Human Teeth

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.


New Teeth Photos! by Neal Auch

“My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.” ― James Joyce

My latest batch of photos of human teeth is now complete and has been added to my gallery Dentata.  Last time I spoke a bit about how these new works slot into the general theme of Memento Mori that permeates all of my creative output in one way or another.  Since I plan to return to this subject several more times in future blog posts, I thought it might be fun to switch things up a bit for this update and instead talk a bit about the technical aspects of what goes into photos like this.

Extreme close-up photos like those in my galleries Inside and Dentata are usually called "macro" photography by camera nerds, and there are a number of technical complications associated to this genre.  First off, you either need a specialty lens, or else extension tubes to even be able to focus at such close range to the subject.  (I've used both approaches in my career; currently I'm shooting on a 60mm 2:1 macro lens but if you're on a budget then extension tubes plus prime normal lens is a great hack.)

The most interesting technical issue surrounding close-up work is the problem of depth of focus.  When you shoot at high magnification you will end up extremely shallow depth of field for pretty much any choice of aperture, meaning that only a teeny tiny sliver of the image will actually be in sharp focus.  If you like that look then fine, enjoy it, but I personally don't care for that aesthetic at all.  (I've never understood the fixation some photographers have on bokeh; to my mind this look is way overdone and is often used as a crutch by lazy photographers who try and clean up a messy composition by blurring out all the distracting crap in the background rather than taking the time to compose a simple shot free of distractions in the first place.)  To circumvent this 'problem' I will typically take 50-100 exposures for each image, with each exposure having a slightly different focal point.  Then these images need to be stacked and blended together in Photoshop to produce the kinds of shots I like, which are sharp and in-focus across all (or at least most) of the subject. 

Aside from the extra computing and shooting time needed for this approach there are other issues.  Getting close-up tends to cut down on the light, so to get a good image you'll need slow shutter speeds.  Of course, this means everything needs to be locked down on a tripod (which is also necessary because of the stacking and shallow depth of field).  All told images like this take about an hour each to shoot, plus 1-2 hours of editing time to get the focus stacking and aesthetic editing done correctly.  So...  It's a bit labour intensive.  But I love the results.  Enjoy!