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Vanitas and chiaroscuro in photographs

As further research for my OCA assignment 4, I examine here the concepts of vanitas and chiaroscuro in the context of photography still life.
I previously looked at the work of Sam Taylor-Wood (1967) in the context of decay (see here). Cutter describes Taylor-Wood’s work within the concept of vanitas:

In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries though also common in other places and periods. The word is Latin, meaning  “emptiness” and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of Vanity. Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay like ageing; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Sam Taylor Wood’s work (Still Life, Video Stills, 2001) is another step in this direction: the image, beautiful as ever in Taylor-Wood’s universe, decomposes itself. By the end, nothing is left but a grey amorphous mass. On closer inspection, one thing distinguishes this picture from its predecessors. The ball-point pen. A cheap, contemporary object that doesn’t decay.

 The Dutch School of painting is renowned for its use of chiaroscuro (use of light and dark to provide contrast and depict the volume of subjects). Last year, I was fortunate to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and see Rembrandt’s expansive painting, The Night Watch (see http://www.rembrandthuis.nl/en/rembrandt/belangrijkste- werken/de-nachtwacht). This complex use of light and dark is used to great effect in photography too – for example some of the other stills from Taylor-Wood’s work remind me of the light in the Dutch masters’ work.

Another photographer using this technique is Ori Gerscht (1967). In his work Gerscht literally blew up an arrangement of flowers and made a series of images from the explosion. Again we see the chiaroscuro effect giving depth and contrast to the photo.

I see how the symbolism through vanitas can trigger an emotional response in the viewer and how chiaroscuro creates visual impact as well as reminding us of the light and dark side of life. For my next iteration of apple as moon, I’ll reflect on how I can introduce these effects.


Cutter S (2010). Photographs do not bend [website]. Sam Taylor Wood: Vanitas. Available
from: http://www.photographsdonotbend.co.uk/2010/09/sam-taylor- wood-vanitas.html [accessed 23.8.15]


Art Net [website]. Sam Taylor-Wood Gallery. Available from: http://www.artnet.com/artists/sam-taylor-wood/ [accessed 23.8.15]
Demos TJ (2007). Tate Gallery [website]. A matter of time. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/matter- time [accessed 23.8.15].

Mummer Schnelle Gallery, Ori Gerscht[online]. Time After Time & Blow Up [2007]. Available from: http://www.mummeryschnelle.com/pages/oriselector.htm [accessed 23.8.15].

The National Gallery of Art [website]. Dutch and Flemish Painting of the 16th-17th centuries. Available from: http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/dutch-2.html [accessed 23.8.15].
National Gallery [website]. Glossary – chiaroscuro. Available from: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/chiaroscuro [access 23.8.15]

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