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Summer 2010

Still-Life Photographs

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Imogen Sara Smith

"Happiness of the collector, the happiness of the solitary: to be tête-à-tête with things." — Walter Benjamin, "Pariser Passagen"

A photograph is something salvaged and proof of something lost. As the camera’s shutter opens and closes with a sound like a mechanical kiss, the present moment becomes, forever, the past. Photographs can slice time finer than the human eye, revealing the moment when a galloping horse takes all four feet off the ground, or when the broken surface of milk forms a ring of points like a chessman’s crown. We reach for our cameras when we see what we know won’t last, a sunset or a baby’s smile or a woman balanced in the air over a puddle.

Why photograph inanimate objects, which neither move nor change? Set aside for the moment explorations of abstract form (Paul Strand’s flower pots, Edward Weston’s peppers) and glamorous advertisements for material luxuries (Edward Steichen’s cigarette lighters, Irving Penn’s melted brie). Many of the earliest photographs were still life of necessity: only statues, books, and urns could hold still long enough to leave their images on salted paper. But with the still lifes of Roger Fenton, sharpness of detail and richness of texture introduce a new note: the dusty skin of a grape puckers around the stem, a flower petal curls and darkens at the edge. Photographic still life, like painted still life, is about our sensual experience of everyday objects, and the inevitability of decay. Penn famously photographed cigarette butts and trash collected from the gutter, rotting fruit and vegetables, discarded clothes, and other examples of dead nature.

The nineteenth-century art critic Théophile Thoré objected to the French term for still life, nature morte, proclaiming, “Everything is alive and moves, everything breathes in and exhales, everything is in a constant state of metamorphosis... There is no dead nature!” The Czech photographer Josef Sudek tersely echoed this thought when he said that to the photographer’s eye, “a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings.”

Sudek, who lost his right arm in the First World War but nevertheless carried a panoramic box camera and tripod around Prague and the surrounding countryside, began to focus on still life after German troops occupied Prague in 1939. He started shooting through the window of his studio, turning it into a scrim: fogged with condensation, feathered with frost, or streaked with trails of raindrops. He placed objects on the windowsill, turning it into “a theater of ordinary objects,” in the words of Anna Farova. The window is a reminder of the boundary between interior and outdoors, between the nearness of quiet, known things—an apple on a plate, a rose in a glass of water—and the blur of the world beyond.

A wooden step-ladder in his studio was another stage for still life; on each step he would arrange onions, sea-shells, a brown egg on a white saucer, lemons, crumpled paper, and glasses part-full of water or wine. Visiting friends would sketch the changing display, and Sudek began to construct and photograph lyrical still lifes in series he called “memories” and “labyrinths.” As action photographers freeze things in motion, he roused broken dolls and glass marbles to dreamy life, made crumpled scraps of cellophane look stilled in mid-flight.

Sudek’s still lifes combine solid, durable objects with the most ephemeral phenomena, light and shadow, moisture and reflections. In pictures like his Glass Labyrinths, he blurred the distinctions between light, glass, and water: all are translucent, all are veiled as though by breath, all leave permanent traces in the gelatin-silver print. Despite their softness and absence of strong contrasts, Sudek’s contact prints illuminate the tiny bubbles clinging to the sides of a glass of water, the flaking cracks in old paint, the separate filaments of feathers. Still life is an art of intimacy and nearness; it addresses the world within our reach, the things we touch, hold, smell, and taste. It brings us “tête-à-tête with things.” We know how the rim of a glass feels on our lips, the weight of an egg cradled in our hands, the sound of dry onion skin crackling as it’s peeled. But still life is defined by the lack of human presence; it shows us our rooms when we are not in them, complete without us.

Sudek captures what Cézanne called “the melancholy of an old apple,” light picking out fine wrinkles in the withering skin, a dried leaf standing black and brittle on the stem. (Cézanne preferred fruits to flowers, explaining, “They like to have their portraits painted.” The English gardener and amateur photographer Charles Jones spent a lifetime making solemn portraits of vegetables and fruits: peapods slit open to show their pearly seeds, cabbages unfurling their leaves like the ruffled petticoats of can-can dancers, onions gleaming like gold-leafed church domes.)

In his later years Sudek became a hoarder, incapable of throwing things away. Eventually the wooden shack he used as a studio became so crammed with papers, books, correspondence, shopping lists, phonograph records, match-boxes, crockery, and detritus that there was hardly room to sleep. The comfort of things is that they last; they don’t change from day to day. In his series Air Mail Memories, Sudek photographed letters he had received from friends, tangible links to the absent. He commemorated mementos. He took pictures of his cluttered studio; as though hoarding empty picture-frames and tin cans and reams of paper and dried flowers were not enough, he had to document the hoard as well.

Anything that is collected loses its functional value: coins no longer pay for goods, postage stamps no longer travel on letters, flint arrowheads no longer wound. Memories, which everyone collects, are expired moments, pieces of time used up. “It is the deepest enchantment of the collector,” Walter Benjamin wrote in The Arcades Project, “to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone.” Taking a photograph is like pinning a butterfly; light is trapped within a box and pressed flat. To be held, life must be stilled.

André Kertész also photographed objects on a windowsill. After his wife Elizabeth’s death in 1977, he began placing objects that reminded him of her or of their life together in front of the window of his New York apartment and shooting color Polaroids of them. The series was eventually collected in a book called From My Window. Through this same window in previous decades, Kertész had taken black-and-white pictures of Washington Square Park and surrounding rooftops with a telephoto lens. Now the city became a soft, distant backdrop for his miniature theater of memory. Buildings are distorted through the glass bust of a woman: a smooth, fluid, featureless shape like a pooling teardrop.

Kertész had seen this bust in a store, and something about the posture of the neck and shoulders reminded him of Elizabeth. He bought it and began to photograph it again and again, both as a stand-in for his adored wife and a symbol of her absence. Kertész had a “nearly obsessive attachment to small objects,” his friend Carol Brower Wilhelm recalled. She shared it with him: “We collected mementos nearly everywhere we went. Both our lives were cluttered with objects and details while we yearned for an unshakable order which we ourselves betrayed and continually made impossible.” On the windowsill Kertész photographed these companionable objects: models of snails and ducks, a glass bluebird, a wire figurine of a man reading, a crystal heart (another link to his wife, whom he called “little heart”). The pictures brave accusations of sentimentality, even of kitsch. But we are all guilty of storing emotions in objects; the urge to build shrines and cherish relics is universal. And even common objects like dishes and combs and ashtrays, which we see and touch and handle every day, absorb our experiences and become repositories of nostalgia. “Nostalgia” combines the Greek words for homecoming and pain. Kertész left his native Hungary as a young man, found his artistic home in Paris, but spent the latter half of his life in New York, where his initial feelings of alienation, loss and disorientation never fully wore off.

Susan Sontag wrote that photographs “actively promote nostalgia.” To miss something it must be absent yet present; not just remembered but an active, intrusively vivid memory, a present absence. Photographs are not, in the phrase Irving Penn used to title one of his books, “moments preserved,” they are reminders of moments lost. Even still life, which should convey duration—the life span of fruit or flowers, the permanence of solid objects—becomes a fugitive instant, a ghost of light.

Kertész took Polaroids not for the color (he claimed to be partly color-blind) but for the instant results and autonomy they granted him. Within moments he was able to turn what he saw—a fleeting sunbeam or shadow, a suddenly striking composition—into a physical image, a solid object. He became so consumed by taking these pictures that he would work for hours, forgetting to eat. At first he found the Polaroid camera frustrating, unpredictable and difficult to control. “With this ridicule thing I tried expressing myself,” he said in his idiosyncratic, multi-lingual style.

Cameras had always been an intimate and personal part of his life; his pictures were not only works of art but a diary, the most natural form of self-expression for a man who felt inarticulate. He photographed Elizabeth on her deathbed and in her casket, and placed a photograph of the two of them in their crypt. He even photographed his photographs, cropping and re-framing them. Throughout his life he made many self-portraits, and he often let his own shadow fall in his pictures, deliberately violating the invisibility and illusion of objectivity that most photographers pursue.

Kertész was deeply offended when an American magazine editor said his pictures “talked too much,” because they expressed his sensibility rather than documenting his surroundings. He gave speaking parts to a toy ship, a tulip, a glass knick-knack; he saw his own feelings reflected in a cloud or a chair covered with snow. Even without knowing that Kertész was a grieving widower when he took these Polaroids, one can find something wistful and elegiac in the richly colored pictures. It might be the slant of the sunlight, suggesting the waning of late afternoon; or the window that places the viewer inside, alone in a room; or the fact that souvenirs (literally, “memories”) are treasured by those who dwell on, or in, the past. But Kertész’s pictures don’t evoke loneliness—the pain of feeling incomplete—so much as the total absorption of being alone with anything you love.

Kertész eventually bought a second, identical glass bust and posed the two in a pool of sun, leaning their heads together in a mute tête-à-tête. It’s no surprise that glass—in windowpanes, wine glasses, marbles, sculptures, shards—is the star of both Sudek’s and Kertész’s still lifes: it gathers, refracts, and solidifies light, the real subject of every photograph. The camera lens is another glass window, which lets us see into the past but shuts us out.

Imogen Sara Smith is the author of Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy and a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal.


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