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  • Frame: It is a formal and slightly ornate frame as an historical reference.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

 

Exercise Project 2 Masquerades: Childhood memories

three pcitures one of two nail varnishes, one of a teddy bear close up and one of some strawberries with sugar

Childhood Memories

Title: Childhood Memories

Exercise: Recreate a childhood memory in a photograph. Approach the task in any way you wish but consider carefully the memory you choose and how it will be represented.

Process:
I approached this exercise by simply scanning some of the things around me and seeing if anything sparked any particular memories. I also looked at some family albums and it was this that elicited the ‘Bear’ and thoughts of my Mum and my Nan. After various attempts to capture something, possibly incorporating the old photographs, I decided on a more straightforward still life type representation. I had chosen not to include myself in the photograph partly because I was already thinking about the self-portraiture assignment and I wanted to keep that separate from this exercise.

I also used the exercise to try my first attempt at creating a triptych in Photoshop, it took a little experimenting but in the end I did manage to stitch the three images together on a single canvas.

Content:
Once I started the process a whole host of memories started tumbling to the surface; events at school, adventures with my brother and thoughts of people who are no longer with me. In my late twenties and thirties a large number of my closest relatives died and many of the pictures and objects I was exploring took me back to memories of them and their place in my childhood. Two of the images are about people who are still with me and one is in memory of my Nan – Nanny Osborne (known as Nanny Oz in the family).

Now I look at the images they are both about childhood and about growing up and leaving things behind. The nail varnish is concerned with my memory of biting my nails as a child. My Mum always had beautiful nails and I remember being envious of them as a small girl as they stood in sharp contrast to my own stubby finger tops. My ambition was to be able to see my nails over the top of my fingers when I looked at my hands from the back. The image includes the first ever manicure set I was given. I am pleased to say I achieved my ambition and now have my own extensive collection of nail varnishes. It was perhaps one of my earliest remembered experiences of goal setting.

The Bear was given to me by my Uncle and has always held a special place in my memory both as something I cherished and an early experience of change. It was given to me when I was three or four years old and I had a memory of it being huge, the biggest bear I had ever seen. At the age of five we moved to Australia for a number of years and when I returned, through some curious event, my beloved Bear had shrunk! I was growing up and it was a little painful to see that my recollection of the bear no longer matched my reality. I chose to shoot him close up to emphasise my memory of his size.

Finally, I have included the strawberries. They come from memories of hot summer days in my Nanny Oz’s long garden and picking the strawberries from beds caressed with straw. Nanny Oz had a cut glass sugar shaker with a silver top (long since gone I fear) and we were allowed to shake sugar on our plates bite the strawberries and dip them in the sugar (something that would surely be frowned upon today but I still occasionally do if no-one is looking!). We ended up with plates of mushy sugar streaked pink from the juice of the strawberries. The strawberries make me smile, and think of sunny days and laughter, and people I love and miss.

Evaluation & Synthesis:
As with many of the exercises the finishing point is never as I imagined from the beginning, it has echoes of those early thoughts but has evolved and developed in ways I might not have imagined. It is interesting to explore how many of my memories are bitter sweet; laughter and loss often intertwined. While I remember them fondly they are connected in some ways with grieving too. Something to consider for other aspects of the course.

I was pleased to have achieved the technical aspect of the triptych although it is not perfect and now I understand the process better I might reorder them with the strawberries on the left. I also underestimated the size of the file it would create so that is something to keep in mind in future. It might have been quicker just to upload the three images side by side in WordPress!

The Dad Project & Country Doctor

Black & white image of a single figure in a doctor's coat

w. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor, Life Magazine, 1948

Wow, that was a hard read. I had to take Briony Campbell’s photo essay in several bite size chunks. The Dad Project is extraordinarily intimate, touching on something so personal yet at the same time universal in theme. It also tackles a subject, which I think is still to a certain degree, taboo. Part of is power for me is its ability to resonate, it speaks to me as a daughter, now a stepdaughter and a photographer. I utterly relate to her thoughts around narcissism, and not putting yourself in the frame.

I think there are similarities with W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor,” in terms of what I would define (as an ethnographic researcher) as ‘participant-observation’. They were both engaged in studying cultures, that of the work of the Doctor and of a family undergoing one of the most profound changes we have all have to face. They both appear to draw on humanist traditions and looking to speak of human experience and relationships. Both sets of images also pose questions about the human condition.

They also have their differences. While Eugene Smith’s works remain fresh and vital, for me they have an almost painterly quality. The fact that they are black and white highlights the tonal differences and the chiaroscuro effect. I am also conscious of the fact that while Eugene Smith built a rapport with Dr. Ceriani he only spent 23 days with him and his community. Briany Campbell’s work is about a lifelong relationship coming to an end in its physical form. She also puts herself in the frame as a means of acknowledging this relationship. Not all of her images are in sharp focus and I think their softness speaks of emotions, and the ambiguities and challenges she writes about struggling with. They have gentleness and like others my response to her words and images has been tears. Tears for the beauty and pain she has captured, and tears for my own family losses and grief.

When she speaks of it being an ‘ending without an ending’ I think she is referring to the story living on in her images and photo essay. I also think she is talking about her on-going relationship with her father even though his physical presence is no longer with her.

The High Street

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Title: The High Street

Exercise: Find a street that particularly interests you. Shoot 30 colour and 30 black and white images in a street photography style. Reflect on your experience and work.

Approach: I thought about where I wanted to go for some time. I thought about somewhere very ordinary, a town high street that could be anywhere or an area that looks tired and neglected. So, did I go somewhere with obvious character or see how I might work with a place with a less obvious identity. Added to which street photography is not a field I have worked in other than covering some big public events. I was not particularly comfortable about taking my camera out in public and despite reading around the subject still felt unsure about what the ‘rules of the game’ both socially and legally were about photographing people as they go about their daily lives.

Reflections on ‘The High Street’

This was an exercise I enjoyed more than I imagined I would. It was not an area I visit regularly and when I do I tend to be driving through so it is not somewhere I have spent much time observing. I was not at all comfortable about stepping into the High Street with my camera, it felt obtrusive, particularly as most of the time I work with still life and food.

I had decided before I went I would try and avoid shooting people and focus on capturing the essence of the High Street. Inevitably, I did capture people but those shots were generally from behind. Once I got started I began to notice things I had never seen before. I was absorbed by my surroundings and while there were some longer shots that were interesting it was the points of details that increasingly caught my attention.

I did not have a specific plan in relation to shooting in both black and white and colour; in fact part of me thought I might shoot everything in colour and then change some in PS. However, once I got started I saw more and more in terms of colour or black and white, different aspects seemed to lend themselves to different treatment. I also became interested in the ‘traces’ that people leave; in ways to capture everyday life without necessarily having people in the frame. This has perhaps been influenced by looking at the work of the other photographers included in the course.

Colour leant itself to the more everyday, to aspects of action and daily life. The black and white seemed to add drama and emotion. It is not a case for me of whether I preferred one set or the other, they achieved different things. I am pleased with some of the results I got from both. It seems to be a matter of appropriateness – of context and narrative!