Two years ago, Diane Seuss released her poetry collection “Still Life With Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl,” named for a canvas painted by Rembrandt sometime around 1639. One of the poems, “Still Life With Turkey,” about a different, unspecified canvas, likely an 18th-century work by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, begins with the lines “The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot, / the cord binding it just below the stiff trinity / of toes, each with its cold bent claw.” And then: “My eyes are in love with it as they are in love with all / dead things that cannot escape being looked at.”
Death, loss, mortality, the beauty and pain of impermanence — these are the subjects that have animated the still life since the apogee of the genre’s prestige in Rembrandt’s era, when what had long been considered a low form of artistic expression reached new heights of popularity in an increasingly urban society. Also known by the Latin word vanitas (meaning emptiness, futility or vanity) or the French phrase nature morte (dead nature), modestly sized domestic still lifes were loaded, like Seuss’s poem, with symbolism and allegory. Studies of skulls and mirrors, of half-burnt candles and dead waterfowl, of rotting fruit and wilting flowers spoke to the passage of time and the inevitability of death, to human vanity and religious transcendence, and to the fine line between reality and illusion.
Two hundred years later, still life became the ideal genre for the first experiments with photography, a medium that, on account of long exposure times, required subjects that could sit absolutely still. Many of the earliest extant photos and daguerreotypes from the 1830s and ’40s replicate classic still-life paintings in black and white: decadent piles of tropical fruit, almost indecent in their exuberance, and eccentric arrangements of unrelated objects. As technology evolved, photography’s scope quickly expanded to include botanical and ethnographic records, bourgeois portraiture and its macabre cousin, the Victorian death portrait, a literal nature morte in which the recently deceased were posed and captured for posterity, often alongside their living relatives. Because the dead didn’t move, they often looked more real than the smudged, ghostly figures of the living. Still life, in photography as in painting, has always flirted with the surreal.
These are, of course, surreal times. Death and decay are everywhere, not only in our hospitals but in the economic and political systems that brought us to this moment of crisis. For those confined to their homes, surrounded by the same walls and the same objects every day, the scope of daily experience has narrowed vertiginously, the constant churn of hours, days and weeks going from crushingly reliable to unsettlingly abstract. There is hardly any mode left but intimate observation, which is so often a portal to the uncanny; repeat a word enough times and it invariably becomes gibberish.
It’s in revealing their strangeness, though, that objects, like words, become mutable, their form and utility no longer inherent but inferred, gleaned from context or subtly, silently taught. Even Seuss’s dead turkey can be read differently if examined long enough, a dead thing that cannot escape being looked at suddenly revived, as it is in the final lines of the poem: “But the Turkey, I am in love with it […] / and the glorious wings, archangelic, spread / as if it could take flight, but down, / downward, into the earth.” Despite its name and its history, then, the still life is not, ultimately, about stillness. It’s about transformation. Decay and death, the historic subjects of the nature morte, are not events but processes. By freezing fruit as it rots or candles as they burn themselves out, the still life abstracts those processes and reveals their beauty.
To capture this transformative time, T asked five photographers to create still-life images of their own, using only objects in their immediate surroundings. The results were as varied in style and tone as you might expect, but the preoccupations with life and death, confinement and freedom were consistent throughout, as they have been for centuries. These are images that explore both the boundaries of an ancient form and the other, quieter message that has always been embedded within it: that the objects in the frame are not dead yet, only changing — that there is life, still.
Pictures taken in New Canaan, Conn.
I grew up in Shanghai but have been in the United States now for nine years. I lived in Seattle for four years to pursue a business degree but realized that I wasn’t actually interested in that at all, so in 2016, I totally changed direction and started college again in New York at the School of Visual Arts. I went with the dream of becoming a fashion photographer, so I started to take photos on the street, and that helped me to develop a sense of what colors and objects and forms I liked. Then I started bringing things to the studio to build my own world there — an imaginary world with no flaws.
I’m lucky to be staying with a friend during all of this at his house out in New Canaan, Conn. My influences — Russian Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism — are the same, but I used to go thrift shopping every week to get things for pictures, and now I deal with whatever is available around me. Those limits can be good, though: If the playground is too big, I’ll get lost. For my still lifes, I usually set a timer for an hour, and if I don’t finish the picture in that time, I’ll give myself another 30 minutes and that’s it. For still-life images, you’re always chasing perfection, and there’s just no end to the possible compositions.
For these two pictures, the total time was about 90 minutes each. In the picture with the fly swatter, I was trying to capture the way I’m imagining this whole situation, with the snails standing in for how time is moving right now and the yellow dot there as the sun. There’s this feeling of being stuck inside and imagining the world outside. In the glove-egg-bacon picture are objects I’m using every day in quarantine; they’re normal things that have become extraordinary under the circumstances.
Pictures taken in Long Eddy, N.Y.
When T asked me to participate in this, as a point of reference, I looked at the Polaroid series that André Kertész did following the death of his wife in the late 1970s. It took place in his home and was the result of him focusing obsessively on things he felt connected to. During this time of quarantine and being confined to our homes, I wanted to create a similar feeling of intense attention. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of monumentality in the still life: the extreme focus on and celebration of that object, whether it’s something humble and everyday or rare and exquisite. I also wanted to put forth this idea of home as both a sanctuary and a cage, less about polished objects and more about the details that make our space ours, that create the notion of what home is.
I chose the objects — an hourglass and a resin skull — with that duality in mind, because I’m feeling safer for not being in the city but also isolated and worried about family and friends who can’t be with me. I’m attracted to the history of still-life painting and the connections that these objects have to that vocabulary. But to photograph them in a looser way using my environment, to add their meanings to my own experience, connected them fully to the present.
Pictures taken in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Maybe I’ve been listening to too much Kate Bush, but I was marveling at her being only 17 when she started recording her first album, “The Kick Inside” (1978), and this weird universe she created, so then I started thinking about how I could use this project as an excuse to escape and create a landscape in my home. When I was taking out the garbage the other day, I found these tree clippings. You know, everything is blooming right now — it’s really beautiful outside — but their buds were already decaying, so I picked them up and brought them inside; these pictures aren’t overly theoretical. Apparently, the cart in the first image belonged to my grandmother; I found it in my parents’ garage at one point and have carried it around from apartment to apartment ever since. Schlepping seems to run in the family.
I did a series of still lifes a couple of years ago for a project called “Nature Morte” that combined fruits and vegetables with man-made objects, where I was thinking a lot about how we package nature in the industrialized world. If you think about oranges and paint, for instance, they’re not actually that differently in terms of how hyper-engineered they are. Throughout the history of still life in painting and photography, the domestication of nature isn’t really challenged as a convention. Nature is an object to be studied, consumed. When I started these images, I had seamless backdrops all ready to go to create some sort of fantasy, but then I thought maybe this was more about creating a fantasy within your given circumstances, and that’s a different question.
I just moved into a new apartment, so it was an interesting moment to do this. I started thinking not so much about the objects that bring me comfort but about the systems and processes that do, and about really basic things like electricity and power and people in, for example, Detroit, who are supposed to be in isolation but don’t even have running water. When I look at my home and consider the systems behind these banal tasks, like turning on the tap or plugging in the coffee grinder, the cord of which is behind my grandmother’s cart in the first image, the injustices feel especially enormous and outrageous. Even the crappy bathroom tiles in the second picture — they’re so unextraordinary, but you have to think about what goes into making what is, at the end of the day, just a bad beige tile. I don’t know whether all of this will change my practice as a photographer. But this is the thing we do know: Covid has exposed all of the cracks in the system.
Pictures taken in Arles, France
Thirty years ago, when I bought my house in Arles, France, it was completely empty and destroyed — nobody had lived there for some time — and now I can barely find room on the walls to hang things. Just a couple days ago, I found a book I did as a kid full of Polaroids of myself in my childhood bedroom, which were some of the first pictures I ever made, so in a way, this project is returning my practice to day one. I was super shy and closed off as a child and would stay in my room for weeks at a time. In this house, I try to recreate that sense of self-confinement. The house is my inspiration, a living canvas, where I’m surrounded by this aesthetic family that I’ve made. I’ve transformed the space, filling it with the things that I collect, gifts from friends: In a way, I would describe this as an imaginary family home.
I’ve always been very interested in Cy Twombly’s photography — one of the things that attracted me to this house was that it reminded me of Twombly’s villa in Bassano, Italy — and right inside the entrance, I keep a sort of shrine to Twombly. In the middle of all the books and documentation of his work, I have a photograph of a lemon that he took, and then, when I visited him years ago, he actually gave me a lemon, and I still have the remains of that lemon — its ashes, you might say — so my own picture of lemons has a double meaning: It’s a simple image of something I always have in the house but also a direct reference to Twombly.
The second image is of the mantelpiece in my bedroom. The postcard that you see on the right features a photo that Brassaï took in the 1930s of a cast of Picasso’s hand. That image has been with me for 30 years, since I bought the house, and two or three years ago, I was able to find the original print. I like the idea of having lived with a poor version of the image and then suddenly having an actual print. I also collect hands — wooden hands, marble hands, stone hands — which are the tools you use to transform what you see. And that’s the gift, honestly, of being an artist: to be able to transform what’s around you into something different.
Pictures taken in New Rochelle, N.Y.
I was born in Afghanistan and grew up in San Francisco; my family and I left in 1980, the year after the Russian invasion. Back in Afghanistan, my dad was a bird freak. He loved birds and had over 75 of them, mostly pigeons with their own lofts in the garden or on the rooftop, which is quite common in that part of the world. Pigeons fly all day long — they can go over 100 miles and still find their way home. I was never interested in staying in the same spot. I’ve lived in Paris, in Hamburg and now for many years in New York. I was curious about what was going on in other worlds and would think, “It can’t only be this.” But I’ve carried on my father’s obsession with birds: I’ve always had them. Right now, I only have two — a pair of parakeets — and they’re cage-free, so they’re flying all over the house, all the time.
In Afghanistan, birds are a symbol of freedom, of rebirth. In these images, you see those ugly plastic gloves that we’re now wearing practically 24 hours a day, and the idea was that those gloves are a kind of violence and that maybe the little white bird feels like us today, and how fragile we are: prisoners in the hands of these gloves. All the powers we thought we had — and now we don’t know what’s going to happen. In the second picture, though, there’s still some hope that we can escape from it, that we can have our freedom again.
I shoot still lifes here and there, but I’m not a still-life photographer. For me, images should be breathing and have life — sometimes you have an image that’s only a pair of shoes and you could stare at it forever because there’s so much life in it. As long as an image is alive, I’m happy, and I think right now we have to be open to possibilities and surprises, both in how we work and how we live. We have to be adaptable to deal with what’s coming.
Quotes have been edited and condensed.