Sudek, 1956. Simple Still Life
A Simple Still Life (1956) – what is it that makes Sudek’s image so visually appealing?
Sudek’s images have a definite aesthetic – his style is distinctly recognisable. Indeed, it was Sudek’s haunting style of photography which triggered my passion in still-life photography.
The image itself is of the skeletal remains of a decaying leaf, which appears quite dark against a lighter, somewhat patterned or textured background, possibly wood although this is hard to discern.
Typically dark, Sudek’s images are photographic impressions which represent light as a substance which occupies its own space, which has a presence of its own rather than merely influencing the way a three-dimensional subject is shown in a two-dimensional format.
Even in this simple image there is contrast, another trademark of Sudek’s photography being diversity of light values – perhaps better known in contemporary terms as wide dynamic range.
Clarence H. White, 1908. Drops of Rain
The influence of Clarence White is visible in Sudek’s earlier work – highlights glint from within deep shadows cast by dimly lit interiors, the same highlights appear to glow in a manner which can only be described as vaguely Orton-esque.
Sudek was a master of capturing the ambience in an images lighting – highlights seem to retain the character of the natural light which was their source – it takes very little effort to discriminate between images taken in cold, wintry or warm, summery light and the viewer is immediately transported to another place, another time.
I would go as far as to suggest that the highlights in Sudek’s images have an aura.
Hodgson (2013) suggests that we frequently refer to images as being of something whilst failing to recognise that images are also about something. Barthes and Heath (1977) inform us of a signifier, something which is identifiable in an image and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified or the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which an image attempts to communicate to the viewer.
Consequently, Sudek’s images portray the grim reality of everyday life, the banal: but do so with a degree of hopefulness because where there is light, there is hope.
Was Sudek trying to capture, and in doing so describe, or perhaps re-aquaint us, with the notion that beauty lies all around us: in banality, in decay, even in death, even in the skeletal remains of a decaying leaf.
I am intrigued by what it is that distinguishes between subjects that will make visually appealing images, and those that won’t. I am interested in defining this, and if not defining it, then at the very least achieving some clarification.
Sudek is attributed with the following statement:
‘I believe that photography loves banal objects, and I love the life of objects.’
William Thackeray stated:
‘The two engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.’
In terms of relevance to my photographic practice, this is getting to the heart of the issue. Alluding to a subject’s appeal, or perhaps the appeal of an image, lying (at least partly) in the way the subject is portrayed – aesthetically unappealing subjects can appear aesthetically appealing if photographed in an appropriate way.
I think contemporary food photography is overly commercialised. I also think that images of food can exist as works of art in their own right in addition to carrying a message – that is to say, have aesthetic value whilst also having a socio-political theme.
Food imaging, as a genre for photography or painting, is strong enough to stand on its own two feet and entertain us, and robust enough to serve the dual purpose of informing or educating us.
Food photography is a symbol of our disposable, commercial society – food is merely a commodity, any pleasure that it brings being temporary. And yet, in the past, images of food have been so much more, and I think can be, and should be, again.
There is huge appeal in Sudek’s images and each one presents me with a fantastic learning opportunity. I am currently exploring the use of monochrome images in food photography – drawing a direct line between my photography and that of Sudek. I think it is both interesting and informative to explore this concept: black and white images strip away some of the identity provided by colour, and as a result introduce some ambiguity. Additionally, black and white images focus the viewer’s attention on content and meaning – important at the moment as I explore the photographic narrative, and develop my skill in this area.
To return to our original question which, posed alternatively, might become why did Sudek choose to photograph this particular subject? What was it about this subject that captured his attention, that captured his imagination? What quality of this subject made him realise the potential for a strong photographic image?
Have we become desensitised to the beauty that surrounds us – are some, like Sudek, more ‘sensitive’ to the beauty that surrounds us? Did Sudek share an important characteristic with da Vinci – that of retaining a childlike inquisitive nature with regard to the world around them?
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana
Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc (accessed 19 February 2017)