With the ongoing pandemic, many people are turning to, or at least considering, still life as a genre to explore with their photography. This class is designed for those wishing to tackle still life in their own home. One of the great things about still life is that you don’t need a fancy studio with expensive and complicated lights to produce great images, and since your subjects are (usually) things, you can take all the time you need and your subjects won’t complain.
We will cover the basics of how to get set up and choose a space to shoot in, and how to manage your light. All that is required is a table that is within reach of a window, so if that’s all you have, that’s all you need. We will cover lighting options both low-cost and more complex should you not have access to a good window, or you want to be able to shoot regardless of the hour or the weather.
Beginning with single objects and growing from there, we will build complexity into multiple object setups. Most if not all the images used in this article were made with a single light – you can see that you don’t have to be a studio lighting pro to produce excellent results. We will touch on using reflectors and diffusers (very useful when working with natural light where you may not have as much control over the quality, direction and contrast as you do with studio lighting).T
Still life can be more than just a bunch of fruit. It can tell a story, reflect the zeitgeist, or even be a portrait (of the thing pictured, or of a person).
While in my own work, I do mostly large format film photography, because I like it and I like the results it produces. Between the antique lenses available that produce a unique look to the camera movements to control depth-of-field and plane of focus placement, there is really no better tool for still life.
That said, you don’t have to use a view camera to produce excellent still life work. What counts is your creativity and understanding of the tool you’re using to produce the image you want to make. Anything in this class is acceptable, from a smartphone to a view camera. As proof of the pudding, the following are images I made on my iPhone:
The class starts on April 21 and runs for six weeks through May 26. Classes are held via Zoom, from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. The link to the class will be sent to enrolled students via email a few days before the class starts. Tuition is $300 for the six sessions.
I have a class coming up from March 4 to April 29, Understanding Your Practice – The Photo Project, at Glen Echo Photoworks. This course is about thinking about how we approach and execute photographic projects. The foundational text for the class is Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice., edited by Sasha Wolf. The book consists of interviews with forty different photographers who work in long-term projects, asking each of them the same twelve questions.
We will use the text as a guide to introspection into our own process of working on projects – how we come up with projects, how we shoot those projects, how we decide when they’re done, how we edit those projects, and how we think of them as a body of work – will they be prints on a wall, a book, a website, or some combination thereof.
We will execute our own mini-project over the duration of the class, using the ideas we discuss to help us guide our project and get a better understanding of our own working methods. There are no “right” answers here – this is just an exercise to help bring clarity to your own working techniques, to refine them and hopefully bring success to your ongoing long-term projects (or help you get started on them!).
The images following here are illustrations from my ongoing project about The Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Day of the Dead is a far-reaching cultural institution across not just Mexico but much of Latin America. It has regional and even local variations – Mexico City was, until very recently, somewhat blasé about the event, with celebrations being held more on the personal level. Thanks to the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, Mexico City decided that they needed to have the big public parade (desfile in Spanish) depicted in the film.
The event has its roots in traditions predating the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, which were co-opted by the Catholic church. Today, the tradition adapts with the times and competes with Halloween (and its Hollywood inspirations), but also serves as a mirror of contemporary cultural and political events.
To sign up for the course, click on the link below. Tuition is $350 for 8 sessions. No class will be held on April 1.
(I’m calling this Part 1 because I’m sure I will want to revisit and/or expand upon this at a later date, perhaps multiple times)
Perhaps surprisingly, there are still debates to this day as to what exactly photography IS – is it art, is it a mechanical reproduction tool, is it truth, is it false? And this debate continues to roil without conclusion one hundred eighty-one years after its public debut.
Today I would like to tackle the question of photography and its relationship with truth. I would lay claim to the statement that photography now, and historically, has never really been about truth. It is barely about facts.
To define some terms before we go farther – there is a great deal of confusion about the difference between truth and facts. The use of the Boolean binary of True or False (positive or negative) leads many people to believe that Truth is equally binary – something is True, or it is not. Quite the opposite – Truth is very closely tied to faith. Truth is an absolute belief in the correctness of something, either without proof or even in the face of proof to the contrary. An example of this is that many contemporary practitioners of religion will argue that even if the historical facts surrounding the founding of their religion fall somewhere between muddy and non-existent, there is a greater Truth to the writings of their religious texts that extends beyond any need for factual accuracy. Facts are things that are provable – there is a rock on my desk. I own one hundred daguerreotypes. I live in Washington DC.
So what does this have to do with photography? I read many discussions among people with passionate feelings regarding the nature of photography. Many will assert that there is such a thing as “pure”, “true” photography, and that the specialness of photography as a medium is its fundamental relationship with truth. They make statements such as photographs are accurate, true representations of the things photographed, they cannot lie because the objects photographed had to be in the same place at the same time in the same light in order to appear in the frame together. They make this argument especially when arguing for an analog, chemical-based photography and against digitally generated photographs. They claim a superiority of the analog, chemical photograph because it is un-manipulated and therefore demonstrably “true”, whereas digitally generated photographs are untrustworthy because they can be easily manipulated into appearing to be true but in fact the things depicted never appeared in the same place at the same time in the same light when the exposure was made.
The Great White, the T-Rex, and the man at the edge of the cliff certainly never existed in the same space at the same time. It’s a ridiculous example, to make an exaggerated point. It is a photograph, but a heavily manipulated one that bears only the most tangential relationship to reality.
But what about this image? “Fading Away” by Henry Peach Robinson, is far more emotionally “true” than the shark and the T-Rex, but as a photograph, it is no more true- this 1858 image is every bit as manipulated as the photoshop fantasy. None of the people in the photograph were in the same room at the same time. It is a hand-assembled collage of at least six different images (each of the people, the room, and the view out the window were all distinct exposures on different plates). It is every bit as factually false, yet the scene, a young woman being comforted by her family as she dies of tuberculosis, is so emotionally resonant that we WANT to believe in the truth of it.
What about this image? While everything in this photograph was in the same location at the same time in the same light when the single exposure was taken, the entire scene is manipulated. Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan were walking the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 6, 1863. They saw the body of a Rebel sharpshooter, and photographed it where they found it. As they continued walking, they came across this spot and felt it was where the sharpshooter must have been positioned earlier, so they picked up his gun and his body and moved it 40 yards to this location, in the name of making a more emotionally resonant photograph. They certainly succeeded, as this is one of the most recognizable photographs of the entire Civil War. But there is not an ounce of factual accuracy in the scene. As journalism or documentary photography, it is a fraud and would have no value as evidence in a court of law.
Yes, photographs can be taken for the purposes of showing evidence, be it to an engineer troubleshooting a part failure, a court determining guilt or innocence in a trial, or even more prosaically, that I in fact did visit Niagara Falls on June 17, 2013. But the fact that a photograph CAN have evidentiary value does not mean that all photographs MUST have evidentiary value, and that in order to make a photograph, one is required to have a one-to-one correspondence between representations of objects within the frame of the image at the time of making a single exposure. Just as a tea kettle can also be an object of art, and it can also be functional. Neither art nor functional object have exclusive domain over a tea kettle.
And even within the confines of “straight” photography, there is not a literal absolute truth to a photograph. The tea kettle above, as photographed, is absolutely unmanipulated via software. But I doubt anyone looking at the image would say that that kettle looks just like that – with a basic understanding of the mechanics of photography, a viewer knows that the lens used to make the recording was operated at a large aperture that created a shallow depth of field, rendering only the spigot sharp. While this looks LIKE the tea kettle, nobody would argue that it is a 1:1 representation of the actual kettle, or that they could be deceived into thinking there was a kettle before them that they could pick up.
It is an illusion of an illusion – we know it is a distorted representation, but it bears minimally sufficient verisimilitude that we imagine that we can interpret the actual object from the photograph.
A poor lonely plastic Frappuccino, tucked away in the empty would-be dining area of a Starbucks. The emptiness is wrought by COVID, and the plastic liquid dessert in a cup shelters alone, unwanted and unloved, lurking in the shadows for another time when it can come back out and challenge the insulin production of thousands, once more.
I thought it might be fun to show a behind-the-scenes look at doing a still life shoot, particularly showing my lighting scheme. Studio lighting is something that mystifies many people, but it doesn’t need to be complex or intimidating. Here is the finished image, at least the iPhone version thereof. How do you think it was lit?
Answer: one light. Yes, it’s a somewhat specialized light, a 10” focusable Fresnel, but that’s it. No fill, no reflector, no background light, just the main. After all, there is only one sun.
I’m using a single LED continuous light source (a GVM 80s LED lamp). Continuous lights are great because they let you see exactly what you’re getting, and they allow you the luxury of playing with time as a component of the exposure.
Pay attention when photographing in the studio to how close or far away things are to the background, and how close or far your light is to that background. You can shoot a subject on a white background but have it appear dark just by withholding light from that background, or if needed, you can do the opposite and take a black background white by pumping enough light at it.
Here’s a prime example – same setup, same light, same camera, same backdrop (light gray seamless paper). The only difference is that I blocked light from the backdrop with the barn doors on the Fresnel. Amazing, isn’t it?
My work from the Sinister Idyll series is appearing in the next issue of The Hand magazine, a monthly journal of reproduction-based art. This covers hand-made photography as well as most forms of traditional printing (woodcut, linocut, etching, collotype, and more).
The Hand Magazine’s
Weekly High Five!
GET ISSUE 24
Issue 24 is in the distribution room. We are trying our hardest to get them in envelopes, stickered and bundled for the mail room!
We’re working hard to get your copy sent out early this week. After they are shipped, delivery can take up to 10 days, or longer outside the US. We hope you’re excited to get the magazine and we are confident it will be worth the wait!
This issue features an interview with Lyell Castonguay. Lyell is the director of the large-format woodblock press, BIG INK, and an accomplished artist in his own right. We also have an Artist’s Spotlight on Francesco Poiana. If you haven’t ordered yours yet, GET A COPY TODAY!
Below, you will see images by the artists we featured on our social media platforms over the past week. Please join us on Facebook and Instagram for more behind the scenes pics and fun stuff. We hope you will take the time to take a closer look at these wonderful artists. Please click on their links, go to their websites, and start a dialogue with them. Take care of yourself and each other.
Issue 24 contributor, Peter Ward (St. Albans Park, Victoria, Australia), “Lost Quilt”, Linocut on calico, quilted, 63″ x 63″ VISIT PETER’S WEBSITE
Issue 24 contributor, Molly Phalan (West Lafayette, Indiana, USA), “Decarlo”, Silver gelatin mordançage, 14″ x 11″ VISIT MOLLY’S WEBSITE
I’ve got a class coming up soon – Thursday evenings starting September 27, co-taught with Mac Cosgrove-Davies. It’s an alternative process survey course, covering platinum/palladium, gum bichromate and cyanotype. We will be starting out by going through the process of making digital negatives for the platinum/palladium process, and then printing using platinum/palladium. I will be walking students through the process of how to create your own correction curve so that they will have the tools handy for making appropriate correction curves for their own personal environments and for whatever process(es) they want to work in. We will cover basic techniques, preferred materials and digital hardware.
In subsequent weeks, Mac Cosgrove-Davies will be teaching working with cyanotype and gum bichromate. Mac has been working with alternative processes, most specifically gum bichromate and cyanotype, for over 40 years.
This will be my first time co-teaching with Mac, who is an outstanding instructor as well as a meticulous artist and technician with historic photo processes.
You can register at the link below. Course meets for five sessions on Thursdays from 7-9:30 PM, starting September 27, and runs through October 25. Tuition is $350.
Photography has been my passion for more than 50 years, first with silver printing, and for the last 40 years with the historic processes.I still delight in the hand-crafted uniqueness of gum bichromate, cyanotype, carbon, and oil printing, all printed from in-camera negatives (i.e. film).I also enjoy making the equipment, and sometimes the cameras, that I use.Working with large cameras feeds the more contemplative side of me, especiallyin the solitary space under the dark cloth where the bright image is my entire perception of the world.A successful photograph conveys the artist’s emotional, aesthetic statement in an engaging manner.For me this turns out to be in images small by today’s standards.I prefer to think of them as an intimate discussion with the viewer.It pleases me to pull a 5×5 inch portfolio box from my pocket to respond to the frequently asked question of what I do for fun.
Artist Statement – Scott Davis
Scott Davis is a large format photographer working with antique and historic photographic processes. His work has been exhibited across the United States and internationally. He is a published author on platinum/palladium printing, and teaches classes in platinum/palladium. His personal work includes the DC cityscape, the human figure, and wherever he happens to be with a camera. He is currently developing an exhibition plan for Sinister Idyll: Historical Slavery in the Modern Landscape, his documentary series about how the landscape of Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC have been marked by the impact of African slavery and its echoes that reverberate today.
Examples of past student work from digitally enlarged negatives:
I’m thrilled to announce that two works by a brilliant Japanese daguerreotypist (and the man who taught me how to do daguerreotypes) have been acquired by the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
I couldn’t find links to the images in question that were acquired by the Smithsonian, so I’m linking to two related images from his website.
A Maquette for a Multiple Monument for Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
2014, Daguerreotype, 67x280cm
The Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
2014, Daguerreotype, 25.2×19.3cm
In my latest iteration of my Intro to Platinum/Palladium printing class, I dug up some old negatives I had made, since my student this time was sufficiently skilled with wet darkroom processes and not interested in getting into shooting large format (in my standard group class, we take my Canham 5×7 out around Glen Echo and make a dozen or so negatives for students to work from). This was a print from that session.
It’s a memorial to the transitions on U Street. This is graffiti art that has since been obliterated by gentrification and re-development – the alley where this was has been re-graffiti’d, but with “sanctioned” artwork a bit more sanitized and easier to interpret.
This print is a 5×7 palladium print. The usual chocolate-brown color is missing because I gave this emulsion mix a shot of NA2 contrast agent to give it a bit more snap. The NA2 contains platinum, which is what cools off the image and makes it more neutral. If you’d like to learn how to print this way, contact me through the blog and we can schedule a class, either one-on-one or I can fit you in to an upcoming class at Glen Echo Photoworks.
I came home from work today to find a wonderful pleasant surprise on my doorstep: Storytelling, by Alex Timmermans.
Alex is one of the modern masters of wet plate collodion technique. But far more than a mere technician, Alex is a true artist with a camera. His images are true creative narratives in a frame.
As another nice plus, Alex personalized it to me. I’m one of the credited backers in the afterword. I’ve had the great fortune to know Alex through online photography forums like APUG and Facebook, and watch this body of work grow and evolve over time, and now I’m thrilled to have his book in my collection.