Almost Found Still Life

The art of still life has always been part arrangement and part capture, something that is understood and accepted by critics and viewers alike. Conversely, the artistry comes in giving the impression that the subject was there and the artist just happened upon it. But most will realize that careful consideration has been given to the organization and lighting and the artist only commences the process of capture when they are satisfied with the composition.

Still life that is found is to a certain extent a different matter because for whatever reason it is less acceptable to arrange the objects. This is genre is also known as objet trouvé or found object—a natural or everyday object, such as a paper bag from a street, treated as something of artistic value or incorporated into a work of art.

Here is greater emphasis on the ability to see the unnoticed and to capture using natural light. However, for the artist photographer removing, adding or rearranging is not only acceptable but considered as creative input. This is where the title, “Almost Found Still Life,” comes into play.

Probably of greater importance is what subject should be considered as found still life. The dim interior of a village pub has an affinity with European still life masters despite the objects making up the composition being radically different.

found object photography

One thing you should strive for is tranquility and lack of any human activity because the inclusion of people in effect excludes an image being a still life. Over the years since 1839 photography has triumphed over painting but many artistically inclined photographers accept that art and painting in particular, while being a fascinating place to visit few however would want to live there.

You may find the art of the painter can be stifling, slow, and self-indulgent, whereas photography permits immediacy and rapid artistic development for those who are interested. Art photography has also triumphed by reconsidering, diverting, or otherwise reflecting on the medium’s previously functional forms. No longer is photography just a document to record and archive reality. The rise of artistic still life photography in advertisements means there is common ground between art photographs and images we see in advertising posters.

The intertwining of commercial and art photography is most evident in the genre of still life.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the still life photography present everywhere in magazines, newspapers, the Internet, and mail order catalogues. The subject choice is vast—from fruit, flowers, and glass bottles, plastic statues, wooden tables, silk underwear, wool jumpers and metal artifacts. The objects may be mundane or rare, but still life photography bridges art and commerce. Even the camera, the machine that actually records the objects, is shown with carefully controlled lighting designed to somehow attract and make a purchase more likely.

The boundaries of found still life are as wide as you wish to make them but you should always compose to give the impression that your sole role was to press the shutter. Of course, out of sight of the viewer you may well have moved the table lamp to just the right position.

table still life

Unfortunately, the photographer’s sticky fingers are often apparent when objects are over arranged and things are imperfect because they are just too perfect.

In the still life image captured in a scrap-metal yard below no one can accuse the photographer of interfering with the subjects as each weighed the same as a small car, which is what they may once have been!

water still life

As you can see the subject size growing so the questions of where subject size excludes an image being considered as found still life grow.

A little thought will bring you to the conclusion there is cannot be a boundary. This because the biggest subjects available to photography are those taken by the Hubble telescope of the Andromeda Galaxy, which could with a little imagination be called still life. To our eyes there is no feeling of movement and nothing lives—or does it?

The real boundary and also the key to found still life photography is the word still.

Your objective should be to present images that feel as if movement and human activity has stopped. This occurs naturally in still photography, but it does not follow that your image will give the impression of serenity and silence. It does not matter what the subject is; this is about the way you compose and symbolize your final image. The image below is intended to show an old dusty pram that has been pushed into a barn many years ago and forgotten. Now the artist has found this still life and brought it to the attention of the viewer, whoever they may be.

pram still life

For your part of the beauty of found still life comes from the chance encounter, an old forgotten pram in a forgotten barn becomes a memory for someone unknown. The ‘almost’ comes from your involvement either by physically adjusting the tableaux or by the way you compose the image

Photographers as different as Man Ray and Walker Evans have insisted that photography is not art but it could be an art, this distinction lost on many camera owners today.

Creativity could be enough to shift the emphasis from the depicted to the depiction, which is often about context, which as some photographer will tell you, is key. The image of the old forgotten perambulator above only becomes a story when shown in the confines of the gloomy barn, without its context it would be a document.

The indirect path to artistic status can produce images that are very different from those used to document. Making a faint claim to be art can be a great stimulus for found still life photography, but making a strong claim can have the opposite effect. Nevertheless, if you call your images art no one can argue, but they can counter by claiming it is excellent or appalling art. On the other hand—and worst of all—it could be just disregarded as a piece of art.

Many creative photographers feel constrained by the nervous categories and equally stifling agendas attached to the definition of art photography and look instead to the freedom of personal choice. Therefore, you can ignore much of what is written about art and concentrate on your own interpretation of art and ideas on what is interesting.

light bulb photography

To be interesting found still life images more than any other genre of photography, must create an echo in the heart and mind of the viewer. The subject above is ordinary and may have only received a cursory glance but through your silent image, you are asking an unknown viewer to see again what is there. The viewer is asked to pause and reflect on the activity that resulted in a badly fitted and incongruous lamp holder that destroyed the green age of the hand-cut beam. Then on the moldy saddle left hanging from a nail waiting for the rider who never came.

To some extent, all photography should raise questions and create thoughts, but a still life is different because it should contain a blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Your image must show a subject familiar enough to evoke recognition, but unfamiliar enough to provoke a surprise when the viewer sees something for the first time even though they have looked at it before.

Found still life also relies on found light. Artificial lighting, such as flash, should be kept for the studio. But of course you have situations like the barn above where the lighting is low so you have to consider the practicalities of your shutter speed and the real possibility of camera shake. A tripod would provide the opportunity for a greater depth of field as well as removing any suspicion of camera shake. A tripod can be your friend for found still life, but it does limit your spontaneity and restrict your ability to find the best viewpoint. But you pay your money and you take your choice.

One underplayed type of found still life involves the use of shadows. You will be surprised how evocative the shadow of an unseen subject can be, but to work well the subject should remain a mystery lurking somewhere outside of the frame.

bicycle shadow

outdoor still life

There are occasions when shadows falling across a still life subject themselves create a fleeting found still life.

shadow still life

There are whole genres of photography that deal with the separate issues of narrative, record, and abstract images, but the distinctions are not particularly strong in found still life.

Abstract photography is an exception to the belief that every picture tells a story, but still life is all about the emotions and story the photographer wants to pass. Record or documentary photography is closely aligned to some forms of still life where the emphasis is on seeing and finding.

When searching for found still life subjects, you will be walking a very narrow path between record, abstract, and boring photography. To be worthy of inclusion in your archives the images must have interest, even if the interest is initially for you. It does not follow that what you find interesting will be reflected by the viewers, but your intention should be to present the subject in such a way that the viewers understand what attracted you.

The image below is a prime example of a subject that on the face of it has little of interest. The curiosity only comes when you notice the metal tops are rusty, which indicates that the person who left them had forgotten about these bottles of popular soft drinks.

This simple fact raises questions about the person and the surrounding environment that is hidden from the viewer. The very fact that viewers question your image is often worthy enough.

coke bottles

frayed rope still life photo

The image above of frayed rope and rusting metal is primarily a record image and is really about colors, shapes and textures, but you can construct all kinds of stories around it reason for being.

These type of images contain considerably more narrative than may first appear. They tell of the passage of time, of loss and nostalgia and even sorrow for what is no longer. But, ultimately you will find on balance they are also positive reminders of good times past, rather than only negative reminders of loss.

The objective with all still life art is to deliberately fabricate images, where the intention is to have the viewer and the photographer imagine a story.

The great masters of still life painting were usually commissioned by the rich to advertise their wealth by showing the food they ate and the possession they owned. This was not an attempt to create works of art it was far closer to advertising through still life photography.

On the other hand you are deliberately searching for the forgotten, the unnoticed and the overlooked to construct artistic representations of what you have seen. Your intention may be to show them to the masses but equally they may be for your future enjoyment and memories.

doll torso photo

The composition should not look as if you have moved, added or removed any objects this means not leaving tell tale signs and not making neat and tidy arrangements. The doll is in a position that claims it was accidentally left and forgotten by a child or a devil worshipper depending on how your mind works.

This rather strange image is intended to jar on the viewer’s imagination.

Photographers being born cynics and also prone to changing reality to suit their needs will question if the doll was actually found or was it added. The answer may become clear as you read further.

Here is the confirmation, the same dirty broken doll in the same building but the devil creature has mysteriously moved. Only by seeing both images side by side will the viewer conclude that the photographer searching for a story moved the doll but in the event—does it matter?

still life doll

You can think of these images almost as book covers, but where you do not need to open the book because the story is contained in the image. All you and the viewer have to do is apply imagination to the clues so that you can complete the story suggested on the cover of the book, Your story intentions should be fairly clear, just from looking at the cover.

Back to the almost found still life and just how far is too far in your intervention?

Before you draw any red lines you should think about studio still life and how more than half of its creation is down to the intervention of the photographer. Before a shutter is pressed the subject is carefully composed to best include the narrative intended. You can imagine the great masters insisting on each fruit, vegetable, rabbit or pheasant being in just the right position. Equally, the contemporary commercial photographer moving objects and lighting until they give the perfect impression and then doing it again to provide an option for their clients.

On this basis, when searching for found still life should you be allowed to intervene and construct a more pleasing image and more interesting story. How far you can intervene depends on your intention and how you describe – found. If you wanted to be pedantic, you could arrange your still life, move away, and then return to ‘find’ the arrangement. It could be thought that, like the studio still life photographer, your input to the arrangement makes the final image unique and personal.

Therefore, you can take it that intervention is allowed, indeed expected, but it should not look as if you have involved your sticky fingers. Subtle is the name of the game.

This raises the question of the difference between a found subject and a found object. You may think a subject is different than an object; the subject in the image above is the bench, whereas the object is the doll. The object is unchanging whereas the subject is subject to change.

window photography

Therefore using the word ‘found’ literally means that a found object can justifiably be introduced into a found subject that uses found natural light. The significance of the found object lies in its randomness—a doll, a tatty working boot, brown glass jars, things that were found lying on the pavement and streets or a cup and saucer bought for next to nothing.

There is no sense or reason, just a collection of objects that were found and could tell a story in the right context. For some, the object’s new environment becomes a symbol of the chaotic nature of existence. It is only by chance you and the found object have come together. It is also chance that has brought you, the object, subject, and light together at just the right moment.

Found objects, like the broken doll or the brown glass jars, are transformed when examined in isolation. Being an observant photographer you may notice that two brown glass jars have mysteriously appeared in two different locations in the images above and below. In your imagination found objects and found subjects both have a place in the story your image is telling.

abandoned chair

In the image above the brown jars are found in a prominent position and somehow seem relevant to the disappearance of the person who once sat in the leather armchair in front of a coal fire. Their placement takes on a slightly sinister feel and gives the impression that they and the missing person are closely connected.

However, when used in tandem with the old dusty ivy-clad window, the brown jars appear only as harmless additions to a forgotten building.

When taken out of its environment a singular object becomes an item of scrutiny, almost a piece of art in its own right. If you have a tendency to collect strange object with the thought that one day you will find a subject that will benefit from its inclusion you are not alone.

Frederick Sommer, was considered a master photographer who started to seriously explore the artistic possibilities of photography in 1938, eventually he encompassing the genres of the assemblage of found objects. Sommer collecting objects, many found while frequenting local junkyards. Relying on chance, he looking for the discarded treasures that he would then combine into compelling compositions, which he photographed. Many artists but surprisingly few photographers have copied Sommer’s ideas based on objects found by chance.

In 1950, Sommer wrote…

“Photography is well adapted to work by the laws of chance.
Poetic and speculative photographs can result if one works carefully
and accurately, yet letting chance relationships have full play.”

Sommer was mainly concerned with the careful studio arrangement of found object and not as suggested in this article as collaboration between the found object and the found context. But, for either concept, chance relationships play an important role.

You will now be aware that not all that is shown here is as it appears; the hand of man has influenced the composition. The wonderfully tortured work boot has been treasured as an object of great desire and has lain quietly waiting its time to be introduced into a suitable subject.

shoe still life

The whimsical, uncanny arrangements of objects and subjects echoes similar practices undertaken by the surrealists, who also embraced chance as an art form back in the 1930s. Chance will help you find objects. You will probably keep them for years or even decades, waiting for the right combination of subject to present itself.

While creating these stories you must maintain your concern with compositional logic, light, and photographic quality while intending to foster in the viewer’s imagination that your images may—just may—be as found.

After collecting this sort of detritus objects over a period, some form of criteria will evolve. The objects are generally, man-made items, often found in unsuitable situations and are sometimes part of a larger construction.

You may argue that you will become straitjacketed by this criterion, because your search is within a narrow selection band. This may be correct, but you will certainly evolve your own criteria for what has the potential to be interesting as an introduced object.

That obscure object of desire may be yours to covet is not always the take away. Sometimes your object and subject only need reuniting into the composition that suits your story best.

In the image below, the object was a half-forgotten dusty wicker Victorian pram stored in the subject, which was an equally dusty and half-forgotten farmer’s barn.

barn photography

In this circumstance, your only question would be where to position the pram to give the impression you just happened upon it. As the image above shows, there are always practical photographic consideration such as exposure, but be safe in the knowledge of digital post camera manipulation.

The process of creating almost found still life images can be unsettling because you are not only capturing an image but also creating a new reality. The collecting of discarded objects can be equally unsettling; you can feel like a thief in the night not stealing an object but changing a memory.

The image below raises a question about the so-called validity of a found still life. Almost a year before this image was captured, the photographer had introduced the artificial flowers found blown into a corner of an adjacent graveyard. Now after a year had passed, cobwebs had grown and dust had settled creating subtle differences. The question raised was, “Is this now a genuine found still life, and except for the photographer, does it matter?”

vase flowers photography

Plastic graveyard flowers are unfortunately rather humorous in their mock seriousness, as well as being slightly uncanny.

Frederick Sommer’s photographs of his transient groupings abound in paradoxes and visual jokes, subtly suggested, or implied. Just like the plastic flowers placed in the glass jar above that are waiting patiently to be watered.

In either case, Sommer’s arrangements playfully comment on the act of creation, which through his camera allows him to make mysterious, otherworldly images from discarded objects.

However, like studio still life there is a world of difference between his concept and the idea of introducing objects or rearranging almost found still life.

Both the images below are untouched by the hand of man—at least the hands of the photographer. However, an unknown person had placed the vehicle maintaining items on the shelves and another person at a different time and place had packed the unwanted books into a box.

book shelves photo

books shadow detail photo

Both fall into the realm of found still life, and the more you think about the subject the greater becomes its scope. There are whole and broken objects in the images, which have a resonance with the concept of posing a question and seeking an answer or meaning.

In these instances, no single object has been specifically photographed as the center of attention. In fact, a series of objects are used to alter the story; the viewer’s mind is trained to search for relationships between the adjacent objects. Based on the limited information you provide, the viewer sees a series of objects abstracted and highlighted from the world and sees them anew as something else. The classic case of two and two equals five.

Subjects and objects for this theme are lying quietly just waiting to be discovered but they will not jump up and bite you. However, as most are man-made you can help your search by looking for types of places that are suitable. This could include barns, neglected buildings, derelict industrial premises, and virtually anywhere that has been abandoned.

basket suitcase still photography

Images in this theme must have a strong narrative component because your intent is not just to make a record or document an event; you are in the realm of story telling. The image above is not primarily about the objects or their environment. It is about the history of why they are there. The image is an unanswered question about the people who owned the objects and then discarded them. Through you skills, you are tapping into the viewer’s natural curiosity to try to attribute a meaning to the image. You are attempting to make the viewer concerned about the events that led up to the objects being in this situation. If you have added an object to the story, it should be thought of as a positive artistic contribution not negative stage-management.

Technically, there can be difficulties between what the camera records and how you envisage your final image. Because light can be low in some hidden corner of a forgotten building, you have to decide not only on the composition but also on how you want to light the subject. You can easily be convinced that there is a need to provide more information because that is what photography is about but that is not what creative photography is about.

You need to look no further than your TV set to see how lighting is used in conjunction with framing and viewpoint to tell a story. Dark shadows are just as important—perhaps more important—than highlights when telling a visual story, as you are dealing more with what the viewer imagines than what they actually see.

In the image below, there is only a hint of what is lurking in the shadows but still enough found light to fuel the viewer’s imagination.

desk photo still life

You may want to try post camera Rembrandt lighting. This general term covers methods of altering the appearance of the original light. It is a skill well worth learning as it improves all images. This subtle form of enhanced light can provide an image close to what you envisaged.

You may be able to use the same RAW file image with two different exposures—one lighter, and the other darker. Alternatively, use a single image with a Duplicate Layer. Adjust each image separately using Levels directly on the image. The lighter Layer may need a boost of + 10 percent Saturation. The Background Layer should have lighter tones and the Background Copy (Duplicate Layer) the darker tones.

The objective is to use the Layer Mask in combination with the Erasure Tool to expose parts of the background layer through this painting with light techniques. The Mask is shown automatically for Adjustment Layers but has to be clicked open (the white circle in the dark square) for Duplicate Layers.

When using the Eraser Tool, white foreground will remove and black foreground will retrieve previously erased areas. Use the Layer Mask and Eraser Tool with a large, soft edged brush at 25 percent opacity and start exposing the lighter areas in the Background Layer image little by little.

Try this alternative method: Duplicate Layer > Blending Mode > Multiply > Adjust Opacity > Eraser Tool > Layer Mask to create an impression of light. You can adjust each layer independently of the other layer and the image can be saved in its Duplicate Layer mode for future adjustments.

Remember that the two layers can be adjusted even when areas have been erased. You need practice to get it right. A graphics pad and pen will make your life easier. Over zealous post-camera manipulation can easily destroy the atmosphere of an image.

color still life

An evenly lit box of felt-tip pens has been given the Rembrandt type lighting to add atmosphere. The subject was a very mundane found still life arrangement captured in a rarely used Welsh chapel. The lighting adds to the impression of silence and lost childhood while the viewpoint is directly above the subject using a high camera angle and a tight framing to exclude anything that may give too much unwanted information.

Having perfect symmetry, which means having harmony or beauty of form, results from balanced proportions and is required in studio still life, but it can be detrimental to found still life.

Some clear form of discord or asymmetry is often preferable, such as the modern plastic brightly colored pens and Welsh Victorian card in the image above. There’s also a very old belief that it is less demanding to compose an image with an odd number of elements, though as in the image above as in many others, a great deal depends on how you define and count elements. Far better is to rely on your instincts of what looks right and your intention for the final image.

You must also consider post camera manipulation and, if any, just how much before the image loses its relationship to reality. Whereas, most of the images in this article have had reality enhanced, none have experienced major manipulation because it defeats the objective of found!

The image below has a previously found object, but the camera controls had to take into consideration the extreme found light. Exposure for the window would have resulted in an under-exposed interior but exposing for the interior would mean burnt-out highlights in the window.

Two combined spot metering exposures and auto focus were taken, one for the window and the other for the partition on the right. Then you use a similar process to the Rembrandt lighting process described above. However, the two images with different exposures are combined in Layers with the lighter image as the Background and the darker one as the Background Copy. You then reduce the Opacity on the copy and using the Move tool correct any misalignment that may occur. Then you proceed with Rembrandt lighting as explained above.

fireplace photography

You will probably find that using a brush to create light makes your images more personal with an experience that is close to that of a watercolorist.

It is worth referring to the origins of the term still life, which described an image of inanimate subject matter. This traditionally comprised of commonplace objects, collected and arranged in a specific manner. These objects included natural things like fruit, vegetables, and flowers and artificial things, such as domestic utensils, vases, jewelery, objets d’art, and glasses.

An additional traditional category of still life art embraces composition with an overt symbolic message, often religious as exemplified by a type of still life known as Vanitas. This contains symbolic images that emphasize the transience and triviality of mortal life. It is in this Vanitas category that found still life photography becomes incorporated.

A Vanitas or found still life photography contains a combination of found subject, symbolic objects, and natural lighting. The visual message is concerned with the transitory nature of life, and the inevitability of death—all good cheerful stuff! You will probably realize that the types of image shown here are examples of modern day Vanitas, the only difference being the subject matter.

gloves photography found object

Viewers are asked to construct a story around the limited information provided in the image. To make this message understandable the photographer must see the story and experience the emotions before trying to pass them on. Even the simplest subject like the gloves in the image above have a story to tell—if you have the imagination.

About the Author and the Images

Brian Gaylor FRPS MPhil AWPF BA(Hons)

This article provides examples of how find and combine subjects, objects, and light to create still life images in a natural environment. Only limited post camera manipulation in the form of Rembrandt lighting is used to enhance the final image.

Post camera adjustments to color, tone and framing are acceptable and could be called your second chance. This is when the original in-camera image is enhanced through processes and techniques you have learned but not radically changed. This art requires you to know what to do, when to do it, then knowing when to stop.

I carry one camera a Canon EOS 5D and a single lens a Tamron 28–300, with no filters attached. I have a tripod, monopod and a spare camera in the boot, which are hardly ever used. All images are captured hand-held in Raw File using spot metering and auto focus. I have an iMac with Adobe Photoshop 3/5 and all images are converted to TIFF using the Adobe Raw converter.

All the images were captured in locations within a fifty mile radius of Swansea, South Wales, UK and always within a short walk from the car. The moral is you do not have to travel the world—images are all about you once you learn to see them.

The moral of this is carrying a camera bag full of cameras and lenses plus a heavy tripod is not a guarantee of better images. The world around you comprises of billions of potential images. Learning how to see rather than just looking is far more important than a bag of cameras.

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current: