Brian Stewart Judged our Still Life 5 competition and here he reflects on 'Still Life'
A sunny afternoon in West Sussex . Warm beer and a ‘fun’ dog show . I fall into conversation with a fellow spectator . He was an assistant at the Irving Penn Studio in the 1980’s. Mostly he retouched and printed with Mr Penn the Archaeology series of black and white photographs of found objects. Shot on a 20/16 Field camera, each picture was made by combining three different negatives for each print. Imagine the dust . Pity the retouchers. The pictures are the shots of a photographic practitioner at the top of his game.
Mr Penn was at the top of his game for longer than most, shooting and printing his masterful still lifes over a seventy year career. From his early work for the cookery articles in Vogue, alongside his fashion work in the same publications, each issue was a new Irving Penn Photobook. His Cibachrome flower pictures stretched the printing process to its absolute limits to reproduce his stunning images. His commercial work for Clinique Cosmetics presented us a catalogue of ‘How did he do that?’ with each new campaign. His influence is immense and still presents the best of still life photography.
Mr Penn was unashamedly a Commercial Artist /Photographer with an in depth knowledge and an impeccable eye. His commissions came from the publishing and commercial world. The need for pictures was immense. Every advertiser needed ‘a new and better than the competition look’. Magazines were in their ‘Golden Age’ and supported an ever growing population of highly regarded professional photographers.
Waiting round the corner was a revolution. Its impact would be as profound as the invention of photography. It has irreversibly changed the process and appreciation of the photograph and, to a large extent, cut off the funding that gave still lifers the opportunity to stretch themselves. The magazine format (most, but happily not all) has evolved from a medium that kept us informed of world events through copious amounts of photojournalism to an entertainment vehicle. Long and informed journalism is the precinct of the minority of magazines.
Digital gave us the revolution and forced a new age of communication. Each day has the potential to generate thousands of new images. Advertisers can individually address their message sending each potential purchaser a different picture tailored to their sensibilities. Twenty four hour news, Internet, You tube, Facebook; communication and photography have become inextricably linked. Everyone has access to a camera and advertisers have been quick to recognise that quality of image is irrelevant if you are getting most of your information on a mobile. It’s not to say that digital has not given professional photographers a whole new arsenal of potential. But what it has done is removed in part the income source that is so important if we are to have a photographic industry that is larger than an artisanal minority.
Still life has changed, to which the entries to this year’s competition are testimony. The influences for a still lifer have stretched from Irving Penn, Lester Bookbinder to include Saul Leiter, William Eggleston, Alec Soth. Ernst Haas, Mitch Epstein and Joel Sternfield. The funding for still life is more likely to come from gallery sales than totally commercial projects. Photography has become recognised as an Art Form and its practitioners are recognised contemporary artists.
Until the early fifties there were no commercial galleries showing photography, Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery in New York was the first. The first ever photography exhibition was MOMA’s Walker Evans ‘American Photographs ‘ in 1938. I believe that the 21st century saw photography come of age. We have been pushed there by circumstance. Painting had its old masters, we have Fox Talbot and Irving Penn .
Brian Stewart is a photographer < brianstewart.net > and partner in Artdirectyourlife.com a company that promotes alternative investment advice and curation of collections of photography ,photobooks and 20th Century furniture.