Still Lifes

When considering how to photograph the objects in the archive I had to think hard. I had two options, possible three. The first to take the objects and put them in a studio setting or have them scanned. The second to use the original surroundings as a backdrop. The third would be to have Jinx handle the work for me to photograph.

August Sander was a German portrait photographer who set his subjects in front of a white backdrop to photograph. This was arguably a turning point in portrait photography which has been adopted by studio and fashion photographers. Richard Avedon was another photographer who adopted the same approach. Avedon took portraits of civilians in the American West and set them away from their environment and in front of a white backdrop. A viewer’s eye is naturally and immediately drawn to the subject and examines them from their clothes and appearance.

© Richard Avedon

From this image we can infer that it was taken on large format film with the iconic black framing and that it was taken in a studio setting. Once a viewer examines the person further, they can infer more about the character judged purely on their appearance. A viewer sees the blood over his clothes and arms and the knives; one could suggest he is a butcher. However, as it is black and white we cannot infer how clean his clothes are; whether they have been clean on that day or that they have been used. Details like this from colour would suggest more about the type of person. Nevertheless, this is about as far as one can go; we don’t know whether he has a family, where he lives, anything. We don’t even know what kind of day it is to a degree.

Taking something out of its immediate context and on a white background makes me think of something that is being examined at face value. I feel that I do not want to take George Rodger’s work, diaries etc out of context as they belong as a collection in the archive. I feel that if the artefacts were scanned they would lose a lot of its meaning and would like just like another document scanned by Google. The archive has character and I would be a poor storyteller if I was the one to take that away.


Much like as I discussed when photographing the Books of Dummy Books for the PhotoBook Club, I feel that it is important to have some context around the object. Although just a wooden desk, the desk is once where George Rodger worked himself. Keeping his artefacts in as much context as possible is important; I don’t want to feel as though I am taking anything out and fixing it onto a white background to be examined. Say, like August Sander.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 15.21.06Keeping the natural light and not using any flash meant that I could take true images of how the artefacts are viewed in the archive.  Some of the artefacts are over sixty years old and I would also not want to damage them at all with strong exposures. This light again adds a certain amount of context. I want to viewer to feel as though they are in the archive and not just examining pieces from it.

Arguably, having a wooden table under the artefact doesn’t add a huge amount of context; however, if I was to photograph the artefacts just as they are in the box or drawer then the detail and significance of me choosing that particular item would be diminished. This is why I decided that I should take wider shots of the drawers and so on. I also decided to add the wider shots of Jinx handling prints as well; this adds a character and a physical representation of the voice I am using: Jinx’s.

Jinx handling prints
Jinx handling prints

Much like the way I wish to photograph objects, Shomei Tomatsu’s iconic photograph of his father’s pocket watch is placed on what appears to be a white material. It’s soft and acts like a cushion to honour the object. This watch is the only possession Tomatsu has of his father after he was killed during the Nagasaki bombings in Japan. The object is precious and so its context of being placed on a soft surface builds on this idea of protection and significance. Some would argue that this pocket watch is a portrait of his father; it is the only form of identity his father now has.

In the sense that Freud speaks of how archives are a physical imprint of our memory, George Rodger’s archive, especially his letters and diaries represent him. And now, are him. In a strange sense I am building a portrait of George, portraying his character as a friend, husband and photographer.

©Shomei Tomatsu

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