Memento mori, a Latin expression, is a reminder of death's inevitability, a reminder that is at the heart of the still life painting tradition. Still life, literally “dead nature” in French, is rooted in the Middle Ages and ancient Greco-Roman art. Sixteenth and seventeenth century still life painters in the Vanitas tradition communicated the impermanence of life through canvas. These visual feasts were infused with potent symbolism that spoke of the brevity of life and profound futility of earthly existence. Skulls, pocket-watches, and the dripping wax of waning candles reminded viewers that time on earth is ephemeral. Rotting foods and other fading sensory delights carried a moral message about the short-lived nature of pleasure. Objects from the natural world were leveraged to convey different messages – the butterfly, transformation, the ant, hard work. At a time when exploration was driving the fetishization of the exotic, still lifes elevated the everyday and the ordinary.
The realities of our digital world have made the core message embedded in the still life more relevant than ever. This series of still life imagery, follows in the footsteps of the masters of the Baroque period, harnessing the symbolism of objects to illustrate the fleeting quality of time and the transience of life. These compositions focus on light, color, texture, and atmosphere, and are a stark contrast to the saturated, high-volume of our fast-paced modern life. Viewers are invited to meditate on the dignity, beauty, and purpose in each object, all of which evoke one essential point. This too shall pass. The still life captures what is constant in the natural world, including the inevitable truth of our impermanence. The images in our virtual lives reflect the cult of ‘the moment’ – where sensory pleasures are captured, elevated, and shared at a dizzying rate. This onslaught can cause us to conflate ubiquity with importance, as we share in the cult of the fleeting that has made its house of worship on social media networks.
These still life images aim not to grab your attention, but hold your attention. In the age of distraction, they allow us to focus on what is essential. They are a reminder that we are ships passing in the night, and must mindfully choose how we devote our brief and precious time on earth.
Images created while testing FujiFilm's impressive GFX 50s Medium Format Digital Camera.