Photographing an urban Still Life

No Loitering 

Framed flowers & Alarm

Afternoon Lines

Still life in Red & Yellow

Shadows and Light


Reflecting cups

  Rope cleat

wood planes

In the Art classes that I took in college we would gather all sorts of interesting items to create what the instructor called “a still-life”, each week we would build a new still life to help us learn how to draw shapes, shadows, and reflections. We would compile a menagerie of odd shaped objects in some corner of the drawing studio and then place lights from different directions to produce interesting and unique shadows.

I enjoyed the art classes with all the creative mediums and imaginative people, but when one of my teachers suggested I try photography everything changed. Photography with it’s almost magical processes both behind the camera, and in darkrooms with their chemical filled trays, reached out and grabbed me and there was no going back.

Those original photography classes included a few sessions with live models, and sometimes mannequins, but I missed those long classroom discussions and the quiet periods of contemplation that accompanied those simple arrangements of objects in those art classes.

I wanted my photography to be something more than just a record of the world around me. Looking to do something other than scenics or portraiture, I decided it would be fun to join classmates that were into street photography. They wandered urban areas, pointing their cameras at scenes that included unsuspecting people in their hectic environments to create engaging images that suggested different stories to each person that viewed their pictures.  I enjoyed their compositions comprised of light, shadow, architectural features and, of course, those unsuspecting people.

I tagged along with them because I liked hanging out with photographers, enjoyed walking, and discovering the city, but always ended up either making posed pictures or excluding people all together in favor of some lamppost, architectural feature, or drawing on a wall. More often than not I’d wander off from the others to explore some alley or stairwell, searching for some more intimate features that were always part of, instead of the complete scene.

I did then, and still do, include people in some of my cityscapes. I like looking at the street photography of modern photographers, but the people in my “street” images are really nothing more than additional elements that fill a space that could as easily be occupied by any other object. I suppose my interest in still-life changed from drawing to photographing one.

I admit to photographing almost everything. I am pretty indiscriminant when it comes to the subjects I point my camera at, and without hesitation will photograph as creatively as I can, what ever moves me at the time.

And I like to think I adhere to the words of famous documentary photographer Elliot Erwitt who said, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

My process, while wandering in search of still-lifes, is to never be on any direct course as I forage for another still life and my photographs rarely show the whole. I photograph those parts that catch my attention; the still-life might include an interesting door, railing, or even window frame as I review and how the light touches them.

Drawing a still-life in those classes was much easier than hunting one with a camera. After all a photographer is forced to problem solve those found objects. I suppose one could move things around, but that’s kind of cheating. I like the search and the discovery and the process of thinking through how to make the original image. Sure, there is a lot one can do in post, and that’s just fine with me, but photographers still have to find the raw elements to begin with.

As always, I appreciate your comments.

Thanks, John

My website is at

5 responses to “Photographing an urban Still Life

  1. Great ideas John. And I can see from the various images that the scene you stumble on does require that you work out just how to solve the problems in setting up the image. Lots of good compositional elements. Excellent post!


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