Cow Foot

Still Life with Peeled Lemon by Neal Auch

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“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.

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!

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!

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.