Today, while talking with a photographer friend of mine, she said that historically there have been two explanations for still life photography. The romantic reason is to put a halt to our mortality, giving us the illusion that things (i.e. us!) remain stable over time (which of us hasn’t fallen for that one?). The rational reason is to create an image for study, as we see with botanical and zoological books.
And suddenly I remembered a photography exhibit I saw some thirty years ago, made up of forty or more polaroids by my favorite movie director, Andrei Tarkovskij. Each polaroid stood alone in a frame with Tarkovskij’s hand-written notes added underneath, usually describing the encounter. One featured two Russian farmers standing in a field, made especially memorable thanks to the caption in which the director writes that the couple had never seen a photograph before. After viewing the developed polaroid, they asked him point-blank, “Why would anyone want to stop time?”
In deference to that couple, perhaps there’s a third good reason for still life photography: a spiritual reason. In this frenetic world of constant movement, a still life image can help us slow down our thoughts, our idea of time, even our breathing… and help us focus on non-movement––for a change. It doesn’t slow the world down… but it can slow us down. It helps us appreciate moments of stillness in our own lives, magical moments that otherwise might pass unobserved: a cloud, a reflection, a leaf, a shadow. That would be a good reason, wouldn’t it?… helping us turn our backs on relentless activity, helping us relocate that still, divine point… within.
In other words, “Be still, and know that I am God,” as it says in Psalm 46:10.
So here’s a note of appreciation to all you still life photographers. May that stillness you felt when you clicked the shutter be passed over to the rest of us, one slowed-down viewer at a time. Thank you!