Curatorial Statement for “Still Life”Rebecca Senf, Norton Family Curator, Center for Creative Photography and Phoenix Art Museum
“Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent…in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device…goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
Don Draper, in Mad Men, pitching an ad campaign for the Kodak Carousel
In my favorite scene from the cable series Mad Men, Don Draper uses photography’s nostalgic potential as inspiration for renaming Kodak’s new slide tray product “the Carousel.” Although Draper is viewing family snapshots, I would contend that no photographic genre is more centrally concerned with issues of nostalgia, memory, ephemerality, and decay than still life. Photographic still life abounds with symbols of loss, consumption, transformation, and rot. Still life photographs use pomegranates or bicycles, plastic bags or flowers, mannequins or carousel horses, or possessions separated from their owner to remind us of the inevitable and undeniable truth that death is coming. Although the majority of the photographs in this exhibition adhere to this vein of exploration – the transitory nature of people and things – still life photographs can serve other functions.
It was a pleasure to expand this exhibition’s boundaries to include still life photographs whose subjects were crafted by the photographer to explore humor, to play with scale, or to create autobiographical statements through the arrangement of objects. These photographs often use familiar objects to challenge what we believe, creating a dynamic interactivity not typically associated with still life. I also chose a few pictures which, narrowly speaking, are not still life images, but landscapes. Those that I selected, though, focused on the relationship of elements within the frame to create a palpable sense of space and mood, harmonizing with my expanded concept of still life.
Whether picturing a subject found or constructed, printed in color or black and white, using digital or historic process, this group of photographs invites us on a journey of exploration. Each photograph presents itself, its subject, and a deeper layer of meaning, revealing not only the power of the medium, but the great talent represented by contemporary photographers.