This kind of work has a historical pedigree: it’s known as Memento Mori, a Latin phrase meaning remember that you are mortal and you too will die. This injunction appears visually in the genre of western painting known as Vanitas Still Life and in Medieval and Renaissance Christian art. The idea here is that one should remember the brevity and futility of earthly existence and meditate on the eternity of the afterlife in which one will receive one’s just reward, whatever that might be.
Cupids and Flowers, 2006
For French theorist Roland Barthes, photography is an “elegiac art” which can be seen as the modern memento mori; for the human subject/object, the passage of time ultimately terminates in Death. Photographs represent the this will be and this has been, the time of an anterior future; that is, a future that is already a past, and this future is death. In his words: “Photography never lies: or rather, it can lie as to the meaning of the thing, being by nature tendentious, never as to its existence”. So, by this we can take him to mean that, whatever meaning we may extract from a photograph, something has necessarily been captured by the camera; the photograph is evidence of its having been there. It is precisely due to the very reality of this – the certainty of an existence in the past – that photography becomes inextricably bound up with Death.
Through a Glass Darkly, 2006
The critical element of a photograph, for Barthes, is the testament it offers that “this has been”, that the subject existed in this specific moment in time and will at some point invariably be dead. Writing in Camera Lucida, Barthes tells us that “however ‘lifelike’ we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of an apprehension of death), photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead”. Barthes later rearticulates this temporal character of the photograph as the simultaneous experience/perception in viewing of the “this will be and the this has been”. This temporal paradox is the strange, and powerful, realization that, at some point in the future, this now will be the has been.
Lisa and Still Life, 2001
Barthes argues that here is some sort of compulsion at work in the taking of photographs, as a record of something having been. The word ˜taking” to describe the action of obtaining a photographic representation is significant – photographs are not made but taken – they are an acquisitive act. In ‘taking’ something from reality, and freezing it in the photograph, the desire is to stop time itself: that is, to capture an image of someone, something, as it exists at that particular instant. Although this action implies a wish to negate the effect of death, effectively it hastens death, multiplies it. Every photograph is a conscious, or unconscious, reminder of death.
Lisa and Still Life VII, 2006
Time’s fingers bend us slowly
With dubious craftsmanship,
That at last spoils all it forms. (Krates)
The art historical genre of Vanitas paintings was most fully developed in 17th century Holland. Those images, of flowers, fruit, tiny insects, sometimes butterflies, smoking candles and occasionally skulls, were meant to be evocations of the transience of human existence. Such paintings are complex moral allegories which depict the vanity of all earthly desires. The flowers and the fruit are symbols of earthly beauty and its ephemerality, reminders that all material life disappears while the kingdom of heaven alone remains: “He comes forth like a flower, and is cut down” (Job 14,2). In a single image, painters would combine a universe of floral birth and death: buds, flowers in full bloom and flowers with drooping or fallen petals or being consumed by insects are all included in the composition to indicate the inevitable passage of time and the approach of death. The viewer of these paintings was thus meant to meditate on the transitory nature of human life and the power of God and History.
2422 August 2006
You might notice that each of these images is a close-up. In visual representation, social distance is related in part to apparent proximity. In camerawork, degrees of formality are reflected in shot sizes – close-ups signifying intimate or personal modes, medium shots a social mode and long shots an impersonal mode. As described by Daniel Chandler, “In visual media, the represented physical distance between the observed and the observer often reflects attempts to encourage feelings of emotional involvement or critical detachment in the viewer” (http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem08b.html). You are being asked to become intimately acquainted, and to the extent that it is possible, intimately involved, with the environment described.
To see a sample of my still life photographs, click here.
To see a sample of still life etchings, click here.