Museum Home Past Exhibitions In Focus: Still Life

September 14, 2010–January 23, 2011 at the Getty Center

Bowl with Sugar Cubes/ Kertész
Bowl with Sugar Cubes, André Kertész, 1928
© Estate of André Kertész

Still life derives from the Dutch word stilleven, coined in the 17th century when paintings of objects enjoyed immense popularity throughout Europe. The impetus for this term came as artists created compositions of greater complexity, bringing together a wider variety of objects to communicate allegorical meanings.

Still life has come to serve, like landscape or portraiture, as a category within art. Although it typically refers to depictions of inanimate things, because it incorporates a vast array of influences from different cultures and periods in history, it has always resisted precise definition.

This exhibition presents some of the innovative ways photographers have explored and refreshed this traditional genre. During the 19th century, still life photographs tended to resemble still life paintings, with similar subjects and arrangements. Beginning in the 20th century, still life photographs have mirrored the subjects and styles that have more broadly concerned photographers in their time.

Still Life with Plaster Casts / Séguier
Still Life with Plaster Casts, Baron Armand-Pierre Séguier, 1839–42
audio Audio: How did this still life image help promote the new medium?

A New Medium

Still life featured prominently in the experiments of photography inventors Jacques-Louis-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot. They did this in part, for practical reasons: the exceptionally long exposure times of their processes precluded the use of living models.

In the late 1830s, Baron Armand-Pierre Séguier, a close associate of Daguerre, created this elegant daguerreotype that features small-scale copies of famous sculptures in the Louvre and Uffizi museum collections.

An Arrangement of Tobacco Leaves and Grass / Aubry
An Arrangement of Tobacco Leaves and Grass, Charles Aubry, about 1864

In the mid-1800s, Charles Aubry was an accomplished practitioner of still-life photography who came to the medium by way of his professional interest in applied arts and industrial design. After working as a pattern designer for carpets, fabrics, and wallpapers, he formed a company to manufacture plaster casts and make photographs of plants and flowers.

Aubrey's detailed prints of natural forms—like this close-up of plants on a lace-covered background —were intended to replace lithographs traditionally used by students of industrial design.

Glass and Shadows / De Meyer
Glass and Shadows, Baron Adolf De Meyer, 1905

Photography as Art

By the first decade of the 20th century, art photographers like Baron Adolf de Meyer employed soft-focus lenses and painterly darkroom techniques to make photographs that resembled drawings and prints. The vogue at the time was to produce images that reflected a handcrafted approach, while asserting photography as an art medium in its own right.

Here, De Meyer photographed an arrangement of objects through a scrim. The pattern of thin, woven fabric softens the backlit objects and helps replicate the subtle tonal effects prized in etchings and aquatints.

Man Ray / Dead Leaf
Dead Leaf, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitsky), 1942
© Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP
audio Audio: Man Ray applies an avant garde sensibility to the tradition of memento mori.


Several decades into the twentieth-century, the American artist Man Ray emerged as a pioneer of two European art movements, Dada and Surrealism, in which the element of surprise figured prominently. This image seems both unusual for Man Ray in its apparent straight-forward approach, but also typical in its somewhat dark emotional tone.

By selecting a dead leaf with a claw-like appearance and photographing it against a wood-grain board, Man Ray updated the concept of memento mori ("remember that you must die"), a motif popular in centuries-old still-life paintings.

Early American—Still Life with Steak / Core
Early American—Still Life with Steak, Sharon Core, 2008
© Sharon Core
audio Audio: Photographer Sharon Core talks about her love of the still life genre.

New Directions

In that same vein, the best contemporary still-life photographs recall past styles of art while containing a paradox relevant to today. Contemporary photographer Sharon Core became known for re-creations of painter Wayne Thiebaud's pop-art dessert tableaux. Her series of still-life compositions, inspired by the 18th-century American painter Raphaelle Peale, followed.

For this series, entitled "Early American," Core studied the compositional structure of his paintings, replicated the mood of the lighting, and when she couldn't find the right vegetables and flowers, grew her own from heirloom seeds.

The stilled lives of objects have served so well as both experimental and conventional forms in the past, that still life may well be the anchor that allows photographers to explore new and yet unimagined depths.

This exhibition includes works acquired with funds generously provided by the Museum's Photographs Council:

Lorikeet with Green Cloth by Marian Drew
Blow Up: Untitled 15 (diptych) by Ori Gersht
Early American—Still Life with Steak by Sharon Core
Still Life with Triangle and Red Eraser by Irving Penn
Download the illustrated exhibition checklist (PDF, 5 pp., 140 KB).