Still Life + Vanitas

Our first project in second year is still life + vanitas ( if you couldn’t already guess.)

I will start off by looking into the history of vanitas and contemporary vanitas and still life, with hopefully a clear progression in our meaning of life.

Lets start of with the history. I researched that vanitas is a sub genre of mementos mori. This phrase came from the ancient Romans where the servants would stand behind a victorious general as he walked through the town being cheered at by crowds. The servant would whisper in the generals ear. “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!” Memento mori was seen positively up until the beguining of the 20th century. Used as a motivation to live a good, meaningful and victorious life. Thats why artists depicted skulls and other symbols related to death. Churches would display this work to compel the viewers to meditate death, reflect on their lives and rededicated themselves to preparing to meet god.

Each object used with the vanitas work has its own meaning, here are a few examples:

Skulls – certain death

Bubbles, smoke, burning candles and hourglasses – time is limited

Cut flowers – remind man that earthly pleasures are fleeting just as flesh leaves the skulls

Books – human knowledge and its temporary nature.

The remaining objects have very similar meanings.

HARMEN STEENWYCK (1612-1656) 'Vanitas', 1640 (oil on wood panel)

HARMEN STEENWYCK (1612-1656) ‘Vanitas’, 1640 (oil on wood panel)




Bird skeletons

Projections on skulls or other vanitas objects

Group Work

ContactSheetstudio1 ContactSheetstudio2

In these images above, I have worked in the style of John Blakemore ( information above my images). I have a neutral feeling about this project with the over head shot I have never enjoyed working this way because the lighting needs to be move to create the right shadows to give the image depth. I believe I have achieved it well on some images the main problem I had was my choice in objects as they were blowing out in the histogram. I over came this obstacle by doing a long exposure and moving the bright object from the frame so the object will be there in the image but won’t be the main focus by being blown out.

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I have decided I want to create something similar to a silhouette but its all a little open still. As I have know idea how to pull this off, what objects to use, what lighting, nothing. Therefore I really am shooting in the dark with this project. I know I want it to be linked to vanitas and the historical means to the objects but it wether to use modern day object could symbolise the same thing as the historical objects or just stick to the traditional objects.

On second thoughts.

I am now scrapping the shadow idea, as a client has asked me to photograph his clothing for his website. The style in which he wants me to photograph it reminds me of vanitas. The client wants each garment to be flat with no shadows; the images look like they are missing a human, the life has gone from them and all that is left is the clothing. This project is going to be a twist on the traditional vanitas, with the clothing out living the human. The only problem with this project is the lighting. The lighting is key and needs to be a main priority within the studio to make these images work.

Here are some examples :

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I have also been looking into how I would go about setting the lighting. The client has been doing his own photographs until now by standing a board against the wall at 45 degree angle with soft box lighting on both sides of the garment, and shooting for above, birds eye view. I have also so researched into other photographers that have worked in this style within a studio.

Here is a good example of the type of set up I should use:

Useful equipment and set up


I am very hopeful for this brief as I feel like the only obstacle will be the lighting and the sorting out of the garments. I shall be doing a test trial when I get back from reading week. Fingers crossed.

This project is never ending. I have now achieved over 9 hours in the studio with the client but the client doesn’t communicate very well; Each time we’ve been in the studio they will wait for as little as a day to a week to tell me the images aren’t what he was hoping for but won’t spend his time telling me what he wants I have to guess. This is exhausting work especially seen as I don’t have long left now till the deadline date. I am feeling the stress and becoming extremely lost with what the client wants…

I am at the end of my tether and not very hopeful with this project feeling like I’ve shot myself in the foot.

Another disorganised day in the studio. Really starting to get worried, thinking this project isn’t going to get finished. May have to think of a new idea quick… Stressed doesn’t even touch on how this project is making me feel.

This shoot was successful in my eyes; the garments are true to their colour and they aren’t over exposed

I have found an artist who works in a similar way with clothing as my client and she also styles it with vanitas in mind. Karen LaMonte works in a style called absentia which is absent/ white absent in Latin, the abscence of the human from the clothing. This is very similar to what my client wants not only does it allow the customer to visualise them wearing the clothing better but it also symbolises vanitas with the absence of a human, symbolising how humans mortality isn’t invinceable and that even our clothing can out live us. Plus the colour and tones of the clothing are similar to the ones LaMonte uses in her sculptures.


After looking at the pictures with the client, there are a few he wasn’t sure of. So I decided to research for other people that had done 2d flat clothing images, I e-mailed Superdenim who also has their clothing photographed in this style. I got a really good response and was also able to contact the photographer.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 18.22.06 Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 18.22.17


By gathering this important information it helped me understand that I was doing things right I just need to tweak a few things, this information also gave me the push that; if that guy can do I can. I took his words in to consideration and put them into practice within the studio next time we were in. I believe it went very successful, the lighting was clean and the garments looked true to the colour, my client and I agree we have found the best way to photograph the images.

This is where I am going to change these pictures to fit into my vanitas brief. I want the images to be empty. I want the audience to read there is a missing human presence, be able to understand a contemporary vanitas. I will only be working with the pale garments to give the audience another way to relate the images back to vanitas with the clothing symbolising angles as the background will be pure white and the clothing not far off pure white. The reason I want to symbolise angles is to link it back to the biblical version of vanitas with Steenwyck’s work with the beam of light breaking the image up with the illusion of a spiritual presence, I am using the same idea of light being a spiritual presence but having it as the entire image.




Overall I have found this project very interesting. Working in the style of Blakemore was really interesting sadly the lighting is difficult to master with the white objects and the black background; difficult not to burn out the white objects. As for my final work, I am very proud of myself with the client happy and being able to tie in to my brief. Clothing is a form of vanitas in two ways. One, the clothing ( when displayed this way ) looks empty and spiritual, the empty clothing symbolises the shape of a human body without the body, symbolising our mortality. Secondly the clothing itself displays vanitas with the cycle of being made, worn then thrown out, and most importantly out living the owner. If I could have changed anything about this brief it would have been my communication with the client as we spent more time in the studio still discussing what he wanted to achieved. If I could do it again I wouldn’t waste time in the studio and I would have also liked to have completed all the clothing range for this brief but sadly we didn’t have time. If I had done all the clothing there would have been more to choose from which could have given me the opportunity to create something bigger than my final I have. I had visions of creating a typography vanitas with each image having the spiritual precense with the use of the bright white background. But overall I am very happy with the outcome I just wish I had been able to photograph more garments. I will be finishing off the clients photographs in my own time.



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