Centuries after the Ancient Egyptians first daubed images of crops, fish, and meat on the walls of their tombs, the illustrious still-life tradition has undergone a transformation from one of the lowliest of art forms to one of our most significant. While still life—also known by the Italian term natura morta—simply refers to an image of inanimate objects, it embodies far more than a random selection of fruit and flowers. Indeed, during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, the vanitas paintings of the Old Masters presented perishable food stuff and blooms as emblems of life and death.
By the 19th century, still life had become an essential part of an artist’s practice and for some, their entire focus. Modernist Édouard Manet (1832–83) famously believed that: “A painter can say all he wants to with fruits, or flowers, or even clouds.” Today it continues to be a rich seam not only for painters, but for photographers attracted by its drama and excited by the potential of applying contemporary techniques to age-old themes—the likes of Frederick G. Tutton (1887–1930) and Roger Fenton (1819–69) experimented with photographic still lifes more than a century-and-a-half ago, but these four very different artists are keeping the tradition alive and striving to make the everyday extraordinary…
Precision technique: Paulette Tavormina
It’s no easy feat to create the elaborate tableaux at the center of Paulette Tavormina’s still lifes. Tavormina, from New York, will trawl farmers’ markets for hours looking for particular blush-pink roses or just-ripened figs. Then it is a race against the clock to arrange, light, and shoot each composition before it begins to decay. But it is that tension that is the essence of her photography. “I’m looking to capture that perfect moment in time before it disappears,” she explains. “I’ll take hundreds of photographs to get one shot. It has to have the right feeling, the right mood.”
Tavormina’s love of still life was nurtured through a friendship with the painter Sarah McCarty, whom she met while living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I’d go to her studio and she would be painting deceased birds or wilted flowers by natural light. I just fell in love with it. I couldn’t get enough of the genre.” From then on she would seek out still lifes—and especially the work of 17th-century Old Masters including Giovanna Garzoni (1600–70)—wherever she went. It would be several decades however before all Tavormina’s ideas would coalesce in her photography. In the meantime she enjoyed a successful career as a props specialist in Hollywood, where she created complex food scenes for films including The Astronaut’s Wife, Nixon, and The Perfect Storm.
Then, in 2008, while working at an auction house, photographing items for its catalogs, she was invited to exhibit in a staff art show. “I had just made my first still-life image, Fish Bone, and I put it up along with a couple of other photos. The first person to buy one was one of the directors. Everything went from there…” Today, with numerous exhibitions and two books to her name, Tavormina remains as passionate about her subject as ever. “I hope the photographs I create will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters have affected me,” she says.
Personal drama: Jeroen Luijt
It is perhaps not surprising that Jeroen Luijt’s photography should be infused with the spirit of the Dutch Old Masters. As he points out: “I live in the center of Amsterdam; I have the 17th century all around me.” His passion for still life began in front of the Rijksmuseum’s collections of Jan van Huysum (1682–1749), Pieter Claesz (1597–1660) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641). It wasn’t until he embarked on a course at the city’s Photo Academy, however, that he struck on the idea of making his own. “It was a four-year course covering everything from portraiture to architecture photography, but it was the still-life module that really held my attention because it wasn’t simply about taking the photo—it was the whole process of creation.”
Today, Lujit has started to attract the attention of critics and collectors alike for his dramatic images, rich in detail and symbolism that blend the classical and the personal. “I always try to use items that mean something to me,” he says. By way of example, he mentions the lutes that sometimes appear in his work—a personal cameo from the photographer, whose surname is the Dutch word for lute. He will spend hours arranging a twist of lemon peel just so on a Delft plate, or lighting a skull to illuminate every plane and hollow.
I live in the center of Amsterdam; I have the 17th century all around me
The results are frequently mistaken for oil paintings. But while Luijt draws heavily from painterly traditions—his series New Vanitas was laden with symbols that have historically represented the transience of life—it is the challenges of the photographic process that really fascinate him. “When taking a photo, what you see is what you get. If there’s a reflection of light on a glass, you will see that reflection. When an object is shown balanced on the edge of the table you actually have to balance it there. Sometimes you have to tilt a plate so it can be seen on the table but doesn’t look like it’s tilted. Painting is hard, of course, but sometimes it’s easier to paint reality than to photograph it.”
The power of flowers: Bas Meeuws
“I am attracted to making the impossible possible,” says Bas Meeuws of his large-scale works, composed piece by piece from an image archive of thousands of flowers. “When you take a photograph of a bouquet you always see it’s a photograph of a bouquet; everything is in proportion, there’s gravity.” The Dutch photographer prefers a more painterly approach, using his database as a palette to create “strange, fantasy images… more real than reality.” In this, he is following in the tradition of 17th-century Dutch flower painting, where flowers that never could have bloomed simultaneously were portrayed in arrangements together. “I play with proportions. I place tiny flowers at the top of bouquets or shrink large flowers into small pieces,” he explains. “It makes something hyper-real.”
Over the past few years, the self-taught photographer—represented by Per van der Horst Gallery in the Netherlands—has built up a collection of more than 13,000 images of flora shot from multiple angles. He started with tulips, naturally, but has since branched out into more tropical flowers; hibiscus and orchids. But where the exotic arrangements painted by his predecessors reflected status and wealth, Meeuws wishes to highlight that “every flower, every leaf,” is precious. “We have to be more careful with our planet. When people look at the flowers in my work I want them to experience the same sense of awe as viewers did in the 17th century—but for different reasons.”
Related: How to Style Cut Flowers at Home
Hyper-real perfection: Julija Levkova
“I am inspired by the big themes in life: loneliness, vulnerability, and the pure emotions,” says Julija Levkova of her hyper-real, color-saturated, and flower-filled works. “I want to put things together to rebuild and discover in what way I see the world.” Born in Riga, Latvia, and now working between Belgium and the Netherlands, Levkova’s interest in still lifes dates back to her teenage years when, like our other practitioners, she was fascinated by the Golden Age of the still life and painters such as Rembrandt (1606–69), van Huysum, and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Growing up inspired by a library of books on art and history, Levkova went on to study photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp.
Today she creates her works using “hyper-collage,” taking hundreds of different photographs of flowers, birds, and insects before “spending months layering them to arrive at the final art piece always full of life.” Levkova is currently putting together a new body of works, which she says will be a “hyper-real arrangement that pulls the viewer into contact with the flora and fauna that the planet stands to lose. I am focusing on ecological issues the planet is facing nowadays, environmental protection, and human intervention in nature and its negative impact.”
Banner image: Untitled (#151) 2019 by Bas Meeuws