Category Archives: Still Life

Residual Proof of the Outside World

I’ve been engaging in series of work in response to triggers from my environment – there was that moment of eureka that started the six year journey resulting in the Sinister Idyll series and the gallery show at Gallery O on H. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been trying to work on a series coping with being in a near-quarantine situation, and how do we respond to/deal with the stress and anxiety of walking around every day in a public space that could kill you. After barely leaving my house for the last four months, I noticed that certain things were turning into patterns, most specifically, delivery food. I was cooking at home more, but I was also getting delivery from places I hadn’t in the past, and due to “contactless” delivery those delivery items and their remnants looked different.

Chipotle, Mexican Coke, Corona

Since I’m not leaving the house, and now I had all this accumulated subject matter, I decided that my response would be in the form of still life images. I brought out my 8×10 view camera and set up a small studio on my patio where I could work.

DC Noodles Delivery

These are just two preliminary images from the series. I’m continuing to work on ideas and presentation, but it’s a planted seed that will grow into something. Working on a series like this is very different from my documentary series Sinister Idyll because there, I had to go out and photograph my subjects in the places where I found them, in the circumstances they existed in (it might be rainy, or crowded, or the wrong time of day). Inspiration came from what I found when I found it, and I just had to interpret. Here, with doing still life, it’s a very different discipline because you’re creating something entirely de novo – yes, the delivery bags and food containers and beverage bottles are what they are, but I have to arrange them in a cohesive and aesthetic manner, I have to choose the juxtapositions, the backdrop, the lighting, the depth of field… everything. There’s nobody to blame for a shot not working but myself. I like the discipline of it, but it’s a big challenge.

As is customary for me, these are all going to be palladium prints. I love working in a hand-made medium, and the tactile nature of the photographs is so pleasing to me. The entire process of making them, from setting up the studio through using the large view camera, to developing the film and making the print, really, means that I put so much of my soul into the practice of making the photograph.

Here’s the little studio set up, if you want to see it. It serves as proof that you don’t need much to work with to make images- just a will to do something and a vision to make it happen.

And the camera in action.

Busy weekend in the studio

This weekend was a really busy weekend in my studio. I was supposed to have a shoot on Saturday. The model I had made arrangements with cancelled on me, but with more than reasonable advance notice, so I’m not pissed off about it – he gave me two days heads up. I’ve had some models flake out two hours ahead, some an hour after the shoot was supposed to start, and some who never bothered to call or cancel (that was the previous weekend, for example). I was talking to my studio-mate who had the studio booked for Sunday, and he said, “I’ve got two models coming in on Sunday, why don’t you work with them before I get there? I need someone to keep them occupied, and it’ll be a big help giving them a chance to work with someone who has a very different style of shooting, because they’re new to the business”. I was more than happy to help out, as it meant free models for me, and I’d be helping out a friend anyway. Since I had the studio booked for Saturday anyway, I went in and did some still life work using a flower I bought whose name escapes me but looks like a cross between a leafy cactus and a gigantic q-tip. I left my stage setup I had created (I took the old curtains I had from the previous studio and made a little ‘stage’ setup for a backdrop) for Sunday, as I thought it would be great to work with the models as well.

WELL, thus go the best laid plans of mice and men. I get in to the studio Sunday morning, meet the first model, Justin, a 6’4″ ex- football player, and get ready to shoot. On the third test pop of my flash, what happens but one of the capacitors in the power pack goes tits up. And I don’t have my own backup. I call my studio mate who is coming later, and he says just use his, which happens to be compatible with my accessories. So another half-hour goes by digging out his flash unit and setting it up. We do get on with the shoot, and once things get moving, it goes well. Justin is a good model and understands how to create dynamism in his body – I had no trouble setting him in poses that accentuated his physique and worked well with the somewhat exotic format I was shooting in – I was trying out the 5×12 for human figure work, mostly shooting verticals. Working with me, from a models’ perspective, is a real challenge and a physical workout because I need them to hold poses for an extended period of time while I compose each shot. I’m not shooting like a typical fashion photographer who likes to ‘run-n-gun’ and fire off hundreds of photos in an hour. I think with Justin, in about 1 1/2 hours, we took 8. I had him holding a pose for sometimes four or five minutes while I played around under the dark cloth.

My studio mate is a good friend (loaning me his strobes is an instant qualification!), but he’s a bit frantic. He’s a fashion photographer and likes to run-n-gun, for one thing, and he’s just a bit keyed up all the time anyway. Fortunately Justin and I wrapped our shoot just before he and the other model got there. The other model is a college student named Peter, (only) 6’2″, and about 2/3 the body mass of Justin. Peter was tragically late because of traffic and poor directional sense. What he lacks in timeliness, he makes up for in facial features. He’s one of those models who looks relatively ordinary when you pass him on the street, but when you see him through the camera lens, his face just screams High Fashion (that’s actually a good thing). They set up and shot while I went to the Nationals game with my father. When I got back, they were still there, and since my set had been taken down, we did a few shots in the air shaft outside the studio, which has a really cool steel security door and lots of exposed brick. Another great thing about shooting in the air shaft is that because it has these nice tall walls, you get beautiful soft indirect light from overhead – like a north light window. It’s very even, very consistent – you can meter once and not have to re-meter for hours. Reflectors are very helpful though because it is a top-down light and makes people into sunken-eyed zombies if you don’t bounce a little fill on their faces.

In talking to Peter about the poses I was looking for, I asked him to do a nude. I knew because he was agency represented that frontal nudity was a no-no, so I explained the pose would keep his intimate parts covered, and he was fine with it, but then he asked if he could cover himself with a sock. I find the whole ‘hide it in a sock’ business to be laughable – I’m not there to stare at your anatomy, and if someone IS nude in real life, do they ever run around with a sock on their penis? NO. We got that out of the way and went on. I did some head-shots of him with the 5×7 Canham, getting to put some film behind the 240mm Heliar I have for the first time with a human subject. The image on the ground-glass positively glowed! The shallow depth-of-field at f5.6 just made the features that were sharp SNAP, and the brick wall in the background looked like a painting seen through running water, it was so smooth. I’m DEFINITELY taking this outfit with me when I go out west for some figure-in-the-landscape shooting!

When I shoot, I’m used to shooting all by myself, no assistants, no “creative input” from other photographers. Sometimes having the helping hand is very welcome (adjusting lights, etc). Other times, not so much. My studio mate was watching the shoot with Peter, and while I was still arranging a pose, he had to jump in and start directing the model because he had this love handle that showed up only when in a certain kind of pose. I would have seen it and adjusted his pose, but I didn’t get the chance. GRRRR. And then, to make matters worse, I wasn’t done shooting before my studio mate mentioned a shot he wanted to do in the air shaft as well, and boom, the two of them were off doing their own shot. Moral lesson here – assistants are fine, but two principal photographers probably shouldn’t share the set – too many chefs end up putting someone’s finger in the chili.

Still Life in 14×17, number two

Still Life, Lanterns
Still Life, Lanterns

One of my 14×17 still life shots. Printed in palladium. Making a palladium print (or any hand-coated emulsion) this large presents unique challenges – trying to coat something this big is a lot harder to get even because it’s such a large surface. You have to work with a much bigger brush, and make sure you keep the emulsion moving around quickly. Don’t be afraid of getting sloppy outside your margins – it’s more important to be evenly coated than it is to be precise and tidy. I printed this on Bergger COT320, a 320 gsm uncoated paper designed specifically for alternative process photo printing. It’s a beautiful, heavy-weight paper with great wet strength and a bright white base – it gives you easily another full stop of contrast range over a more warm white/eggshell paper.

Getting back into the studio again…

Yesterday, in a fit of activity, I got in to the studio and shot a few still-life photos. I’m participating in a print exchange through the Large Format Photography Forum ( and I needed to shoot some images for the exchange. The final images will be platinum prints. I decided to use a lead crystal cut glass decanter I have as a subject – I wanted something challenging to photograph and that would create some striking images. I got the inspiration seeing the decanter on my coffee table with the sunlight coming through it and casting a shadow. I brought it over to the studio and set it up on a sweep of white seamless paper, and lit it with just one light, as it would be in the real world (there is only one sun!). It casts a beautiful shadow on the seamless, especially the way the crystal is cut with these random little scallops out of the body. I used the Century Master portrait camera, which after having been hauled around a bunch is starting to get a bit loose. As always, the lens on it is my Seneca Portrait f5. I put the whole plate back on the camera for these shots, as it’s about my favorite format. I indulged in my film choice and used some of my remaining stock of Arista.EDU Ultra 200 (aka Fomapan 200). Arista.EDU Ultra is Freestyle Photo‘s house-label film, made for them by Foma in the Czech Republic. Foma discontinued the 200 a year or two ago when their source for one of the critical components dried up, and just started re-making it but only in roll film. It’s one of my all-time favorite films, not only because it was dirt cheap (1/3 the price of Ilford), but because it produced beautiful results – it has this old-time feel to the image quality from a reduced red sensitivity. Here’s a couple of shots of the setup (pardon the poor quality- they’re taken with my iPhone which is not the best in low light). I’ll post some scans later of the finished prints.

Studio setup #1

Studio setup #2