Conceptual Still Life Photography – Michael O’Connor.

Conceptual Still Life Photography by Michael O’Connor takes into consideration the changing dynamics of photography including new ideas, representation and imagination. He considers the trends in still life photography which have changed over time. The use of shadows has become more apparent to make mysterious images for example, or more direct, small lighting rather than large diffused light. Some photographers are also using items to refract light to create more interesting and intriguing set ups. O’Connor also talks about the change in focus, concentrating on smaller, particular parts of the image rather than the whole subject. (O’Connor, 1989: IV – V).

He explains how “no longer does still-life photography simply stand ‘still’ – today still-life photography radiates ‘life’.” (O’Connor, 1989: I). A creative play on words which highlights the continuation of reinvention of the means of still life, and this highlighted to me to make my photos energetic and vibrant. In contrast to this, as I am looking at mental illness which can be debilitating, I might be searching for the opposite in my pictures, still-life that does radiate ‘life’ but the struggle and the strain mental illness causes, to represent how sufferers feel.

“Conceptual photographs are representation of abstract ideas (or emotions) more than they are photographic recordings of physical objects.” (O’Connor, 1989: I). This is exactly what I am trying to achieve through my project by taking these physical objects and exploring the abstract idea of representing emotion through these. O’Connor expresses how powerful can be in sharing a message by “still-life photography has always been particularly well suited for expressing abstract concepts. It is an ideal vehicle for communicating ideas.” (O’Connor, 1989: II). Since considering this project, I have been concerned as to how I could represent the emotions and struggles of someone suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder through still life but this quote supports that it is possible. Through the theme of representation and the power of the photographer through the composition of an image, it is possible to convey a number of messages and ideas, open to the viewer’s understanding. This is supported by how O’Connor explains “there are an almost endless variety of possible viewpoints, and an infinite number of potential backgrounds and settings…the lighting and composition can be completely controlled, and the nuances of lighting and composition can be refined again and again.” (O’Connor, 1989: II). This relates back to my research from Creative Still Life Photography by Bruce Pendleton where it was clear to see the possibilities with still life photography are endless and it is in the photographer’s control to create what he or she wants to.

Whilst discussing the ‘trends’ of still life photography, O’Connor considers how “the photograph appears to be produced without a great deal of premeditation or constraint…It is almost as if the picture is a result of the objects’ own internal energy, and leaves the impression of a scene glimpsed out the corner of the eye.” (O’Connor, 1989: III). Although composition is one of the huge factors of still life photography, depending on the message being created, it is important not to make it too staged. This sense of ‘internal energy’ adds to that ‘real’ feel I previously considered which could be created through natural light. Can we argue that the more natural a still life photo is, the more believable? But arguably, the more composed, dramatic lighting, the better more powerful effect it has? This will be important to consider with what message I want to portray in my photos and what style will work best. At the moment I feel it may be better to keep it simplistic.

One photographer’s work featured in this book which took my interest was Craig Cutler. The book features a couple of double page spreads with a montage of images. This immediately caught my attention because of how chaotic and confusing they felt, with great contrast of colours, geometric and rounded shapes as well as the different themes combined together. This lead me to consider whether this busy set up could work well for my own project, to represent the confused emotions and feelings experienced by those suffering with mental illness. Although I cannot picture in my mind how piecing together my images would work in this form of a montage, it is definitely worth considering experimenting with this.




Following discovering this in the book, I decided to search a little further into Cutler’s work where I came across a collection of still life images. I was fascinated by his approach to these images which were quite varied, some sleek and shiny, some particularly experimental with perspective giving the viewer a new insight into ordinary objects, some with beautiful, strong contrasts of light and dark whilst some capturing intriguing, visually pleasing textures – something I am particularly interested in capturing through my images. I picked out this image of a cactus as it fairly similar to the theme I am following, photographing the outdoors/elements of the seasons. The shapes in this image are captivating, as the straight lines of the spines are striking and lead the eye in all directions around the photograph, giving a heightened sense of danger, as we know the spines are to protect the plant from predators. The image has been lit perfectly to highlight the waxy texture of the cactus, whilst the plain background makes the darker edges of the cactus stand out stronger as the image is lit from the right. Another aspect I found interesting was how Cutler includes the option to ‘view concept’ of each of the images in this still life folder, where you can see his sketches of pre visualisations of the photograph. I think this is so interesting to compare the ‘before and after’ but also allow the viewer to see it as well. You can see from the second sketch, Cutler was already intending to use the light directionally to highlight one side of the cactus while casting the other side in darkness to create an interesting contrast. This style is simplistic but striking, completely different to what caught my eye from Cutler’s work in the first place. It has taught me how to make something eye capturing in different ways and encouraged me to consider this for my own project – experimenting with both will lead me to source what is best for my images and theme.


(Cutler n.d.)


(Cutler n.d.)


(Cutler n.d.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the other work featured in the book by various photographers, with really interesting set ups, lighting and colours. However, as most seemed to be part of an advertising campaign they didn’t seem so relevant to research for my project, neither were many looking at seasonal aspects/landscape. This book did bring to my attention the ever changing ‘traditions’ in still life photography. With it being published in 1989, there is no doubt that style will have also changed since then. It again reiterates the endless possibilities of the still life photograph and the control the photographer has to create a particular message. Each photographer will have their own style and communication and this will continuously change the trends surrounding still life photography. It also helped introduce possible styles to adapt to my practice, an intense and busy montage of images or eye catching and simple images.

Cutler, C. (2015) CRAIG CUTLER [online] available from <; [26 January 2015]

Cutler, C. (n.d.) Still Life Cacti [online] available from <; [26 January 2015]

Cutler, C. (n.d.) Still Life Cacti Concept [online] available from <; [26 January 2015]

Cutler, C. (n.d.) Still Life Cacti Concept 1 [online] available from <; [26 January 2015]

O’Connor, M. (1989) Conceptual Still Life Photography. New York: New York Gold.


~ by victoriasimkissphotography on January 26, 2015.

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