What Is Still Life?
(brisk rhythmic music)
Here we are in Tuscany, in my studio, which is an old barn, probably 250 years old or so. And I make still lifes in this studio. (brisk rhythmic music) Still lifes are something that I have never done before. It's one of these things that's come to me late in life, and I feel like it's another adventure in the story of photography and the way it unfolded and has interested me in my life for 55 years. You know, I've made still lifes in the past that are assembled by the hands of eight or ten other people. I'm sure you've seen these yourself. You have dinner with friends. You get up from the table to say goodnight, and there on the table are the wine glasses with little rubies in the bottom, or the plates where desert was at, or glasses, or flowers. And saying goodbye to a table like that is often an astonishing observation. And it'd be worth it to stop, if you have your camera with you, which I hope you do, and make a photograph of that, because it is something ...
made by the hands of many people. In some ways, that observation has led me to wanting to make still lifes in which I manage and move the objects and engage with them in a way that gives me a chance to recognize something about the individual identity of each object as well as the way they play together. Now in a little while I'll show you how I go about making a still life. But I want you to consider a few things on your own. I'm sure every one of you has, at some point, picked up something you found in a junk store, or a antique store, or at a friend's house, or something you found on a beach, a shell maybe. And you've just picked it up and turned it around, and suddenly, one side of it delivers a kind of an exciting gasp. You say (gasping quickly), "Oh," as if you were surprised at what you found there. To me, that is the lesson about how you make a photograph in general, that sense of surprise. But also the delight we take from discovering that any object as you turn it around might present to you a face that has all of the sweetness, the mystery, the length of time this thing has been alive. It conveys itself through this dented side, or this beautifully patinaed piece of color around it. It has age. It has a story. It intrigues and invites you. And it's that attitude that I bring to the objects that I've found. And I find a way of putting them on the table in which they can relate to each other as if they're in conversation with each other. And so we'll stop in a moment and make a still life in which you could see me struggling for meaning or having a sudden understanding that something is beautiful beyond my expectations. Photography is about the surprise and discovery. In a moment, in an instant, something reveals itself to you, and to you alone. And by recognizing it and embracing it you begin the journey into whatever you're going to do, whether it's a portrait, a still life, a landscape, the food on your plate. Whatever you come across that you feel is a revelation stop for a second. Experience it. Take it in. It will fire up your brain. Your creative moment will be visible to you. And that's how photography is made. Instantaneous recognition and then a commitment on your part to pick up your camera and make a photograph of that moment. That's still life. Wherever you find yourself, that's where you are. (rolling piano music) A few years ago I was making a book on Provence, and I was in the South of France. And one Saturday there was a (speaks in foreign language), which is a kind of yard sale that the French have. But they empty their attics in the springtime. And I was walking through the little town, and I see some junk on the ground, but interesting junk. And I'm not a collector, basically, but this junk stopped me, and I bent down. I picked up this object. Now it looks like nothing, you know? It's pointy. It's slightly oval. It's got a hook on the back. It's kind of worn out here, there are holes in it. But I picked it up, and it felt good in my hands. And I thought, wow, what is this? And I asked the person, "What is this thing?" And she said in French, which I don't speak very well, "Guess." I said, "I can't quite figure it out." And she said, "The men in the vineyards hung this "on their belt, and then they put their scissors "with which they cut the grapevines, "they put the scissors in here. "And that's what's given it the hole in here, "from so many years of the points being dropped in." And I picked this up and held it in my hands and felt a kind of electricity. I have to say, it was as if the thing communicated. It had a function, but it also had a presence. It had a kind of solemn fortitude. It had a pointy head. It had shoulders. It has a back and a bottom. Suddenly this object had a slight kind of transformation for me. And I thought, I'm gonna take this home. I would like to put it in my still life setup and look at and make a portrait of it. Now, you know, it's crazy to think that some object can have anima, can come to life, can be animated. It's a dead thing that someone was going to throw away, but it spoke to me in such a way that I rescued it from oblivion and I put it on my tabletop. And I've made quite a number of pictures of this with other objects and by itself. (brisk rhythmic music) If you're willing to play that game when you're out in the world, you can find objects that speak to you, and you alone. Somebody else will look at it and they'll just see a piece of junk. You pick it up, and you say, "Why do I feel this sudden affection for this, "or this sudden curiosity and interest?" Those are the instincts that are at the heart of making photographs. They're about appreciating the gifts that the world give to you. And then you take that gift, if you're interested in still life, and you bring it in, and you play with it. When you look at the great sculptures in the history of art, take Alexander Calder, who's the man who invented the mobile, he basically was a kind of a big boy who loved playing with metal objects and cutting them out in shapes and hanging them and tapping them so they would move around. That's play. And artists play, serious play. And when you play with your mind wide open, you'll find things that will speak to you and create just your kind of vision. (rolling piano music) Now look at this. This is just a scoop. Somebody used this scoop for I don't know how many years. This was in France also. And I believe they must have been scooping colored earth, because I was in the part of France where the earth is red. And I think they used this again and again to kind of measure some kind of dusty material. But when I saw this, this beautiful ... It's handmade just like this is handmade. Somebody did this and then used it for 50 years or 100 years. And the color that remains inside, look how beautiful that color is. When I bring these objects together, this black thing and this beautiful, gray, speckled, colorful scoop, I have in my hands things that other people made a long time ago. They bring with them a bit of history. Who knows what their associations will be if they were sitting on a table lying down next to each other, or behind each other? So the game of seeing is played wherever you are, whether it's out on the street working with crowds, whether it's in your family making a portrait of all the people in your family. How do you move them around like still life objects? Can you ask them to sit and stand and move in the space so that you make something interesting, instead of that same old picture you've made and seen a million times. That's what this course I'm teaching you is all about. How do you enliven the ordinary days of your lives so that you can pick up something and suddenly be excited and interested in it? Photography is really a tool for us to go out into the world and find bits and pieces, and moments and objects, and people and places, and time and light, and the sea and the mountains, and those. Everything is photographable. All you have to do is have the interest and the appetite. And if you do, you will surprise yourself and you will surprise everyone who you show your photographs to. They'll probably say to you, "You made that?" (brisk rhythmic music) The question always comes up. And it will certainly come up for you, which is where do I make a still life? What's my background? Where am I gonna put these objects, or the fruit, or the shoes, or whatever it is you're going to photograph? And I say find a place that's interesting for you. It could be a shiny surface. It could be a dull, old, weather-beaten surface. It could be a piece of fabric. It could be pieces of wood that you've assembled in a kind of collage. Really, the background and the surface on which you put your objects could be anything that pleases you. I think what it really comes down to is what looks good around these objects, and what gives you pleasure? If it doesn't give you pleasure, don't use it. Why would you wanna make something out of a background or an object that annoys you? Go for the feeling all the time. (rolling piano music) Just about every artist studio is favored by a northern light. I've been in Morandi's studio, Cezanne's studio, Picasso's studio. There's always a big northern window, because that light doesn't have sun in it most of the day, and it just sheds a kind of overall ambient light. So it's great for still lifes. But you don't always find a northern light. And I think that light for a still life is really up to you to determine just what it is that pleases you and describes the objects that you've chosen in the most interesting way. It could be a sharp, hard, cold light. It could be a soft, warm, lamp light. It could be sunlight coming through the window bouncing off the floor and coming up onto the table. You have to see the light. Look, this course is about opening up your minds so that you see the light everywhere you are in photography. But in still life, the light that you find yourself responding to, trust that. Put your still life together and see how it looks in that light. And if you think you need a little more light on one side than the other, put a piece of tinfoil there or a white piece of paper or another light so you could bounce a little light back in and open up a shadow on some side. You don't have to have a ton of equipment, really. You just have to have a kind of immediate understanding of what it is you need. And you look around. How can I make this better? Oh, I'll borrow the kitchen cloth, and I'll hang it over here. And it will bounce some light back. You can be as, what, creative as you wish in any situation. And you will surprise yourself. And it will give you the kind of immediate pleasure of, wow, I solved that problem without having to go to the store and buying some big nylon thing I gotta stretch on a frame. It's really in your hands.