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Everyone has photographed still life images at one time or another. It’s usually one of those everyday images that catches our eye such as the sun shining through colored glass bottles on a window sill, fresh flowers in a vase or a stack of old books on an antique table. Photographers are attracted to beautiful, interesting or just random things, and just naturally want to capture those images. I have done my share of random still-life shots, and especially enjoy shooting collections such as colored pencils in a row or old tools in a barn. But I had never created a still-life scene from scratch with the goal of telling a story in a single frame. This process is much more involved, requiring thoughtfully selecting the items, placing and lighting them in a visually appealing way.
Last September my Dutch photographer friend Klaas van Huizen asked me to join his still-life photography project. The plan was that we would shoot only still-life images, but of any theme we liked, stage each on a black background, and each select 8 to 10 of them for an exhibit in the Netherlands in January 2012. I am a busy photographer here in the US and was at first reluctant to take on another project. And whatever spare time I did have was spent developing my international photography workshops to launch this fall in Paris. My plate was pretty full, but I just couldn’t resist the challenge. The project was too interesting to pass up and I was confident that three months was plenty of time to do it. Besides, I work better under pressure, so I jumped in!
As I said, this was my first time building from scratch still-life images to photograph, and was a real test to my “working well under pressure!” I was totally unprepared for how time consuming the creative process of envisioning, gathering and composing the objects for each shot, and the myriad of details involved. At first I thought, “I’ll just find a day here and there in my busy schedule, and just shoot something.” Was I ever wrong! Sure, I had good days and bad days, but I mostly had to realize that the creative process cannot be forced or scheduled. It has to flow naturally and on its own time.
So where does one start with staged still-life photography? For me it started with the discovery of trigger objects, an item that inspired me, and then I’d start composing a theme or a setting about it in my head. Friends helped me locate specialty items such as an old typewriter or ballet shoes. I chose to use mostly window light and reflectors instead of studio lights. I soon learned that over thinking the composition of the shot was getting in the way of a natural, pure image. It was quite powerful to realize that once I followed my heart and my intuition, I was creating better images.
This still-life building exercise exposes a photographer’s unique personality and life experience. No two photographers select, place or light their objects in the same way. However, two photographers’ work, such as Klaas’ and mine, can compliment one another, even though we were working on two different continents.
The project was completed within the deadline. I flew to the Netherlands in January for the exhibit opening at FOTOexpo202 in Amersfoort. While our individual work was unique and singular, the combined sets of images complimented one another very well. I am proud to say that the exhibit was a good success overall, and I am now looking forward to experimenting with more still life compositions to show in other venues.
Staging and photographing your own still-life is definitely a challenge, but if you balance internal creative process with the techniques of the craft, you will create your own unique images to appreciate for a long time, maybe even immortalize some prized family heirlooms. Just be sure you are not under a tight deadline and can enjoy the ebb and flow of the creative process!