“The Art of Arrangement: Photography and the Still Life Tradition” – A Review

The exhibit explores some of the central arguments that have surrounded photography throughout its lifetime, especially during its early years. The title of the exhibition reveals the direct comparison this exhibition makes between photography and fine art, in addition to its focus on the still life tradition. In order to compare the two, there are some paintings within the exhibition, aiming to show the parallels and overlaps between the genres. Through discussing some of the photographs displayed, I hope to review the exhibition and explore the ideas and concepts which are raised.

The use of early photographs such as ‘A Still Life with Ivory Tankard and Fruit’ by Roger Fenton highlights the ways in which photography borrowed the conventions and formal arrangements of the still life tradition. Fenton’s photograph is a clear commentary on the genre, with the over-ripe fruit to the left representing the shortness of life, and the overturned, dark tankard suggesting indulgence and extravagance. These themes perfectly compare to those explored by the painters of the still life genre, allowing the viewer to compare photography to fine art. Parallels of arrangement, subject, and themes within this one photograph further highlight the direct similarities between the two, which appears to be the main objective of the exhibition.

A Still Life with Ivory Tankard, Fenton, c.1860

This comparison draws attention to the common debate that has always existed in regards to whether photography is art or not; a theme which remains throughout the exhibition. This discussion revolves around whether photography can achieve more, or less, than painting. The two genres have often been in direct competition with each other in this regard, and although the exhibition does not posit an opinion on this debate, it clearly acknowledges its existence. The inclusion of a still life painting allows the viewer to draw their own comparisons in this regard, showing that the organisers feel this is an important question to consider.

The still life photographs as depicted by Fenton are clearly set and staged photographs, and do not attempt to suggest otherwise. One of the key debates within photography is regarding its’ ability to accurately portray a scene as it happened, that it cannot (and must not) lie to the viewer. The idea of this relates to its’ documentary role, in recording the truth of events- a reality that was once definitively present. The staging of photographs pulls this ideal into confusion. Is a photograph any less real if it is staged? Does it have less value? What does it allow the photographer to add to the photograph? These questions are raised by the exhibition, and the inclusion of ‘A dead North Vietnamese soldier and his plundered belongings’ is an example of this. McCullins commentary on this particular photograph he shot stated that staging was not something he made a habit of, and he had chosen to display the young man’s belongings in order to make it a more effective political statement. Despite being considered as photojournalism, its comparison can be justified as the staging of the photo has parallels with the careful arranging of the still life genre, as well as containing many of the same themes, such as death and decay. The still life tradition often emphasised the shortness of life, which is clearly being commented upon in McCullins photograph, along with the idea of wasting life. It could also be considered as a macabre translation of the still life tradition, and be considered as closer to the French term ‘nature morte’. This photograph also reveals how the exhibition is moving away from a direct comparison between painting and photography, and is beginning to ask specific questions relating to photography as a genre itself.

A dead North Vietnamese soldier and his plundered belongings, Don McCullin, 1968

The exhibition displays the use of staging within photography, and demonstrates how it has been used throughout its’ history in order to produce a good photograph. Photography is thus likened to art through the use of art techniques in order to increase the aesthetic value or impact of the photograph. The exhibition comments upon the debate regarding staged photographs, but does not seem to give an explicit judgement on whether it is or is not appropriate to photography as a genre. Due to the ways in which the exhibition approaches specific themes, I believe it is arguing that photography clearly utilises the tools of the art world, and that it is suggesting that photography has a place within the art world.

The inclusion of self-portraits also suggests a movement away from the still life genre, as these would not be found within that particular painting tradition. However, self-portraits have been included as some highlight the themes and symbolism common to the still life genre. Again, this exposes how photography has used that tradition for its own purposes. Photography throughout the exhibition is considered through the conventions of art, especially in regards to the emphasis placed upon the ‘subversion’ and ‘adaptation’ of fine art techniques. The exhibition is drawn to a close by displaying the use of these themes within photography, and is clearly demonstrated by the use of ‘Self Portrait with image of Hecate’, by Madame Yevonde. The use of the butterfly within the photo conveys the idea of time being fleeting, and that life only represents a small fragment of time. The use of the frame emphasises the vanity of human life, and the value placed upon appearances, which is comparable to the use of mirrors in the still life genre. Along with the use of similar themes, the staging, planning, and composition of the piece also draw comparisons with the still life tradition. In particular, the objects situated in front of the frame resemble the arrangements of fruit that can be seen in many paintings.

Self Portrait with image of Hecate’, Madame Yevonde, 1940

This photograph also draws the exhibition back to the viewpoint of seeing photography through, and as, art. This comparison was explicit within the title of the exhibition, and through the use of photographs selected for their comparisons and similarities to still life paintings firmly placed photography within the art world. The arguments towards the centre of the exhibit move away from directly comparing painting and photography, but remain focused upon the theme of staging and arrangement through the use of photographs which highlight these ideas.

In conclusion, the exhibition is excellent, and addresses a number of the central questions directed towards photography and its role throughout the years. The exhibition fluidly raises these questions and guides the viewer through a selection of photographs illustrating them, allowing conclusions and opinions to be developed on their own. The exhibition cannot be criticised in the content, as it perfectly addresses what is laid out in the title. However, I believe personally that there was not enough consideration of photography in its own right, as it cannot simply be seen through the lens of fine art, despite the unarguable overlaps between the two.

‘The Art of Arrangement: Photography and the Still Life Tradition’ is on show at the National Media Museum in Bradford until the 10th February 2013. The exhibition has also been shown elsewhere as part of the National Media Museum’s touring exhibition.

Word Count- 1374


‘A dead North Vietnamese soldier and his plundered belongings’, http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/6663, accessed 11/12/2012

‘Buon Fresco: The fine art of Charles Gilbert Kapsner’, http://www.buonfresco.com/vanitas.shtml, accessed 18/01/2013

Christie’s, http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/fede-galizia-a-glass-compote-with-peaches-4684711-details.aspx?intObjectID=4684711, accessed 18/01/2013

‘Don McCullin: the art of seeing’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/nov/15/don-mccullin, accessed 18/01/2013

‘Self Portrait with image of Hecate’, http://www.badreputation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Madame-Yevonde-Self-Portrait.jpeg, accessed 16/12/2012

The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/feb/13/fruit-still-life-roger-fenton, accessed 29/12/2012

The National Media Museum, http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/AboutUs/PressOffice/2012/October/ArtOfArrangementPhotographyAndTheStillLifeTradition.aspx, accessed 18/01/2012


Norbert Schneider, Still Life, (Taschen, Italy, 2003)

Anne W. Lowenthal (ed.), The Object as Subject: Studies in the Interpretation of Still Life, (Princeton University press, New Jersey, 1996)

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