Decoding the Vanitas

Different objects on a black background - a bone, tulip, music score, cherries & lemon

Decoding the Vanitas

In creating the Vanitas series I took some time thinking about the denotations and connotations I wanted to use. While I want the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the images the following gives some background to why I have included the elements and objects I have.

Contemplating Mortality

Stems from my own mortality and answering the question –  ‘what are your vanities?’

  • Frame: References how we frame our lives and the frames of references we use, also consideration of whether we are reframing mortality with the digital afterlife
  • Satin cloth: the flow of life with all its ups and downs, folds and wrinkles
  • Dutch doll (an obvious link to the origins of the genre) and the book: Both given to me by relatives (my Dad and my Nanny Langley) who have been dead for some years. The book refers to early Vanitas in that knowledge was regarded as temporary and a vanity
  • Cut Flowers: Both flowers represent the frailty of life, as cut flowers they will soon fade. The Tulip references historical Vanitas and the Sunflower is my favourite flower, a personal vanity
  • Boxing gloves: My amateur boxing award, the vanity of ‘success.’ Also about corporeal frailty and the mixed attitudes around women boxing
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland charm bracelet: jewellery as one of my vanities, but also a metaphor for my research work (the vanity of knowledge), Alice has featured symbolically in a number of my papers and is part of my business website
  • Music score: Music is ephemeral once played, and I play the flute badly
  • Hex Bug mouse (a cat toy): Recognition of my aging being measured in cat ownership – I will be in my seventies if my two Maine Coons live as long as some of my moggies did.
  • Pixelated shell: Speaks of the growing industry around digital afterlife (there are over 30 million Facebook accounts belonging to dead people). It also represents death and refers back to Vanitas when exotic shells were included as a symbol of wealth.
  • Egg timer: the passage of time

Feminist and Feminine

  • Frame: It is a formal and slightly ornate frame as an historical reference. The breaking of the frame is acknowledgement of the early women artists challenging the art system in their own ways
  • Cherries and Lemon: references to Clara Peeters (1580/1590 – in or around 1621), Fede Galizia (1578 – 1630), Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), and Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)
  • Satin cloth: A reference to bridal wear or maybe virginity
  • Peony: a ‘blousy’ flower speaking of the softly feminine and acknowledging earlier Vanitas. As a flower it also has a lifecycle
  • Butterflies: Also an earlier reference but they are left blank in recognition of these women often being ignored and side-lined in historical accounts
  • My signature: Added, because I can do so without recourse to another authority. Something early women painters could not do unless they were allowed to join a Guild or were accepted into the Academy
  • Compact mirror: A reference to Vanitas symbolism (the mirror directly representing vanity) and the complex relationship between femininity, feminism and gender stereotyping

Mother Earth

  • Frame: Frames of reference with regard to the climate change debate and the challenge of changing behaviours
  • Earth: an inflatable globe showing the decline of the planet
  • Tulip: The influence of capitalism, the Tulip being a symbol of the first big economic crash
  • Plastic bottles and the tin: mass production and mass consumption
  • Flat peaches in a packet: Our increasingly distanced relationship to food , nature and our environment in the West
  • Shell: The impact we are having on the sea. Shells were once included as a demonstration of wealth and vanity they are now part of mass consumption and can be bought cheaply online for fish tanks. This is having an impact on our seas
  • Plastic cloth: In this image the backdrop is a deliberately more chaotic plastic cloth. The cloth will most likely outlive me and is also about the impact of mass production of plastics
  • Bones: Symbols of death. They are chicken bones so they also relate to mass production and humankind attitudes to other animals


Project 1: Research Point – Gregory Crewdson

Watch the YouTube video about Gregory Crewdson and consider the following:

  • Do you think there is more to his work than aesthetic beauty?
  • Do you think Crewdson succeeds in making his work ‘psychological’? What does this mean?
  • What is your main goal in making pictures? Do you think there is anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why, or why not?

Crewdson himself talks about there being more to his work that aesthetic beauty, ‘first and foremost a beautiful aesthetic is not enough.’ He highlights his father’s influence and childhood memories of endeavouring to listen into his therapy conversations. His father was a psychoanalytic therapist and I definitely get the sense of his work trying to reach beneath the surface into the unconscious realm.

I find there is an eeriness to his work, an odd stillness (perhaps induced by the cinematic look) that speaks of either an event that has just occurred or some sort of peril yet to come. I find his images very evocative; they make me stop, think and wonder. I think this also gives them a depth that is absorbing on many layers. As a viewer I find I am often concerned about the personal stories they contain (why do so many of his figures not have shoes on?), but also with Crewdson’s intentions. There is something quite Hitchcockian in his use of the vernacular and he talks about the influence of Hopper and Walker Evans. Although things appear ordinary on the surface there is a sense of the uncanny, something mysterious and possibly menacing.

I have seen several of his documentaries and that leads me to wonder about the production that sits behind each image and the scale of the commitment and preparation they require. Not only does significant preparation go into finding the right locations and creating the set, Crewdson talks about using light and colour to then tell the story. I was interested to learn that the final images are then a composite from across the shoot as a whole – he never uses a single image.

I think the goals for my photography vary dependent on the nature of the work I am involved with but for the most part it is some sort of balance between beauty and story telling. I can also envisage there might be times when I want to provoke or even shock and that could be more about ugliness than beauty.

I don’t see any issue with beauty being the main goal if that is the kind of work you are looking to produce. To me it is an issue of intention and context.