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.”
more from Imogen Sara Smith at Threepenny Review here.