Friday, December 29, 2023

Still Life, Close Up




"The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces." Susan Sontag, On Photography



Watering can, sedum, pots: found still life


Photography gives us the power to isolate a scene from its context and by so doing, make it seem self-sufficient: above, a watering can, some plants in pots, and nature poking through and around. Instant still life composition, if you will. This ability to isolate scenes reveals endless subject matter in gardens, which while presenting as unified wholes comprise an array of scenic elements. Any number of them in fact, as it's quite arbitrary where one begins and another ends. But the camera's shutter resolves any ambiguity with finality, peeling off a distinct slice of reality and rendering it a self sufficient whole - a small world all on its own. And in these digital times, compositions can simply be re-framed with the lens until a pleasing amalgam of content and angle emerges. Now, why it is that one collection of objects suits the eye while another does not remains a mystery, a by-product of aesthetics, opportunity, and subjective intent. Also, the technical frame of the camera lens - the rectangular boundaries that can be set horizontally or vertically to bring objects closer or set them further back - causes modes of viewing to appear that aren't necessarily evident in the same way to the naked eye. As a recording device, cameras create a facsimile of reality and in so doing, effect entirely new possibilities.



Cluster of waxy, unopened cones snapped off by a windstorm, from an Atlas Cedar


Releasing the camera shutter determines the take with finality, and the beauty revealed (if any was sought) indeed lies in the eye of the beholder. I haven't reflected on where this urge to assemble objects into still life compositions, or to focus on patterns or details in scenery, actually comes from. But I seem always to have inclined towards it myself (my godmother painted still lifes and close ups, and I was always intrigued by her art) and I still enjoy searching for what appears to be a good cluster. These almost invariably have some innocence, humbleness or even a certain naievete about them, although marks of wear, indications of time's passage, and even signs of slow demise can for me model beauty in everyday things. I've also come to realize that my eye doesn't distinguish still life from close up photography very precisely, so these tend to shade into a continuum of effects. In this post I'm sharing a few of my own takes as eye-bait and to illustrate how even simple things - as often found together by chance as intentionally grouped into an ensemble - can yield, if not outright beauty, then at least compelling visual interest when focused upon and isolated. Of course, the momentary passing light they're seen in matters too, structuring the distinctive impression they leave - for in some sense, the collection of objects or block of patterns actually is the light the picture shows it in.


Snail completing a long stretch across the gap between paving stones


Sometimes you happen upon subject matter by chance, as when I noticed the snail above patiently crossing a deep gulf between paving stones. We only see these snails after a soaking rain, while the ground is moist enough that they can move about without dehydrating. This picture involves an element of chance insofar as it only existed for a moment: here the snail is just completing a prodigious stretch across the gap, drawing its shell back over an extended body in completion of its forward movement. Chance timing, while a great generator of pictures (this scene changed continuously, if in slow motion) is one source of still life, but I also enjoy using certain favoured objects as props in creating garden compositions. I deploy them to catch or model particular effects, as with the watering can in the opening shot in this post, or the weathered teak chairs below. They reliably impart specific impressions of light at a particular moment while displaying seasonal effects. The watering can confirms the nature of the scene portrayed, suggests human engagement with plants and implies something intimate about the garden itself. Back to that continuum of effects I mentioned: the weathered chairs below could be considered more scenic details than true still life.


Weathered chairs with emphatic shadow lines


Quite apart from my reliable metal watering can and the weathered teak chairs, regular garden plants themselves furnish limitless opportunity to frame photos as still life. Perhaps this practice bends or stretches the notion of still life even further, but catching objects at the moment the shutter releases does guarantee fusion into a relationship in the outcome. I instinctively search for clusters of objects combining elements of spontaneity and arrangement, so there is somewhat of a found quality incorporated into the picture (by 'found', I mean that some force other than conscious human intention helps achieve the arrangement, such as time, weather, or the chance placements of nature). The next shot illustrates this blend of intention and discovery: the rocks are of my choosing, but the blossoms are from a neighbour's wandering wisteria that has grown through the fence and into the scene (with a little encouragement from the gardener). I find this recognition game endlessly entertaining, with the added benefit of yielding pictures that embody particular moments. There is, I know, if not an artificiality, then at least an unreality to this, as all growing things are actually in motion and at any point fall somewhere between being born and if not outright dying, then dying back. But, so too are the fruits and flowers that appear in painted still lifes, and even the vessel containing them, captured in the painting's singular moment, likely winds up broken at some point down the line.



Placed rock cluster with found wisteria blossoms


To me, flowers themselves are among the most intriguing garden subjects for still life or close up compositions. Individual flowerings typically result in a brief but spectacular show of bloom, after which the plant's presence recedes to context. Below is a shot of a bearded iris that isolates an intricate bloom with fetching falls against a background of indistinct green tinged with yellow, amplifying the overall impression. I like using this technique of selective focus to create a context that's more colour than form and that has a sympathetic effect by placing the principal object in sharper relief. This makes the background more effect than distinct setting.



A single iris bloom makes a still-life composition


Below is another frame, taken on a different April day. Both the iris above and the tulip below are plants that came with the garden, which occurred some thirty years ago this spring. I've helped them continue to flourish here by periodically dividing and replanting them in freshened soil, and they have responded by reliably adding their simple beauty to spring's slow, captivating narrative. I've come to realize through close observation that here on southern Vancouver Island, with our temperate climate and slow, moist spring, spring-flowering plants often show early, middle, and late iterations, a fact that can be marshalled by gardeners to prolong the sequence of effects for daffodils, tulips, quince and lilacs, thus extending their floral impact far longer. I was unaware of this potential for floral differentiation while growing up in Ontario, where spring tends to come all at once and things flower simultaneously rather than in such distinct sequences. The tulip shown below is in the middle-to-late part of tulip-time on this site, helping push the season into a fifth or perhaps even a sixth week of species-flowering. In this photo, some purplish hints in the indistinct background enhance the delicate pink of the tulip flower. To botanize a bit, here we are playing around with varieties so as to express species-effects.


Tulip flower thrown into relief against a distant background


Another thing I enjoy exploring in plants-as-subjects is the vast array of impressions transmitted over the course of their flowering and finishing, from first appearance to full-on flourishing and even, for certain plants, extending so far as their beauty in running to seed. Below, an annual lunaria has set large seeds that are discernible within semi-translucent pods, shown while the plant is still alive, yet not that long before it expires and begins bleaching to fall grey. Lunaria, known commonly as 'honesty' in England, is also called 'money plant' in Asia, and 'silver dollars' in the USA. The latter two names refer to its thin, dried seed pods having a somewhat coin-like appearance. In 1884, Van Gogh painted a lovely still life of honesty's bleached pods in a vase with other floral elements surrounding it, but they are not made to resemble coins in his rendering. 


Lunaria sets its seed in coin-shaped pods that turn grey when it dies


Camas lilies are native to our slender peninsula on Southern Vancouver Island, a key landscape signifier in spring's slow, spectacular flourish. The quintessential meadow flower, camas thrust up dramatically under the native Garry oaks before leafing out, seeming to appear from nowhere (as bulbs do) sometime between late March and early April, initially strikingly blue-tinged as the blooms appear, but running towards a purple effect as the petals burst open. The shot below captures this briefly blue moment, just before the full floral explosion. I am particularly fond of these dramatic local lilies, reintroduced here to a garden contrived in a setting of mature oaks. Camas under oaks are a vestige of the extensive coastal prairie once maintained by controlled burning of underbrush by the Coast Salish peoples, the original inhabitants of Victoria and its environs. Ironically, it was their luxuriant spring flowering that caused British explorers to describe the first-nation-groomed coastal prairie as "a perfect Eden", never troubling to understand the role of human intention (or its utilitarian purpose, which was starch-yield) that caused the 'paradisial' effect. 


Camas flowers before the turn to purple


Close up and still life both allow us to observe a cluster of objects, or a pattern made striking by angle and light, and catch them in a framed view with the camera. Each represents a distinct moment in time, frozen by the frame. I obviously enjoy this association of objects through the lens, which is something that can be done equally well inside the house as out in the garden. The next still life composition catches an interesting combination of shapes, patterns and tones in filtered daylight, with the added complexity of reflection in a small mirror. The gentle softness of indirect exterior light gives this shot its mellow, peaceful quality.



Mellow light for a cluster of objects intensified by reflection in a mirror


Our house-and-garden combination offers many opportunities to frame scenes that capture elemental forces in changing lights. A decorated house with ample windows in every room admits light that suggests compositions based on clustered details. This capability exists because our eyes today are fully adapted to seeing photographs of fragments of things - parts taken to stand for the wholes they've been drawn from - that are still capable of invoking mood for the absent totality. We are able to enjoy even the discontinuity effected by the lens and the framing of the image, because our eyes are not affected by the arbitrary closure at the edges. We literally view subject matter  photographically when looking into a picture. 



Light and shadow effects as still-life

Our house receives a great deal of sunlight due to its placement on a hill combined with its many large windows facing east, south and west. One effect is that the inside receives changing light throughout the course of a day, modifying the mood in its interior spaces. This allows the framing of many views of patterns and clusters of objects, with scenery often glimpsed through windows as context (as above, looking west).

Recycled stained glass shed window, itself a still-life composition

I find light admitted through window glass endlessly fascinating as a source of images, here a stained glass window backlit by light from the west. This window, one of a pair acquired by chance at auction many years before the shed took shape in my imagination, had a long life prior to landing in its current position as part of another building. I bought the pair of windows based on the fanciful idea that the rather art-deco flower theme would go well in a garden structure that I designed to be observed from the house. As I wasn't actively contemplating building one at that moment, it turned out to be a great choice when the idea finally came to fruition. 


Cluster of chive flowers in a retrieved discarded aspirin bottle


One day I was taken by the simple beauty of some chive flowers in an old aspirin bottle viewed in fading afternoon light, against a backdrop of deco tile in our bathroom. The aspirin bottle was retrieved from a midden in the yard, which served as a final resting place for glass goods in the days before garbage pickup in this locale. I unearthed it while turning over a garden bed. The combination comprises a humble still life of found and grown objects, reflecting nature brought inside and placed in a piece of the inside world that was retrieved from outside purely by chance, having been tossed there some decades prior.


Montbretia's flowers bring a foretaste of autumn's fiery colour palette


Many garden still lifes or close ups convey a background sense of the season they represent - flowers flower in a particular window in the unfolding garden season and imply their place and time in the sequence of bloom. Even the quality of the light itself can be seasonally revealing. The picture above is of Montbretia, which here flowers in later summer and prefigures the fall colour shift. However, seasonality can be made to play an even more explicit role in defining the overall composition. Below is an example of snow's presence truly defining a scene, in a rather sombre way here due to the dullness of the light on that day. This lack of punch in the light actually reinforces an abstract, monochrome quality, making the scene appear almost black and white (b+w photography amplifies lines of force and spatial presence in images) but for the hint of mustardy yellow on the south face of the limbs and the terra cotta chimney intruding below. 


Monochrome light, snow on oak limbs, chimney


Winter of course presents numerous opportunities for close ups, but snow remains difficult to convey with a camera. Most often it simply over-exposes the image, becoming indistinct and almost bland thereby. But unique conditions of light occasionally combine with unmodified snow effects to produce stellar results. In the following photo, the house's end gable defines the composition, the snow drifts softening its overall architectural effect considerably. The result conveys a sense of home as a cozy refuge.


Freshly fallen snow weighs down plants, softening the massive gable end

Just as snow reliably conveys wintry conditions, fallen leaves signify autumn's decisive impact on plants. As the production of chlorophyll comes to an end triggered by the shortening days, foliage-green gives way to underlying pigments that are masked during the growth phase. This picture to me catches the warmth of fall coloration and the sculpting of the leaf as it has dried out.


Nothing says 'autumn' like fallen leaves, here a big leaf maple


Freezing rain in winter can also lend dramatic impact to the appearance of plants, giving even contextual plantings renewed potential to serve as subjects for still life. Seeing the physical world through a glazed coating is visually astounding, rendering the ordinary elements of everyday life freshly intriguing to observe. The aftermath of freezing rain makes me want to go wandering in the wonderland of special effects, seeking after visual interest and knowing that I won't be disappointed (despite heightened personal risk). The next shot is of a clump of ornamental grass inclined under the weight of a thick coating of ice, a structure within a solid that's totally on view.



Freezing rain imprisoning grass in a coating of translucent ice


The next shot, taken after the same ice storm, shows how universal the coating of frozen rain actually is, here emphasized by thin strands of page-wire fencing. Brilliant sunshine reflecting from the glassy coating brings the ice right up to the eye, which notices the rolling quality of the horizontal wire (traces of the spool it came from) more than it otherwise would. I like the simplicity and relative peacefulness of this composition, which takes a moment to come into sharp focus.


Page-wire fencing coated with frozen rain emphasizing forms


One winter day I happened to be working in the back garden, collecting debris shaken loose from our oak trees during the latest windstorm. I was taken by the array of bits and pieces of lichen, mosses and fungi strewn across the lawn, sometimes appearing on a piece of oak branch and invoking the unique colour palette of these wet-season organisms. So I pulled an assortment of random bits together on a garden bench, and from that derived the following shot as a creative clustering of this aerial debris. The picture frame 'notices' it by capturing the concentrated grouping, something our eye wouldn't make appear in quite the same way without this act of isolation. I enjoy its odd shapes and colours immensely - the aquas especially!


Found-debris downed by a winter storm, fungus and lichen now assort


Many garden plants interact uniquely with their environment to create special effects. For example, seasoned gardeners often notice the particular way that rain pools on a foxglove's tubular flowers, forming distinct droplets as gravity gradually draws the moisture towards ground. Something about the flower seems almost to repel the water, forcing it to collect into droplets. You can almost feel it moving downwards despite being frozen into a still picture. These effects are transient, so if you're to catch them you need to keep your camera ready to hand. I like to garden that way myself, with the camera nearby. Then, if something suggests itself to the eye, or the light suddenly turns transcendent, the means of recording the passing effects are ready to hand. As often as not, that will simply become a still life composition. Or, is it a close up? Or maybe a detail?


Raindrops clustering on foxglove flowers

My point is simply that even the humblest of gardens, say an assortment of pots on a deck or a small terrace, offers opportunities to render plants into such still life compositions. Van Gogh did it memorably with many plants, including clusters of picked flowers in a vase. These paintings, now famous, remained obscure in his lifetime  (as did most of his oeuvre), but must have given him intense satisfaction. Look around your world and you'll see such opportunities lying everywhere. Go ahead and compose. It's a way to preserve a fragment of the flow of time for future contemplation. And it's good fun.


Campanula (bell flowers) after a rain


Affectionately dedicated to my long-departed godmother, Molly Parbery, whose still life painting hung on my bedroom wall while growing up.






1 comment:

  1. Your photos are lovely, thanks for sharing them. I wish you a great 2024.