Life and Death on a Table Top


Pushing the still life genre forwards

Still life has always been about more than fruit and flowers arranged on tables. The French word for the genre – nature morte – references mortality, a nod to the brevity of even the most luxurious of lives. Still life images at their best illicit a response on both a visual and an intellectual level – both examining the principles of arrangement and aesthetic taste, and asking questions about commodity-based status, the everyday, and life and death. They take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Everyday objects morphed into high art.

With any genre rooted in such tradition though, it takes special work to push it in new and interesting directions – for the work to feel fresh and exciting, rather than just referential and appropriated. An aesthetic document is one thing, but what does a modern still life communicate that we don’t already know, that photographers weren’t already exploring almost a century ago?

This list highlights a few of my favourite photographers who work with the still life genre, as well as a couple of the pioneers. They each approach the genre from a different place, but are united in their ability to create beautiful, meaningful art. I hope you find a wealth of inspiration, and a few surprises among these names.

(Banner image © Sharon Core)

Ori Gersht (Israel)




Images © Ori Gersht

Gersht is known for his ‘still life explosions’ – a delicious oxymoron to describe his process of capturing objects in suspension as they shatter into thousands of pieces. It’s a subversive play on the traditional still life genre that’s made more wryly rebellious in how he chooses classic still life subject matter like flowers and fruits, and frames them in dark, softly lit settings that mimic the Baroque painters of the 1600s like Juan Sánchez Cotán.

He uses modern camera to freeze information that happens too quickly for the human eye to process – something which we would be otherwise unable to experience. It’s what Walter Benjamin referred to as the ‘optical unconsciousness’ in his seminal essay ‘A Short History of Photography’.

What I love about Gersht’s work is the interplay of contrasting elements – the scenes are a document of both peace (flowers being a symbol of such) and destruction. They are both grotesque and attractive. Traditional and modern. A view of life and the inevitability of death. It’s a beautifully simple concept, executed with elegance.

Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)




Images © Wolfgang Tillmans

Fine-art photographer Tillmans has spent a career redefining photographic practice and representation. He emerged in the 1990s documenting the youthful European counterculture he was a part of, and has been challenging the distinction between low and high culture ever since – balancing on a fragile creative equilibrium between low-key observation, and virtuosic practise shaped by a deep knowledge of the history of art. Whether he’s photographing abstractions of light, or exhibiting photocopied images of piles of litter, his work is born of an obsessive need to document. He puts it simply himself: “I take pictures, in order to see the world.”

Still life is a genre he has frequently returned to, one of the most celebrated examples being ‘Night Still Life’. What at first looks like a mundane snapshot of everyday objects reveals more on further study – there’s a sophisticated structure of form and colour. The batteries, scale and gold are all modern versions of objects used in still life art historically. Elements of the image subtly nod to the photographic process itself.

He may be best known for his avant-garde curation – scotch-taping images to walls, displaying tiny prints at shin height – but ultimately ‘Night Still Life’ is one of many examples of what Tillmans continues to do: challenge our perceptions of art.

Man Ray (United States)