No More Lazy Still-Life Photography, Please

Any 13-year-old with a camera flash can throw some pineapples onto a brightly-colored backdrop and call it art, but that doesn't mean there's not life in the genre yet.

by Matthew Leifheit
Mar 6 2015, 10:10pm

Photo by Jan Groover, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.

Still-life photography has become an epidemic. As a quick scroll through Tumblr will tell you, any 13-year-old with a camera flash can throw some pineapples onto a brightly-colored backdrop and call it art.

Not that all of these photos are bad—the British Journal of Photography featured a still life by Catherine Losing and Anna Lomax on the cover of its most recent issue, and the FOAM Museum's show Under Construction: New Directions in American Photography (which opens in Brooklyn next week) is primarily composed of studio work. I myself curated a show on the topic of visually indulgent still-life photography at the Camera Club of New York in 2013, and VICE's 2010 photo issue was still life–themed, with a Roe Ethridge cover featuring a moldy bowl of fruit. Writer Christopher Schreck was the first person (to my knowledge) to put this trend into words, in his 2012 article "On the Still-Life New Wave."

This resurgence of still life photography makes sense—subjects are cyclical, like everything else. Ways of photographing go in and out of style, and I like that most of these new photographers are generally not trying to imitate the look of Dutch still life paintings, as so many have before. Even so, I have heard older photographers call the trend cowardly. Some claim it represents an unwillingness on the part of young photographers to go out and confront the real world. My problem is not that still-life photography is cowardly, but that most of the still lifes being made today are extremely lazy. This genre has a history in painting and other media upon which to draw, but its photographic lineage is rich as well. For this reason, it's been encouraging to see a number of photography shows cropping up that focus on the great historical masters of the photographic still life. On view now are two exhibitions of incredibly relevant still life photographers, both of them women known for the work they produced in the 80s and 90s.

Documentation of Barbara Kasten working in her studio, New York, New York, 1983. Photo: Kurt Kilgus. Courtesy of the artist.

Barbara Kasten: Stages, will remain on view at ICA Philadelphia through August 16. Although Kasten is recognized as a pioneering photographer and interdisciplinary artist, this is the first-ever major survey of her work. Looking back, her intricate studio constructions may remind viewers of a certain age of the funky-fresh designs of Trapper Keeper™ covers, but it's important to remember this was all done in-camera.

Barbara Kasten, Construct 32, 1986, Cibachrome, 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist

New York is currently host to dual exhibitions of seminal photographer Jan Groover's work currently being staged by Janet Borden, Inc. On view only through this Sunday, March 8, at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the ADAA's presumptuously titled art fair, The Art Show, are large-scale vintage prints of Groover's studio constructions and kitchen still lifes. This is the work she is best known for, but Borden has staged a simultaneous exhibition of Groover's large-format street photographs of Brooklyn, called Industrials, at her gallery's permanent residence on Prince Street in Soho. In a 1997 catalogue essay, MoMA photography curator John Szarkowski wrote of Groover, "Only a fool would argue with the success of so excellent an artist." It's interesting to compare Groover's gaze turned onto the real world versus the studio, if for no other reason than to marvel at the versatility of her genius.

Jan Groover, Untitled, 1978. 16x20" C-print, courtesy of Janet Borden, Inc.

One of the first strictly fine art photography galleries in New York, Janet Borden, Inc. has seen trends in the medium come and go. So I went to the Armory to talk to Janet to get her thoughts on the work for sale, as well as the current state of still-life photography.

VICE: Tell us about Jan Groover.
Janet Borden: Jan Groover is the best still-life photographer of the latter half of the 20th century. After [Edward] Weston, and [Edward] Steichen... John Szarkowski of MoMA wrote that, repeatedly. She was born in Plainfield, New Jersey (the same town that Irving Penn was born in, I might add). She was originally trained as a painter at the Hartford Art School, where she eventually became a teacher. She married Bruce Boice, who was a painter. He showed at Sonnabend Gallery.

Then she just started doing photographs, but thinking about the same things. She started making triptychs, which is a format that Boice also liked to use. We sold one to the Met a couple years ago, when she was still alive. She would stand in one place, and wait for a blue car, a red car, and a yellow car to come by. After she got tired of doing triptychs, she didn't know what to do, and her husband literally said, "Go photograph the kitchen sink." He managed to shut her up, but she took him quite literally, and started photographing just the shit that was in the sink.

Jan Groover, 8x10" platinum print, courtesy of Janet Borden, Inc.

That's what I know her for—the kitchen implements.
And then she put it in the studio and started making these arrangements. The amazing thing is how abstract the photographs are without being abstract. That's conceptually a really hard thing to do.

They're also very complicated camera techniques. I remember in large-format class, we would look at Jan's photographs and try to deconstruct how she had made them.
She learned how to do platinum printing, and made a lot of platinum prints. Since that requires contact printing, it was good she used a large format camera, an 8x10 or 5x7.

Jan Groover, 30x40" C-print, courtesy of Janet Borden, Inc.

I'm specifically interested in you showing this work now, because there's a trend of young photographers making still lifes.

Have you noticed people looking to Groover as a model for this kind of work?
Walead Beshty did that show that was at Petzl last summer, and he borrowed some Groovers for that. So she's become this grand old dame. Wallspace did a show last month that included her with some younger people. I don't know that they're interested in the same things. I love Instagram and all the wacky stuff, but it's not the same as this kind of formalism.

A view camera also allows you to draw with space in a different way than a phone camera or digital camera does.
And I do like a big 8x10 negative.

People are losing track of how large-format photography looks. It looks different.
They don't know it because they don't see it. Unless you're trained, you might not recognize the difference. People cannot believe that the negatives are actually this size.

Jan Groover, 8x10" platinum print, courtesy of Janet Borden, Inc.

Platinum printing is a contact printing process, so the negatives are exactly the size of the print. This is a photo I studied in art school. There was a lot of discussion about the way the flower lines up with the table.

There's also a Barbara Kasten show up right now in Philadelphia.
Right, at the ICA. Its curator stopped by last night.

Jan Groover, 30x40" C-print, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.

I mention this because it seems like there is a revival in interest in this kind of work lately. Are people more interested in the masters of still life photography these days?
I think that's true. I have a theory about genres, that it's sort of a sine wave. Recently people were interested in the landscape stuff, like New Topographics. Portraits will be next.

Vintage prints of some of Jan Groover's best still life work can be seen at The Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory though this Sunday, March 8, at Janet Borden's booth. Her Industrials will be on view at Janet Borden, Inc. through March 28.

Barbara Kasten: Stages will be on view at Philadelphia's Institute for Contemporary Art (on the UPenn campus) through August 16. The installation looks really spectacular.

Follow Matthew Leifheit on Twitter. See some of his collaborative still life work in last year's VICE photo issue.