5a Still Life

I&P Exercise 5.1

● Create a set of still-life pictures showing traces of life without using people.
You could do this with your camera phone to reflect the vernacular and transient nature of these moments or you could choose to use high-quality imagery to give these moments gravitas, like Nigel Shafran.
● Your technical decisions should back up your ideas, so write a short reflective commentary detailing these decisions and the reasons for them.

I&P p.124

[15Apr21] The idea of photographing used ash-trays outside restaurants and pubs came to me at the outset of the course, and I see no reason to change it, especially as they reopened for (external-only) business today after months of Covid lockdown.

Ash trays fit the criteria of still life, evidence human behaviour and are on the detritus and pollution spectrum. There is also a nod to Penn’s cigarette but series.

[30Apr] Whenever I pass a cafe or restaurant serving outside customers (the only sort allowed for now) I check the vacated tables for an ash try, but none have been found yet. Asking an active customer to photograph their ash tray is too intrusive in my view and might be misinterpreted. I’ll just have to let this one run.

[13Jun] This has now become a habit when I am walking around with a camera. in most cases I try to dash off a snap as I pass (that usually involves an inspection for candidates on the first pass and turning round to walk past again for the photograph). That is a bit hit-and-miss, as will be see from figs. B3-B4. I began this exercise looking for vacated tables with ash trays, progressed to snaps as I passed occupied tables and yesterday (12th June) I engaged for the first time with a couple of seasoned drinkers at the outside smoking tables at my local Wetherspoons, asking permission to make the photographs (figs. B7-8) – they agreed but were rather mystified and suggested alternative objects, notably the old drinking fountain outside the nearby parish church, visible from their seats. I repeated the exercise as I passed them again when returning later from a half at the Rusty Bucket.

These photographs are proving to be more interesting than I expected and the exercise has become a project — the variations in the results, what they reveal about the partially-seen or absent causers (all speculation, of course) and the abstract possibilities of the outcomes: all these factors attract.

[29Aug] I have continued to photograph this subject and 10 of the portfolio are shown next. I will write the Reflection over the next few days.


[30Aug] This is a deceptively tricky and surprisingly pleasing project and has become one that is likely to run indefinitely.

Although I chatted with some of the subjects still at their tables (mostly at Wetherspoons Corner, see Asg.5), in most cases either the tables were empty, awaiting clearance, or I took the photography hurriedly and surreptitiously.

All smoking activity in the UK nowadays is limited to, so far as I am aware: 1. outdoors in public; 2. at home (indoors or banished to the front or back garden); or 3. vehicular. My access to ashtrays used in those scenarios is largely limited to the first category, though looking for parked cars with stuffed ashtrays could be a sideline (I’m not even sure that cars have ashtrays nowadays – I have never looked for one in mine). Another sideline could be unused ashtrays on sale or on display (I see that Amazon offers Collectible Ashtrays: Information and Price Guide, Schiffer Book for Collectors, Jan Lindenberger, 1999, amongst others). An online search at the British Museum drew a blank, but the V&A has some.

The images offer some æsthetically attractive chance arrangements (Fox Talbot’s “charms of photography” (1844, p.13) remains one of the activity’s main drivers for me) and a tangential reference to Penn’s still lifes never goes amiss. But it is the glimpsed or self-constructed narratives from the personal practices, implied lifestyles or occasionally seen body parts that provide the real fascination. The wrist in fig. C7 suggests poor health; the liquorice-flavoured hand-rolling papers in fig. C6 remind me of my own smoking habit, abandoned in 1989 when my son was conceived; the absence of the once-common lipstick on any of these cigarette-ends, makes me want to go out and find more ashtrays. The abandonment of social practices over the space of 30 years has been brought home, quite coincidentally, by my watching reruns of Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991) this week, in which most of the characters, particularly the police, seem to be smoking constantly.

Smokers are increasingly marginalised as government (and other parties) seek to limit the habit while bearing the consequential cost of health treatment and taking in taxes from users, producers and dealers. It is a controversial matter and hangs over this project unvoiced, but need not be addressed directly by the imagery, particularly as the exercise brief asks for “pictures showing traces of life without using people” (Boothroyd & Roberts, 2019, p.124).

It is both rare and welcome for these courses to suggest projects that will pursued beyond the unit and the degree as a whole. I&P has provided two, in ashtrays and uniforms (Asg.4), C&N gave Forbidden Zones and EyV Plant Abuse.

I&P Exc 5.1 References

Amazon (2021) Collectible Ashtrays: Information and Price Guide (Schiffer Book for Collectors) [online]. amazon.co.uk. Available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Collectible-Ashtrays-Information-Schiffer-Collectors/dp/0764309455 [Accessed 30 August 2021].

Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts. [I&P]

Fox Talbot, W.H. (1844-46) The pencil of nature. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.

ITV (1991) Prime Suspect, Series 1, 7 April 1991.

V&A (2021) 122 results for ‘ashtray’ across All Categories [online]. vam.ac.uk. Available from https://www.vam.ac.uk/search?q=ashtray&astyped= [Accessed 30 August 2021].