Dessert, about 1923. Frederick G Tutton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media museum SSPL (the copyright of this image is not known bu the NMM is keen to hear from possible copyright holders).
“The National Media Museum has wanted to make an exhibition on still lifes for a long time,” says Brian Liddy, the museum’s curator of collections access. “It’s a classic genre but it hasn’t been addressed for a while. I think people have forgotten how interesting it is – old-fashioned photographs of food and flowers shot against a flat background might sound boring, but the roots of the genre are in 17th century Dutch painting and are all about death, mortality, and the transitory nature of earthly pleasures. Still lifes may take seemingly simple subjects, but they deal with some of the great questions of art.”
Liddy has used work from the museum’s collections to curate a still life exhibition, titled Art of Arrangement: Photography and the Still Life Tradition. As the name suggests, the show traces the ways in which photography and still life have intersected rather than sticking rigidly to it, and includes both Roger Fenton’s classic arrangements from the 1860s, and a documentary shot taken at a Charles and Diana street party in 1981 by Chris Killip. “It shows a trestle table with half-eaten sandwiches and left-over drinks that seem to suggest the party is over,” says Liddy. “In retrospect, it could be read as a comment on their marriage, or a suggestion it was doomed from the start. Hopefully, as people make their way through the exhibition, the idea of still life will feed into the way they read the images and they will start to see things not necessarily intended by the photographer.”
Liddy says he’s started to see interesting still lifes everywhere since putting the show together – shops create perfect still lifes to sell their groceries, he points out, so much so he considered including a commercial photography section. In the end he didn’t, but he did include a commercial shot by Madame Yevonde, and the image below was taken by a photographer called Frederick Tutton, a professional photographer who may have worked in advertising. He exhibited extensively with the Royal Photographic Society, always working in colour.
“Still life is an obvious subject for colour photography because you can juxtapose very bright objects and fruits,” says Liddy. Tutton died tragically young, but his immaculately frozen time capsule is on show for all to see.
Art of Arrangement: Photography and the Still Life Tradition is on show at The Holburne Museum in Bath until 07 May. The exhibition is a touring show arranged by the National Media Museum, and an expanded version of it will go on show there from late September running until the following March. Visit www.holburne.org andwww.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk.
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