Assignment 5 Reflections

Title: Making it up – ‘Impermanence and Mortality’

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

The whole process of developing ‘Impermanence and Mortality’ has served to develop my technical skills. It has pushed my still life skills in terms of taking each of the shots (at least ten individual shoots make up each image) and having to consider angle, lighting and depth of field to ensure they would fit within the overall composite. In creating the final images I had to focus on composition and balance, thinking carefully about where I placed each object, colour combinations and so on. It has also developed my Photoshop skills much further than I could have imagined – using the pen tool for cutting out (instead of quick selection), blurring borders slightly so the overlay is more effective, creating shadows with the burn tool and brush and so on. Having a clear sense of what I wanted to achieve as a result of the development process really helped ensure my technical skills were used appropriately. It definitely feels like a case of practice, practice and more practice!

Quality of outcome

I think the research process really helped me achieve the best outcome I could. Looking at some of the Vanitas paintings and becoming more familiar with the original symbolism helped me in relating that to a contemporary context. I am particularly pleased with the development from the early sketches that were little more than copying the genre to something that feels much more like my own distinctive approach. Feedback from other OCA students through Facebook seems to suggest that the conceptualisation of the ideas worked for them – they mentioned being drawn in by the images and wanting to know more, feeling I had met my intention, that the images were strong and that the Vanitas symbolism worked well. They also offered advice on areas for improvement.

Demonstration of creativity

I feel that of all my Context and Narrative assignments this is the most creative. In my view it has built on the previous submissions but then takes the approach to a new level. I was concerned that I didn’t have the skills to achieve what I had in my mind’s eye but I think by building on each stage in the development process I was able to grow my confidence and move towards the images I wanted. This was helped by feedback from the Thames Valley Photography Group who asked some very helpful questions after I had completed the earlier sketches. It was this feedback that led me to think of the series of three. Each stage in the process helped push my imagination and I had not come across a concept like this anywhere else, although it is sometimes hard when you are working on your own because I wasn’t sure if I was straying too far from the brief. This is partly why I sought out other feedback to see what meaning others might take from the series.


This assignment is the result of dedicated reflection and research. It involved a lot of thinking about my own mortality and was personally quite challenging particularly as I have lost many close relatives in recent years and in the week I was finalising the images I got the news that a friend who is two years younger than me had died of Leukemia. It was actually Mother Earth I found hardest because it was difficult not to feel a sense of hopelessness, it was partly why I wanted to create something that I hoped looked quite beautiful but when you look closely there is an inherent ugliness.

In terms of critical thinking a number of themes and emotions surfaced during this assignment, all of which could lead me to further research and development:

  • Humankind’s relationship to materiality, consumption and possessions
  • The potential for objects to instill a sense of melancholy
  • Interest in the proposition that still life as a genre is under theorised
  • Anger about the gender gap that appears steadfast in the arts
  • Anger and sadness about our arrogance as a species

As shown in my learning log my research took me from Roman mosaics to the work of Olivia Parker and many in between. I spent some time researching the Vanitas still life tradition, which is what led me to the women artists of the period. As usual I continued to use my Pinterest Boards (Still Life, Still Life Photography, Impermanence) to collect examples and really expanded the use of my sketchbook during this period.

Assignment 5: Making it up – Impermanence and Mortality

“The Vanitas still life painting is designed to remind the viewer that death frames our possession of the object world; indeed that our possessions are capable of outliving us, thus rendering the ownership of things illusory.” (Wynne, 2016)

Inspired by a visit to Bow Arts to see Neudecker’s Plastic Vanitas this series draws on the tradition of Vanitas still life to explore notions of impermanence and mortality.

Contemplating Impermanence is a personal journey through mortality. It echoes some of the original Vanitas symbolism combined with personal objects (detailed connotations are included in my learning log). This image includes items that were given to me by family members who have been dead for some time and now have a potency for me that sits at the intersection of life and death. The pixelated shell questions how we might be re-framing our lives and mortality given the growing industry around digital afterlife (there are now over 30 million Facebook accounts belonging to dead people).

Feminist and Feminine is a statement about the role of women in art and the relationship of women artists to still life. It contains references to some of the major female still life painters from the 16th – 18th Centuries. It also raises issues of feminism and femininity. The breaking of the frame in this image, is about flow through time, and acknowledges how these women challenged the system in their own ways. My signature is 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.

Mother Earth takes me to the ultimate issue of impermanence, and references the actions and impact of humankind on our planet. The influence of capitalism (the Tulip), mass production (plastics) and mass consumption (rubbish). Our increasingly distanced relationship in the West to food (flat peaches in plastic). The impact we are having on land and sea (the shell and plastics). In this image the backdrop is a deliberately more chaotic plastic cloth.


  • Mariele Neudecker for her permission to feature her images in my learning log
  • The women who broke new ground – Rachel Ruysch, Clara Peeters, Giovanna Garzoni and Fede Galizia
  • The Thames Valley Group and FB OCA Photography Level 1 Group

References and citations

Wynne, D. (2016). Women and personal property in the Victorian novel. London: Routledge.


Assignment 5: The ‘Impermanence and Mortality’ development process

Plastic Vanitas’ was very thought provoking. Having done previous assignments on fertility (assignment two), and my life (assignment three) it seemed like a natural next step to be considering death in my final assignment.

I started by creating some personal Vanitas still lives, using contemporary connotations to recreate the original style. These never became more than quick ‘sketches’ because I knew very quickly this approach was not distinctive enough. I also wanted something that looked and felt more contemporary while still using the signification of the original genre. One of the issues for me was that that the first sketches felt too cluttered so the next step was to strip everything back and using fewer referents see if I could achieve a similar signification.

I worked with Tulips because of their links to the Dutch Vanitas tradition (1600 -1800) and also because they could show the signs of decay as the petals fall. The Shell and bone, also elements of life and death, were placed sparingly on a crumpled white cloth a connotation of the peaks and troughs of life. This felt more along the lines of what I was trying to achieve and while I was happier with these results it still felt as though I hadn’t pushed it far enough.

In looking again at some of the original Vanitas paintings I started to think more about the frame, and how in some of the earlier paintings the elements deliberately flow forward, off the table and to the edge of the frame. Framing in both physical and metaphorical terms became the key to the next transition. The ‘frame’ became important in terms of it being a mechanism for containing the image; referring to different frames of reference; considering how we frame our lives (from birth to death) and so on. I had recently done a Photoshop exercise on creating the illusion of breaking through the image plane and decided this was the next step.

I wanted to see if I could create an image that made direct reference to challenging the boundary of the frame, therein representing the passage of time from birth to death and whatever lies beyond. In this I was also drawing on Schaverien’s (1999) psychoanalytic notion of the photographic frame creating a safe container for our anxieties, I wanted to break that safety and see what happened when the elements flowed out.


Before even attempting it in Photoshop I then made some physical collages using some of the elements in my sketchbook. This was particularly helpful in deciding whether they should be portrait or landscape. It also reinforced the need for the black background rather than white. I showed my sketchbook and first digital attempts to the Thames Valley Photography group and got some very helpful feedback:

  • Consider if I was moving too far from the original Vanitas inspiration
  • Perhaps make it more personal – what are my vanities?
  • Think about drawing out the feminist issues further
  • Consider making a physical collage of the photographs rather than doing it in Photoshop

This led me to thinking about producing the series of three rather than a single image. The themes arose from our group discussion and I then worked on them in my sketchbook, creating a list of possible symbols under each theme. The idea of considering individual, group and global mortality really appealed to me and while I initially waivered because of the amount of work involved for each image I decided I wanted to give it a try. The props were a mix of those I had around my home and a few that I purchase specially, including the cut flowers. I found I had chosen to do this right at the end of the Tulip season so could not access the more exotic varieties I had wanted and had to work quickly with those I did manage to find! All the props were then shot individually in natural light on a table top infinity background.

While continuing to be still lives I have tried to introduce a sense of movement, a flow through time. I wasn’t sure if I could achieve it with my Photoshop skills but I have come pretty close to what I was hoping to achieve. I may still move on to create further physical collages. Looking back it feels like the development process has a natural flow to it and the combination of research, talking to other students and experimenting feels like it paid off.


  • Mariele Neudecker for her permission to feature her images in my learning log
  • The women who broke new ground – Rachel Ruysch, Clara Peeters, Giovanna Garzoni and Fede Galizia
  • The Thames Valley Group and FB OCA Photography Level 1 Group

References and citations

Schaverien, J. (1999). The Revealing Image: Analytical Art Psychotherapy in Theory and in Practice. London: Routledge.

Wynne, D. (2016). Women and personal property in the Victorian novel. London: Routledge.



Under the Influence

Having got to the point where I feel I have nearly finished the final C&N assignment it has been useful to look at what I felt have been some of the key influences in shaping my approach. There have been several quite diverse influences that have informed my thinking about this final body of work from Roman mosaics and 17th Century painting to contemporary photographers.

The unswept floor mosaics of Italy and Switzerland are fascinating in terms of possibly being a record of the time and visually in their composition. They are said to depict the items discarded during a feast hence their somewhat random placing. They also denote the wealth of feast holder and diners. Connotations picked up again in the 17th & 18th Century still life paintings in Europe.

I am astounded by the beauty and quality of the 17th and 18th Century paintings created by the women still life painters of Northern Europe especially Fede Galizia, Giovanna Garzoni and Rachel Ruysch. There were a number of very successful women artists in the field and it has felt important to make a connection with them.

In terms of contemporary still life photography two women have been particularly influential – Olivia Parker and Laura Letinsky. I came across Olivia Parker’s work early on in C&N and it is a body of work I have continually returned to. For Assignment 5 I was particularly interested in the ‘Not so Still Life’ series. I really admire the quality and atmosphere in her work but I was very struck by this notion of movement within the still life genre.

Laura Letinsky’s still lives, have been influential because of the way she has experimented with the genre; using different visual planes and angles, thinking about what is left behind after the meal (interesting for me in terms of impermanence), and the distinctive quality of light in her work.

I have also used my Pinterest boards throughout to keep collecting different examples and help me build my ideas – still life board & Impermanence and Still Life Photography

Women & Still Life

Thus the question of women’s equality—in art as in any other realm—devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them. (Nochlin, 1971)

“The art market is not sexist,” Mr. Sewell said. “The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist.

“Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.” (Johnson, 2008)

An audit of the art world shows that every artist in the top 100 auction sales last year was a man, and just 8% of public art in central London was created by women. (Cochrane, 2013)

Perhaps I was naïve to think that in the 21st Century things had moved on for women artists but it seems that progress has actually been pretty slow. On the one hand it seems that there are more opportunities but on the other women are still underrepresented in the major institutions.

Delving into the world of historical Vanitas still life has been fascinating and has prompted this reflection on the position of women in art. I have some familiarity with art history and was aware that most of the artists presented as ‘great’ are men. What I am ashamed to say I wasn’t aware of was some of the women I came across in relation to the tradition of still life painting. Looking at some of the books on still life painting I have used for research for assignment five it would seem I am not the only one!

I am now happy to be acquainted with Fede Galizia, Clara Peeters, Louise Moillon, Rachel Ruysch, Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun, Maria van Oosterwijck and Ann Vallayer Coster; 17th and 18th Century artists whose work appears to have been prolific and successful. I didn’t necessarily set out to consider the gendered nature of artworks and the artworld, to a certain extent it found me. What most intrigued me was the fact that there were a number of accomplished women still life painters because for the most part it was a form of art they were ‘allowed’ to participate in. It seems that between the Renaissance and the 20th Century, women were not permitted to participate in life drawing which excluded them from the academies and the major art institutions. They were relegated to what was regarded as the lower genre of still life, something more seemly for their gender.

Bryson (1990) argues that because of its low status Still Life is a genre that has been under-theorised, this certainly seems to be the case in relation to women in the field. In looking at the early works of the 17th and 18th Century women I was struck by how familiar they seem and that these objects and forms gave me a way of connecting with them.

The repeated shapes of the things in still life have been decided by consensus over many eras, and feel ‘right’ for the job. As such they create a cultural field far larger than any single individual, or even any particular generation: those addressed by these ancient and familiar forms are only the present members of a cultural family whose roots travel back into a vast preceding cultural community, which is in solidarity with each of the generations behind and ahead.(Bryson, 1990: 138)

In a small way I wanted my assignment to reach back and respect these women and flow forward into the future of the genre.

References and citations

BRYSON, N. 1990. Looking at the Overlooked: Four essays on still life painting, London, Reaktion Books Ltd.

COCHRANE, K. 2013. Women in art: why are all the ‘great’ artists men? Available: [Accessed 18th June 2016].

JOHNSON, A. 2008. There’s never been a great woman artist. Available: [Accessed 18th June 2016].

NOCHLIN, L. 1971. Why have there been no great women artists? Available: [Accessed 20th June 2016].



Plastic Vanitas – Mariele Neudecker

Still life of plastic containers with dark backdrop

Mariele Neudecker, Still Life with Ketchup Bottle and Lemon [AIBDC, 92, CR, 31, Shelf 7 of 8, 0.8kg], 2015

I have always been an avid biker, for many years bikes were my only form of transport. This meant I had friends and family who were bikers too and we would all hang out together whenever the weather was vaguely accommodating. The trips we would head out on generally involved stopping for food at a roadside café, often the only places that were willing to let us stop however respectable the bikes or their riders.

Surprisingly, this is where I went when I saw Neudecker’s Still Life with Ketchup Bottle and Lemon [AIBDC, 92, CR, 31, Shelf 7 of 8, 0.8kg]. Those once ubiquitous squeezy ketchup bottles that resembled a large stylised tomato. I remember them as being made of quite a hard plastic that was often difficult to squeeze and filled with a distinctly vinegar tasting ketchup. It felt like a reminder of a different age and yet the symbols live on, the exhibition title of Plastic Vanitas seemed very appropriate.

Plastic Vanitas is the result of a residency Neudecker took part in at the Museum of Design in Plastic and the Arts University, Bournemouth. Born in Germany, she has lived and worked in Bristol since 2001. She completed a BA at Goldsmiths, an MA at Chelsea College of Art & design and took a course in digital image creation/ manipulation at Tower Hamlets College. She has been exhibited and published widely as well as lecturing and participating in conferences. I think all aspects of her training and experience are exposed in the images in this exhibition.

The exhibition of 49 images was curated by Prof. Susan Lambert (Head of MoDiP) and consists of photographic works in a range of frames, most of which look traditional and slightly ornate. The Vanitas still life tradition originated in Northern Europe in the late 1520s and was associated with a verse from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1:2; 12:8): ‘Vanitas vanitatum… et omnia vanitas’, translated ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. Strongly symbolic in nature a Vanitas image contains a range of signs originally informed by early Christianity that highlight the perils of vanity, the transience of life and the inescapability of death.

A vanitas painting tries to convey the essential meaninglessness of earthly goods and pursuits, when compared with the eternal nature of true Christian values.  Visual Arts Cork

Still life with skull, books, shell and pot

Vanitas Still Life by Herman Steenwijck, 1640


At its height in the 17th Century in the Netherlands these paintings originally included symbols such as a skull signifying death; books or maps highlighting secular knowledge; fruit and flowers that will inevitably wilt; and jewellery showing wealth and power. Neudecker has taken a more contemporary set of symbols and applied them in such a way that challenges us to examine our individual lives but also to take a macro perspective and contemplate what these images mean in relation to the planet we inhabit.

…The vanitas paradigm shines a new light literally and metaphorically on these mundane objects. Individually they are redefined as contributors to life’s precarious mortality. Carmen curlers are no longer useful beauty aids but instead emblems of vanity; a protective hockey helmet becomes a spectre of what might happen were it not worn; clocks become the harbingers of life’s brevity; and so on. The compositions as a whole act as allegories of the challenges that face our world with its dwindling resources. Prof. Lambert

Pictures hanging on an end wall in a gallery

Neudecker, Plastic Vanitas at Bow Arts, 2016


The low lighting in the gallery meant initially I had to check my glasses as they were still dark from the outside sun. The subdued light, the beauty of the images and the hanging of the work ensured I spent time really observing. As I mentioned earlier my initial response was about spotting those items that were familiar or prompted a memory, ‘when we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future.’ Berger & Mohr, 1982: 89

There was also a slight sense of illusion contained within the images, for a while I was not sure I was really seeing what my brain was telling me I was seeing. I should have been looking at Dutch old masters, traditional still lives, but here were collections of plastic objects.

I was particularly struck by the contradictory notion of transience held within these images. The still lives clearly come from a symbolic tradition that highlight the issue of human vanity and our impermanence as human beings yet many of the objects used are now known to have an almost indefinite shelf life. These plastics will outlive me by generations. They are both meaningful and meaningless, many of them are now regarded as obsolete. Fashion and production techniques have moved on yet the physical presence of these objects highlights how humanity’s vanity and thoughtlessness has created an environmental crisis, the potential for transience on a global scale.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Mariele for her permission to feature ‘Still Life with Ketchup Bottle and Lemon’ on my blog


Berger, J., & Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Society.

Exercise – Project 3 Self-absented portraiture: Nigel Shafran “Washing Up”

Exercise: Review Shafran’s work and consider the following:
• Did it surprise you that Washing Up was taken by a man?
• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
• What does this series achieve by not including people?
• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

Nigel Shafran (1964-) lives and works in London and has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. He trained in New York as a commercial photographer but his own projects are altogether more personal, particular and focused on the everyday. His subject matter draws on aspects of his life that are close to hand and familiar. Washing Up 2000 is an extensive series of 170 images taken in various domestic settings but mainly at his home. They were taken in available light using a medium format camera.

I imagine the thinking behind the question of the photographer’s gender is that the content of Washing Up 2000 is a very domestic subject and therefore more likely to be the product of a female photographer than a male. I can honestly say it was not something I thought about when I saw the images, I was intrigued by what was on the drainers and realised it has been a long time since I had done the washing up like that. In other words I went to what resonated rather than who the photographer was. I was also struck by the quality of the image and how beautiful the lighting was. I am inclined to agree with Phillips that there is little to be gained in trying to determine a particularly ‘female’ or ‘male’ photography.

“There certainly is a clichéd female style of photography. And there’s a clichéd tech dude who has 2,700 cameras and only talks about depth of field,” says Cara Phillips. “But within photography, there are so many people that fit and defy stereotypes, that going there doesn’t get you anywhere. Ultimately I really don’t think that it’s important.”  In Mitchell, 2009

That is not to say that there are not a combination of cultural, political and social influences on the nature of the images we take, but my sense is that gender is one part of a wider network of psychosocial elements. It is undoubtedly the case that gender may have an affect on access both to opportunities and subjects/contexts and the way others respond to us as ‘gendered’ photographers.

But pictures aren’t taken in a vacuum. The sex of the photographer matters because subjects react to men and women differently. This doesn’t have anything to do with how the photographer perceives the scene, but it can still have a huge effect on the resulting photograph.  Mitchell, 2009

The reaction of others can influence how and if a photographer can gain access and how they behave as subjects in front of the camera but I am not convinced that gender is the sole influence on what a photographer chooses to take, after all there are men and women working in all genres of photography.

In terms of Shafran’s Washing Up 2000 series I think the absence of people allows for a more open reading and potential connection. The inclusion of people in an image can lead to comparison, are these people like me and what do they have to tell me about my own life. This can mean a point of connection or disconnection dependent on your response. In using a still life approach I think the images become more phenomenological, that is they evoke something of the everyday experience that lends itself to interpretation. In conversation with Charlotte Cotton, I think Shafran is speaking of his work as dealing with the phenomena of lived experience and is mindful of not letting too much conscious thought get in the way.

It’s all around us. I think they can be expressions of everything that’s us: how we’ve been brought up, taught or learnt determines how we do things from cutting a load of bread to painting a wall. I think that might strength is in this and if I start questioning it or thinking too much about it, then it’s difficult for me to find my way back to what inspired me.
Nigel Shafran

I find myself remembering my grandparent’s sink and noticing how unlike my own washing up routine (thanks to a dishwasher) this is. I also find myself wondering about the people who have participated in the meals. This is left to my imagination and a phenomenological reading of everyday lived experience. This interpretation would have changed (I can’t say if this would have been and improvement or not because they would have been a different set of photographs) with the presence of people in the images.

An instant photograph can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future. Berger & Mohr, 1982: 89

As a result of the above ‘reading’ of the photographs I do find them interesting compositions. They give me a wide scope for interpretation and each time I look at them I see something different. There is something beautiful and almost sculptural in their ‘everydayness.’ This is not a subject matter I might have considered yet it is something recognisable and personal, exposing a small detail of everyday life that others seldom see. It sits clearly within a still life genre.

As in traditional still life painting, in which specific objects such as the hour-glass and human skulls were introduced to symbolise mortality and the brevity of life, here the recurrence and disappearance of certain motifs and changing atmospheric conditions within the series suggest the passage of time and the contingencies of daily life. Brett Rogers review of Washing Up 2000


Berger, J., & Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Society.