle of the composition is a sense of instability; the duck, tipped cup, and chicken feet have been arranged to guide the eye towards the edge of the table and down into the void of negative space beyond. This kind of precarious placement of objects in still life is usually understood as a reminder of the fragility of life. Here this sense of instability is broken only by the etinguished candle in the background, perhaps a reminder that death is the only certainty of life.


The last image of this series incorporates a few of my favourite bits of imagery. One is the “foot candelabrum“ idea that has surfaced many times before in my still life work. The other item of note is the tipped over cup, that is usually understood as a metaphor for the fragility of life. Here, and elsewhere, I like to pair this motif with some pig bowels spilling out over the table.


Still Life with Clock and Crucifix by Neal Auch


They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. — John 19:17

This new still life composition is, perhaps, a bit off season. Easter would have been a better time to be displaying a vanitas style image that references the crucifixion. That being said, the themes of mortality and transience that undergird this composition are fairly universal — both in my work but also in the human condition — so I feel like it still makes sense to share the piece.

Vanitas still lifes frequently employ visual metaphors that make reference to the passage of time. The candle is one obvious example, because the melted wax keeps track of the hour while the smoke from an extinguished flame is a clear reminder of death. Flowers, fruit and meat serve a similar purpose, of course, because these items and the pleasure that they bring will soon disappear. The clock is yet another (not particular subtle) motif that reminds the viewer of the passage of time and, in doing so, becomes a symbol of transience and mortality.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is my first time incorporating a clock into my own still life work. Here I decided to blend the clock with some religious iconography. The memento mori meaning of the clock in this composition is reinforced by the placement of the crucifix, which has been arranged to act as a kind of mirror image to the timepiece. Note that time on the clock has been set to 3pm. This corresponds to the (approximate) time of Christ’s death. (The only Gospel writer to make note of the time of day of Christ’s death is Mark, who states that Jesus endured the torment of crucifixion for about 6 hours from the third hour — roughly 9am in modern parlance — putting his time of death at about 3pm.)

The last item in this still life that I haven’t discussed yet is the music box that the crucifix rests upon. The music box is, for me, a stand-in for the role that a lute with broken strings might play in a more classical composition; typically this would symbolize death and discord.

I’ve already spoken at length about the metaphorical content of this image. From a purely aesthetic perspective the guiding principle behind this piece is the mirroring of the two key focal points (the clock and the cross). This mirroring of composition is, in turn, mirrored in the colour palate by the contrasting of the red tones in the clock frame, music box, crucifix and fresh pig intestines on the left against the white of the clock’s face and the rotting pig intestines spilling out on the right of the image.


New Still Lifes Available in my Etsy Store by Neal Auch


“He blossoms like a flower, then withers; he flees like a shadow and does not last. ” -- Job 14:2

I've added prints of 5 new images to my online store.

This series is a selection of some of my most recent studies of memento mori art. As with my previous still life work, these compositions appropriate the motifs of 17th century Dutch still life and attempt to blend the metaphorical content of classical vanitas paintings with my own horror-film-inspired visual aesthetic.


The first three images of this series all incorporate the same key elements — pomegranates, dead mice, and organ meats — to explore ideas around death and sexuality. The pomegranate is a common element in still life painting that is usually understood to represent temptation and sin, due to the role the fruit plays in the Greek myth The Rape of Persephone. I found it natural to pair the pomegranate along with mice, another common element from the history of still life. Mice also typically have sexual connotations in still life paintings; the extraordinary fertility of mice means that they are often interpreted as symbols of lechery and destruction. In these images I pair the adult mouse with a handful of dead baby mice, reinforcing the underlying themes of sexuality.


I love the way the blood red colours of the pig intestines spilling about in these shots pairs with the saturated tones of the pomegranate. I also really enjoyed working with baby mice for this series; these are a visually interesting subject that I’ve only come to appreciate recently.


The last two images in this series incorporate dying flowers and rotting fruit, both very common motif from the history of still life painting. All still life compositions contain, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things and my works are certainly no exception. While the arrangements of flowers and fruits and breakfast tables in the boring section of the museum can look boring to contemporary viewers, their intended audience would have understood these works as a reminder that life, like the food and flowers, will soon be be gone.


All of these images are available in my Etsy store as 8X12" fine art print. The pieces come signed and titled and matted to fit readily into a standard 11X14" frame. I am happy to offer free shipping for customers in Canada or the US.


New Still Lifes Available in my Etsy Store by Neal Auch

"My days are like lengthening shadows, and I wither away like grass." -- Psalms 102:11

I've added prints of these two images to my online store.

Both of these images draw inspiration from classical religious art and also from 17th century Dutch vanitas still life compositions. Here the Christian icons of the virgin mother and Christ on the cross -- respectively symbols of birth and rebirth -- are juxtaposed with rotting animal organs, as a reminder of the proximity of death and the transience of all things.

The first image is a pieta of sorts. Here a porcelain statue of the virgin mother lovingly cradles the severed foot of a dead chicken and is draped in pig bowels that spill around her form like a dress (or perhaps suggesting blood).

The second image of this series depicts a crucifix framed against an assortment of organ meats and dead flowers. The dead flowers suggest the biblical quote "Like a flower, he comes forth, then withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure." Job 14:2. The thorny rose stems, on the other hand, might suggest Christ's crown of thorns.

As in my last blog post: both of these images are a few years old, but neither has been available for online purchase until this moment. In fact, the image with the crucifix was made all the way back in Christmas of 2016 and this piece was initially constructed as a Christmas gift for an old friend, back when this art project was still in its infancy.


Still Life Studies with Severed Pig Head by Neal Auch


“Sooner or later everyone realises that perfect happiness is unrealisable, but there are few who realise the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. … The certainty of death … places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief.” -- Primo Levi

This series of images continues with my ongoing studies of memento mori art. As with my previous still life work, these compositions appropriate the motifs of 17th century Dutch still life and attempt to blend the metaphorical content of classical vanitas paintings with my own horror-film-inspired visual aesthetic.

Both of the images in this series incorporate a severed pig head. For me the pig’s head serves as a kind of stand-in for the role that human skulls would traditionally play in vanitas paintings. There is, of course, a very long history of skull iconography in art, ranging from religious paintings, to still life, and through to more contemporary examples like Damien Hirsh’s bejewelled skull. (It’s certainly well outside the scope of this project to attempt anything even remotely resembling a comprehensive study of skull iconography, but it is interesting to note just how ubiquitous this symbol is. Skulls appear not only in art but also on pirate flags, on the lapels of the SS, on day of the dead cookies, decorating the walls of religious sites like the Catacombs or the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome, on horror movie posters, on heavy metal album covers, on Halloween decorations, on children’s toys, etc, etc, etc. )


For these images I used a relatively fresh pig’s head. (The last one I purchased was maimed beyond use during my studies in disassembly…) While ripeness has certain advantages in terms of aesthetics, here I loved the way the fresh blood smearing the face and neck of the animal paired with the deep red of the roses and intestines.


Still Life Studies: Apples with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch


“Better on your arse than your feet, flat on your back than either, dead than the lot.”  -- Samuel Beckett

There’s a story that a Roman general who returned victorious from battle would be accompanied in his procession of glory through the streets by a slave whose job it was to whisper “remember that you will die” in the general’s ear. I wouldn’t be tempted to weigh in on the verisimilitude of this claim — such questions are well above my pay grade — but the story nevertheless encapsulates the meaning of memento mori art pieces, from medieval paintings through to my own contributions to the genre.

These two new still life arrangements are both composed in the style of vanitas still life painting, which seek to remind the viewer of the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. Here, as elsewhere, I incorporate the motifs of 17th century Dutch still life painting in the context of my own visual aesthetic. The meat, fruit, and flowers in such compositions encode messages about death and mortality; while those old paintings of fruit baskets in the museum might look quaint to a contemporary audience, viewers at the time would have understood these images as a reminder of inevitable decay.

Apples feature prominently in still life compositions and I’ve made use of this bit of iconography in both images of this series. Apples have a particular resonance in still life because of the role that fruit plays in the myth of the garden of Eden, and they are often interpreted as symbols of temptation, sin, and the fall of man. In both of these images I wanted to accompany the apples with organ meat (pig heart in the first image, cow kidney in the second) which might evoke the Biblical narrative about creation of Eve from Adam’s flesh.

The above image is now available for purchase in my Etsy store.


Both of these images also include a tipped cup, one of my favourite visual metaphors for the fragility of life. I usually pair this motif with some gore spilling out of the cup that might suggest wine, or perhaps blood. I often also like to enhance this interpretation of the tipped cup by placing it precariously close to the edge of the table. (Here and elsewhere I follow the popular Dutch approach to still life where one corner of the table is visible in lower quadrant of the frame.) In the second shot I also added in the extinguish candle, another common bit of iconography, that is usually interpreted as a metaphor for death.

Of course, at the end of the day I’m a visual artist, not a philosopher, and hence these compositions are also guided in large part by aesthetic considerations. I love the colour palate created by the wilting red roses, the blood red pig bowels, the deep purple kidney, and the apples. (The latter were, I believe, Red Delicious, in case anybody out there cares about such trivia.)


Still Life with Peeled Lemon by Neal Auch


“I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”

― Georges Bataille

Here’s another sample from my most recent batch of still life compositions. This image appropriates two key motifs from the golden age of Dutch still life painting. The first is the poultry on the right, hung in a manner typical of game still lifes, a juxtaposition that I find interesting because the mechanisms of contemporary meat production have almost nothing in common with game hunting in the 1600s.

The second key motif in this image is the peeled lemon balanced precariously near the edge of the table in the bottom left of the image. The peeled lemon in art has a long and fascinating history that intersects with ideas of horticultural science, economic considerations, and the novel challenges that representing the fruit accurately presents to the painter. (If you’re interested there’s a great talk by Mariet Westermann on the topic.)

Of course motifs like the lemon almost certainly meant different things to different artists and the appeal of the lemon to me lies in its connection to the themes of vanity and memento mori. On the surface we have the usual interpretation that the fruit, like the meat, will rot and thus presents a reminder of mortality. But there is also something interesting in the contrast between the lemon’s beautiful colour and the sourness of its taste. Moreover, one might be tempted to argue a connection between the serpentine coils of the peel and the story of the garden of Eden…

There’s another symbolic aspect of the lemon that I find interesting in connection with my own still life work. This is the fact that, although the lemon certainly looks like a part of nature as it appears in a painting, the fruit is in fact the result of hybridization and, in this sense, could also be thought of as “man made,” just like accompanying the vases and silverware. I find this resonance particularly interesting because the overwhelming majority of the animals that we eat are also “man made” in that particular sense. It is no secret that contemporary farmed animals — chickens especially — are the result of extensive selective breeding and there are a host of ethical concerns one might raises around this practice that do not apply to the lemon (or other produce).

I’ve spoken about how the metaphorical content of the fruit and meat in image above can be juxtaposed with the meanings those symbols would have had in classical still life paintings. There’s another, more technical, interesting juxtaposition I’d like to draw attention to: the lighting. While I’ve borrowed the motifs and compositional techniques of 17th century still life in making this arrangement, my choice of lighting is rather contemporary. Typically still lifes would have had only a single light source (probably a window in the painter’s studio) whereas here I opted for a two light set-up. The key light is on the right, impinging on the scene orthogonally to the line of sight, and I also added a fairly harsh “kicker” light coming in from behind the arrangement on the left. I opted for this non-canonical setup because otherwise the cow and pig feet might have fallen into shadow and lost visual weight. As a bonus, the kicker light adds a sense of depth and texture to the cow foot on the left. This kind of intersection between classical and modern meanings and techniques is really at the heart of what I enjoy about making still life photographs.


Still Life Studies: Pomegranate with Dead Mice by Neal Auch


“The amount of meaning is in exact proportion to the presence of death and the power of decay” — Walter Benjamin

I’ve been working on some new still life arrangements! This series of images use the same key elements — pomegranates, dead mice, and organ meats — to explore ideas around death and sexuality. A selection of these new images are available for purchase in my Etsy store.

The pomegranate is a common element in still life painting that is usually understood to represent temptation and sin, due to the role the fruit plays in the Greek myth The Rape of Persephone. I found it natural to pair the pomegranate along with mice, another common element from the history of still life. Mice also typically have sexual connotations in still life paintings; their extraordinary fertility means that they are often interpreted as symbols of lechery and destruction. In these images I pair the adult mouse with a handful of dead baby mice, reinforcing the underlying themes of sexuality. (Special thanks to Ankixa of Casual Taxidermy for the rat hookup…)


All still life compositions contain, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things. These images are, of course, no exception. The fruit, meat, and dead animals remind us of death and decay. The extinguished candle in the image above is one of my favourite iconographic elements from the history of still life. The candle is both a marker of the passage of time, and also a metaphor for a life extinguished. In all three images I’ve also included the tipped cup, a common metaphor for the fragility of life. In the above example this meaning is enhanced by the placement of the cup precariously close to the ledge.


For this last shot I couldn’t resist including a phallic arrangement of cow trachea. Notice also the fetal mouse tucked away inside the pomegranate “womb” and the delightful way that the blood red tone in the fresh pig intestines pair with the vibrantly coloured pomegranate seeds and weird pink hues of the baby mice.


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


"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.)


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.


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


"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.)


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).