Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Game of Nature Morte

The mantelpiece six years ago, when my friend Denise was visiting with her Nikon 8800.  An accumulation of souvenirs ready to become Nature Morte.  Taken deliberately in grayscale.
One year when there was a Biennale at Venice and a lot of special exhibits as well, I happened onto one of Giorgio Morandi, all paintings of vessels, still lifes of the greatest purity and deliberate simplicity imaginable.  Of course, like any art historian I was familiar with the genre of the Nature Morte (the French is truer to what it really is) even as pure and austere as in the post-Cubist Amadée Ozenfant or the Spaniard Zurbaran.  And I knew that even in the Hellenistic period, if not earlier, Greek artists had done smallish paintings of things, purely just for the painting of them (which implies that there were also connoisseurs of such work, free of anecdote or of symbolism).  In the heyday of the French Salon, the genre of Nature Morte was a category in its own right.  Chardin has, all his own, a gallery of still lifes in the Louvre.  The Impressionists, pre-eminently Manet, honored Nature Morte, delighting in which modern painters like Richard Diebenkorn followed their example.  The thing about such paintings, or photographs, is that there can be no reason for doing them at all but the artist's desire to do all that he can with his seeing the raw material and to get all that he can, as an artist, from it, at the same time offering the pleasure of such works to those whose participation in them is in viewing them and considering what the artist has done.  Cézanne's skull here is not a memento mori nor his apple for eating, nor some utilitarian object for using or the guitar for playing.  A Ming jade bowl and a toilet bowl (if by Edward Weston) alike are both just what the artist has done with them.  The proof of this is in such experiences as my afternoon with the work of Giorgio Morandi, who, I think, would not have used the form of a bathroom commode, lest anyone suppose it could be meant to refer to the article in daily use.  Once known, his work is unforgettable.
Through a half century of teaching art I have learned that, at least in America, young people have trouble understanding that works of art need not signify or suggest or teach that which verbal language does perfectly well.  Of course there are images, including some great ones, such as Michelangelo's of Creation in the Sistine Chapel, and some painful ones, such as Eugene Smith's, that leave much less license for kidding oneself than reportorial language usually does.  What I am saying is only that the genre of Nature Morte is full of meaning, but the meaning is gained only from looking at it meditatively (if I may use that word) and enjoying it visually.  I think that neuroscience is advancing in helping us to understand these distinctions, but on the internet one finds that almost everyone is regarding visual art as mere symbols or illustrations alone.  It is not that Still Life needs to work in terms of abstraction, though the young Paul Strand showed that photographs could succeed as abstract works without compromising the medium of photography, and there are plenty of abstracted photographs that are not Still Life.
Anyway, I was thinking, looking at my more advanced miniature camera with all its zoom and megapixels, how it would perform in a Game of Nature Morte, much more complicated than simply zooming at a construction crane on a bright day.  Already I have an entry that proves, once again, that vision rather than tools is the critical thing.
Though I wanted to participate, I didn't want to be limited to my own vision, so I invited a number of friends, who know what Nature Morte / Still Life is, to send me some of theirs.  I want to emphasize, as I multi-task (blog composition and PGA golf), that this is not a competition.  At least two of my chosen friends are better photographers than I am, but no matter: it is just to get varied vision that I have prevailed upon all.  I am eager to credit each one or to guarantee each contributor's anonymity.  Though it will be impossible to post every image in the blog, I shall post in a Public Picasa album all that I may and keep in a Private album any that the photographer prefers to keep private, though, N.B., indecency is certainly private and practically unknown in the genre of Still Life (though Fur and Feathers is important in Netherlandish Still Life, to avoid offending many animal lovers, I won't use them here, and bouquets of flowers similarly are hard to handle, since the criteria of specimen-perfection and the artist's vision can need more discussion than a simple game with miniature cameras can encompass).  I have no intention of judging anybody's photography, even my own, though a fundamental question is whether the intention was Nature Morte.
Contributions dribble in; friends may be shy or busy.  So I'll start with the simplest category.
I.  Photographs in the Tradition
II. Photographs to compete with Modernism
III. Photographs easy to interpret differently
IV. Photographs that are carefully arranged, either for commercial work or surreal intention; they may rely on the Nature Morte tradition without being part of it.

I sent my friends this list of criteria:
(1) Available light only
(2) Available arrangements only, relying only on vantage point and framing (to avoid those dreadful art school set ups that were so pointless and limiting
(3) Botany excluded as a subject (my pods on the stovepipes trees don't belong here, nor do the mushrooms)
(4) Cats as primary subject are not 'morte' enough
(5) Built-in lens only
Denise, who is VERY good at this kind of photography, may use the 8800 as well as the 6000, but the latter is actually faster, I think.  Older one-piece cameras also are OK.
The modus operandi I choose is to have the small camera at hand at all times (meaning I needed to get its own carrying case ASAP)
(6) No one needs to play but me, but in a couple of weeks I'll make a new blog post with a half dozen 1000 pixel images, just to show that shooting high and far is not the only test of a camera's utility.  But for anyone using a $100 camera, this is not a test of your lens or your chip.  I mean, the Nikon S6000s will do just as well as the S8000 and S9000 series and similarly all the same-priced competitors.

This potful of tools has been sitting here for at least a decade, and the light comes in every afternoon when it's not raining.  For posting but zooming, too, image should be 1000 pixels in the larger dimension.
I attached the first (fuzzy) version of this image to make clear that "Period" candlesticks and old wine bottles and wooden potato mashers are NOT of the essence.  As Denise said in an e-mail, "still lifes hiding in plain sight": not arrangements.