The term ‘still life’ was coined in the Netherlands in the 17th century, but the practice itself dates back to ancient times.
As a basis, a still life is “a piece that features an arrangement of inanimate objects as its subject” (My Modern Met). Meaning, for you toy photographers reading this, toy photography is a form of still life!
Ancient Egypt, Greece & Rome
In Ancient Egypt, what is sometimes categorized as still life, may actually be more of a list of gifts as seen above. In Ancient Rome and Greece however, vegetables and game were painted as a way to depict pleasure and abundance.
Throughout the 1000 years of the Middle Ages, all non-religious art largely ceased. Coins, fruits, etc were used to decorate the boarders of illuminated manuscripts and the same could be seen in small sections of religious paintings, but nothing that could truly be considered a still life in itself was created in this time.
Coming out of this period was the enlightenment, and one of the first still lives created in this time was Still Life with Partridge and Gauntlets by Jacopo de’ Barbari, as seen above. Considering it wasn’t until the 1600s that the term ‘still life’ came to be, this painting is considered to be one of the first still life paintings. Hans Memling’s Flowers in a Jug also contends with this title.
The Netherlands invested heavily in exotic flowers and in turn, in paintings of exotic flowers. While still lives were largely of food up until this point, flowers now came to be a prime subject. With the stock market crash of 1637, painters began to shift the symbolism of abundance and the vanitas came to be. The Dutch vanitas paintings were reminders that abundance was temporary and life was fleeting. We see this in depictions of skulls, dying flowers, rotten fruit and imperfect table settings.
Industrial Revolution and the Invention of Photography
The early processes of photography required a very long exposure time, and so of course items that didn’t move were good subject matter. One of the very first photographs, created by photography’s inventor, Nicéphore Niépce, was a table set with cloth, bottle, bowl and silverware.
Roughly 10 years later, the first example we have of a reliably dated daguerreotype (above), is also a still life.
The First Photography Exhibition
Hippolyte Bayard hosted the first photography exhibition in 1839. He created his own photographic prints, making direct positives, rather than printing positives from a negative, and claimed to have invented photography before Daguerre or Talbot (multiple people were inventing forms of photography in their different regions all within the same time frame).
Manipulated photos of abundance
While veritas paintings showed that everything, even abudance is fleeting, photographers in the midwestern United States after a time of drought took the opposite approach. They instead, manipulated photos to appear as if there was abundance when there was none to be had. This fantasy postcards, a genre that was unique to the US, flourished between 1908 and 1915.
In large part, photography, in its early years, continued to constrain itself to the aesthetics of paintings.
After learning the callotype process, Orawa Kazumasa opened his own studio in Tokyo in 1888. The following year he established Japan’s first callotype business. He is known for his work hand coloring images of flowers, cahanging the scope of floral still life photography.
Impressionist/Post-Impressionist Movement & Beyond
Still life came to the forefront of modern art when Vincent van Gogh began to paint flowers and Cézanne chose apples, wine bottles and the like. Cezanne also painted some still lives in the vanitas style.
Cubism and Pop art had a continuation of still life with the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Picasso, Georges Braque, etc.
A lot of work had to be done to understand colors in nature in order to apply that information to photography. Early color photography processes were invented in the 1860s but were not very practical since the existing photo emulsions had very limited color sensitivity.These processes were further refined in the 1890s with various separate colored filters being placed in front of the camera lens. These 3 separate exposures would then be super-imposed over each other. This process was prohibitively expensive. In 1894 a process where all 3 filters could be used at once was developed. In 1907 Autocrome plates began to be produced commercially, and color photography was finally a practical process.
And the rest is history still in the making.
Still life isn’t going anywhere. It’s can be such a symbolic medium when practiced thoughtfully. Check out the early 1900s surrealist photographers linked in the ‘Read More’ section below to see early symbolic uses of this medium with toys and small scale figures.
- How Artists Have Kept Still Life Painting Alive Over Thousands of Years, My Modern Met, Kelly Richman-Abdou, 5/31/18
- Still Life: Still Life Painting in the Early Modern Period, Norbert Schneider, 1999
- Still Life: Forgotten Gems of Vintage Photography, Peter Mrhar, 2018
- Still Life in Photography, Paul Martineau, 2010
- Biography: 19th Century Inventor of photography Hippolyte Bayard, MonoVisions, 5/28/218
- The Life of Things: The Idea of Still Life in Photography 1840 – 1985, Dorothea Ritter, 2012
- Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, Mia Fineman, 2012
- Ogawa Kazumasa’s Hand-Coloured Photographs of Flowers (1896), The Public Domain Review
- A Short History of Color Photography, National Science and Media Museum, 6/1/09
- Surrealist Figure Photographers of the Mid 1900s
- The History of Toy Photography
- The War Films Made with Toys
- Vogue and Toy Photography
- A Timeline of the History of Miniatures: From Ritual and Religious Object to Plaything and Collectible