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Art of Arrangement: Photography and the Still Life Tradition

Still life has captured the imagination of photographers from the early 19th century to the present day. It is a tradition full of lavish, exotic and sometimes dark arrangements, rich with symbolic depth and meaning.


When the first photographers adopted the still life genre, they inherited a visual tradition established in centuries of painting. This exhibition investigated the history of the still life photograph through our photography collection. It looked at the formal and aesthetic conventions photographers have used, and how these have been adapted and subverted to extend creative expression in their work.

A dialogue with painting

Still life paintings have been created throughout history and reached a peak in popularity in the 17th century.

Still life (or Vanitas) paintings communicated a moral or religious message. They particularly emphasised the shortness of life and the inevitability of decline and death. Many objects had complex allegorical or symbolic meanings. These were found in common motifs such as falling petals, decaying fruit, skulls, timepieces, and burning candles.

Early photography required long exposure times, and still life provided an ideal subject. Photographers embraced the genre, arranging objects and traditional motifs to create visually pleasing arrangements. These provided an opportunity to test the possibilities of photography through experiments with composition, framing and light; producing photographs that have an enduring influence on contemporary work.

On close inspection

Photography can be used for scientific purposes, to document and record detail that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Hidden forms and natural patterns are examined, and their beauty and complexity revealed.

Microscopy uses powerful magnification to zoom in on tiny creatures and cell structures. Radiography, or X-ray photography, exposes what we cannot see, uncovering the hidden parts of animals or flowers.

Arrangements in vision

Stereo photography was hugely popular in the 1850s. By using a special viewer, people could view images in three dimensions. Still life arrangements provided rich subject matter for photographers.

To create the 3D illusion the photographer often used a stereoscopic camera. This took two images at the same time, each from a slightly different viewpoint. Alternatively, the photographer could take two separate photographs, moving the camera by 6.5 centimetres to the left or right to capture each image.

Order and disorder

In traditional still life arrangements, objects are carefully selected and ordered to create a visually pleasing or meaningful image. This tradition has continued in contemporary practice, with photographers using props, designing sets and constructing elaborate scenes to photograph.

Other photographers search for striking arrangements to provoke thought. These photographers see extraordinary pattern and meaning in everyday things. Some images are cluttered, but there is an implied order among the chaos.

Still life in camera

Sometimes photographers focus on pre-existing arrangements of objects, using framing in the camera, or subsequent cropping of the photograph to achieve their desired effects.

Reflection on light and dark

There is an inextricable link between photography and light. Photography relies on light to illuminate the subject and to create the image. Here, the effects of light, reflection and shade are the main element of each composition. Natural or artificial light is manipulated and captured so that its changing nature becomes the main focus of the photograph.

Still life with figure

Still life does not usually include people. While the human figure is not the primary focus in these photographs, it is an important part of a wider arrangement.

Scenes can be constructed around the subject to illustrate character or artistic practice.

Movement and stillness

These photographs fix an instant in stillness, enabling the viewer to see and analyse an event that would pass in the blink of an eye. Movement and change is implied, but not seen.

Some of these images had a practical purpose: to pinpoint the winner in a horse race, or analyse the action of a bullet breaking through glass.

Arrangements in negative

Sometimes photographers create arrangements by carefully grouping together separate parts of different photographs.

An example of this can be seen in combination prints. These are made using several negatives to produce a single photograph. Each component part of the subject is photographed separately and in perfect focus. The individual negatives are then exposed on photographic paper in sequence. This makes a close fitting jigsaw, tightly arranged to create a new, unified image.

The subversive

Creating a still life may not have been the primary consideration when taking these photographs, but the objects and physical arrangements have the hallmarks of still life composition.

These photographs contemplate mortality and the passing of time. Some intentionally twist and subvert traditional symbols to communicate political or personal messages.



On the Shortness of Life by Brian Liddy

Still Life in the Still Life by Roy Exley

Further reading

  • H.C. Adam, 2009, Eadweard Muybridge, the Complete Locomotion Photographs, Taschen GmbH
  • A. Adams, 2007, Ansel Adams’ 400 Photographs, Little, Brown & Company
  • E. Atget, 2001, Eugène Atget (Phaidon 55 series), Phaidon Press Ltd
  • G. Badger, 2001, Chris Killip (Phaidon 55 series), Phaidon Press Ltd
  • G. Baldwin, M. Daniel, S. Greenough, R. Pare, P. Roberts, R. Taylor, 2004, All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York & London
  • G. Batchen, 2008, William Henry Fox Talbot, Phaidon Press Ltd
  • P. Borhan, 2000, André Kertész: His Life and Work, Bulfinch Press
  • G.C. Bott, N. Wolf, (ed) 2008, Still Life, Taschen GmbH
  • N. Bourcier, 2006, André Kertész (Phaidon 55 series), Phaidon Press Ltd
  • T. Brandow, W.A. Ewing, 2007, Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography, Thames & Hudson
  • P. Brookman, 2010, Eadweard Muybridge, Tate Publishing
  • A. Brown, M. Gray, R. Roberts, 2000, Specimens and Marvels: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography, Aperture Foundation Inc
  • N. Bryson, 1990, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, Reaktion Books
  • A. Conger, 2005, Edward Weston, Phaidon Press Ltd
  • H. Edgerton, J. Estelle, 2000, Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton, Harry N. Abrams, Inc
  • W.A. Ewig, 2007, Edward Steichen (Photofile), Thames & Hudson
  • J. Fiedler, 2001, László Moholy-Nagy, Phaidon Press Ltd
  • R. Gibson, P. Roberts, 1990, Madame Yevonde: Colour, Fantasy and Myth, National Portrait Gallery Publications
  • M. Haworth-Booth, 2004, Paul Strand (Masters of Photography), Aperture Foundation Inc
  • J.G. Isla, 2010, Harold Edgerton: The Anatomy of Movement, La Fabrica
  • A. Kertész, 2005, André Kertész: The Early Years, W W Norton & Co Inc
  • C. Killip, 2009, Chris Killip: In Flagrante, Errata Editions
  • B. Lifson, 2004, Eugène Atget (Masters of Photography), Aperture Foundation Inc
  • P. Martineau, 2010, Still Life in Photography, J. Paul Getty Museum
  • D. McCullin, R. Pledge, 2007, Don McCullin, Thames & Hudson
  • E. Muybridge, 2000, Animals in Motion, Dover Publications Inc
  • R. Olivares (ed), 2005, Exit 18: Still-life, Olivares y Asociados, Madrid
  • R. Pare, R. Fenton, 1988, Roger Fenton (Masters of Photography), Aperture Foundation Inc
  • T. Pitts, 1995, Edward Weston: Forms of Passion, Passion of Forms, Thames & Hudson
  • T. Pitts, 2008, Edward Weston, Taschen GmbH
  • D. Sallenave, 1990, André Kertész (Photofile), Thames & Hudson
  • J. Sander, 2008, The Magic of Things: Still Life Painting 1500–1800, Hatje Cantz, Germany
  • N. Schneider, 2003, Still Life, Taschen GmbH
  • J. Smith, 1999, Edward Steichen: The Early Years, Princeton University Press
  • F. Woodbridge Wilson, 2009, The Photographs of Angus McBean: From the Stage to the Surreal: Photographs from the Harvard Theatre Collection, Thames & Hudson

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