In the first coronavirus lockdown of 2020, we became obsessed with washing our hands, sanitising our groceries, and arranging each and every individual petal in a stunning swell of blooming flowers into still life photographs, dabbing on dewy jewels of water with an eyedropper and balancing taxidermied insects precariously on buds and leaves.
It’s possible that some of us did that last activity more than others.
I think it really started with Jamie Beck, an American photographer living in Provence. Faced with the cancellation of shows and jobs, she committed to a photo a day during lockdown. It was the beginning of the #IsolationCreation series, and it unleashed unimaginable beauty into the world. Most (not all) of Beck’s photos were delicately displayed still life masterpieces, using whatever flora was growing around her locally, nestled into glassware or built stem-by-stem and leaf-by-leaf with an assortment of construction tricks (and, as we would all come to learn, a bit of Photoshop).
This photographic movement picked up speed, and Instagram exploded with sumptuous celebrations of seasonality, flowers, and an Old World aesthetic that led to us all scouring antique stores and charity shops for props.
I eagerly put together my first still life in March of 2020, not many days after the start of the #IsolationCreation Instagram trend. Up to this point, my camera had been a means of documenting life around me, in a fairly normal way – family photos, holiday views, and the occasional artsy snap. If photography is a type of non-fiction, I was doing the equivalent of summative journal entries (with the odd poem in the margins).
I was rather stunned into disappointment when that first still life of mine looked like a pile of flaming crap (I deleted the pictures in a stroppy rage). I didn’t appreciate how little I knew about this craft. I have an obsessive nature, so naturally I obsessed. Over a long spring and summer during which I googled the fuck out of ‘how to take/create/edit painterly still life photographs’, and pushed myself to create as much as a working mum can, I got to a place of amateur understanding with the genre.
I have also mused on two things with regard to the non-fiction nature of this type of photography:
The first is that some types of photography will never neatly fit into the binary categories of fiction and non-fiction, just as creative non-fiction plays that same game. Whether a single photograph can ever be a true act of nonfiction, I don’t have the time or space to explore here. But most still life photography straddles a magical boundary in which very real and tangible objects are so purposefully crafted into scenes that are almost a slice of life. The viewer is seeing a floral arrangement in a vase, or a fruit bowl on a table, so ordinary as to have been something which one has wandered past and almost not noticed. In truth, the photographer has painstakingly inched each dropped petal to the right place, pinned leaves into beautifully curling leading lines, and coaxed the flowers to turn towards the light. They have brushed olive oil highlights onto the grapes, torn open a clementine in such a way as to showcase every juicy aril, and have ensured all elements have been considered within the frame.
Those intricate choices made by the photographer are almost always to tell the viewer an authentic story. The stories that arose out of the #IsolationCreation images were tales from all over the world, expressing the angst of lockdown through curated things and celebrating the cyclical changing of the seasons in a world that seemed to be unchangingly treacherous. It was a feeling of conveying a non-fictional mood and moment, but through a quasi-fictional means.
Placing every item so intentionally reminds me of the preciseness that comes when writing short or flash narrative. Rather than an economy of words, the still life photographer works with an economy of objects. A writer of non-fiction is obviously unable to include all the facts and feelings of life within their word space; the sense of reality or authenticity comes from the author due to their arrangement of fragments of the ‘whole story’. The still life photographer must similarly arrange their composition with this sense of intention.
And at the end of the day, these constructions mostly exist. Yes, Photoshop comes into play – post-processing in still life photography is like the writer editing for grammar. It adds polish and enhances the image.
The second point to note is that the medium of Instagram is something special. I am eternally grateful to the wealth of Instagram photographers like Jamie Beck who not only shared their art, but also their process. They filled Instagram stories with behind-the-scenes peeks into many steps of their photography, from the selection of each prop to the tools that keep it all together (museum wax! flower frogs!). I learned more from Instagram stories about using Photoshop in post-processing than I ever did in a tutorial. As they say, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. As artists began to document and share their post-processing techniques, I learned more about what was possible to achieve (and I have mentally stored away many other tidbits of knowledge until I’m good enough to need them).
I mention this because it is an extension of the non-fictionality of this movement. The photographs were not the only art which people pushed out into the universe. For many of the artists in the #IsolationCreation fold, it was (and now is, as standard) an integral part of production. A reality show, of sorts, linking each photograph, and just as carefully curated as the composition. Each snippet lets us in on another delicious detail of the authorial intention. Do we mind that they are stories told with the voices of unreliable narrators? I am not sure we do; after all, we, too, are on Instagram, unreliably fabricating a creative non-fictive persona of ourselves. We are simply editing ourselves for a specific audience, telling only the truths that matter to that particular plot.
Dr Rose Guy received her doctorate from the University of Chichester in 2017, for her thesis exploring the food details in literary fairy tales. She now works in university student support, and fits in creative pursuits wherever possible.