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Still Life

I’ve had a Nikon DSLR for the past ten years or so, and my knowledge of photography is mainly based on reading manuals, watching video tutorials and tinkering around with the camera. This was the first course I’d taken where I had received formal instruction on how to use a camera to shoot still life. This was part of the print and photography 'ephemera’ course I was taking (the photo component after my ‘Spurious Species’ project). We were required to construct a scene in the studio using a selection of objects and then dismantle the scene upon completion. We viewed a few examples of photographers who engaged with the ephemera aspect of still life (although my impression of still life is that it is all ephemera), and I was quite impressed with Matt Lipp’s work. His work consists of cut-out images taken from a range of printed sources (old books, magazines, etc) and arranged in various compositions on a plinth. I knew I wanted to do something similar, but wasn’t sure I would have the time to design and cut out so many images. I left this idea to simmer for a while before making a decision.

We used a few constructed dolls from my Spurious Species project to experiment with lighting and learn how to navigate the camera.

A small group of us collaborated in a mini-project to build up confidence with the camera. Once we completed our 'training', we began taking turns to shoot our own projects. I decided to continue exploring ancestry with many of the same images I used in my scanography project, I and integrated the ‘cut-out’ concept I observed in Matt Lipp’s work. My main objective was to recreate an unlikely family reunion. Going back only three generations, I have family members that are spread so far and wide geographically and throughout time that to know everyone and to know myself through them is not realistically possible. I have photos of two great grandmothers - one standing stoically in a plain, light sari, and the other seated wearing heavy black boots and a long, thick floral skirt. My mother told me she chopped her own firewood until she was 88 years old and started losing her eye sight. Both have sun-weathered, hardened faces, and both were clearly workers of the soil. I tried to select as many photos of my parents, aunts and uncles as possible, as well as grandparents and extended family, that depicted a way of life completely distant and foreign to my own upbringing. In a way, I wanted to understand what these cultures - and these people that I’m linked to by blood - mean to me and what they contribute to my identity. Who am I if I am so far removed from cultures that are so deeply ingrained in my ancestors and relatives? Can a I claim to share these cultures with any of them or have I become what I sometimes refer to as ‘acultural’?

Monette Gopal, my father's father's mother.
Viktoria Plevak, my mother's father's mother.

After I made my selection and resized the photos, I had to decide what I would print the photos on. I had to use paper that was smooth, bright white and heavy (and preferably not too expensive). I opted for an inexpensive smooth, 250gsm digital photocopy paper that printed black and white photos surprisingly well. I was then in for the long haul of cutting out each image with a stencil knife. I can’t remember how long this took and I think this is a good thing. I was careful to leave a bit of overhang at the bottom of each image so I could fold it under and affix the image to foam core board to stand upright.

I began to play around with arranging them. I also wanted to include a few objects in the scene and happened to have a couple of old cameras I thought would fit nicely with the theme. When I visited Toronto last year, I happened upon an old Kodak Brownie camera. What was especially important to me was that on the front it has a small ‘Made in Canada by Canadian Kodak Co. Ltd.’ label beneath the lens. I thought this befitting as it is symbolic of a place that unified two very separate branches of my family, and the Brownie camera itself would have been the main collector of memories both sides of my family used in the past. This was evident simply because most of the photos were taken outdoors where sunlight was necessary for a decent exposure. The few indoor photos I have were shot in a studio. Another object I wanted to include was an old picture frame. This was my way of communicating the desire to pull all family members together - to fit in the frame - and to illustrate that restricted boundaries of time and place make this merely impossible. Even when family reunions do occur, they are short lived and someone is always missing from the picture. Family members linger outside the frame as a memory of the past - a silent longing for reconnection remains hidden from view.

I took a couple of snapshots with my phone to get an idea of the final result.

I was satisfied with the final images. I didn’t want to add too much colour with gels as I thought this would detract from the details of the photos. I also added a few shells - seashells, coral and matryoshka dolls. I thought the shells were appropriate to represent island life in the Caribbean, but also as a symbol of a past life, a former home that contains nothing but a memory. As for the matryoshka dolls, I thought that, again, these were empty shells that contained generations past and future (one begets the next, that begets the next), and are also representative of Eastern Slavic culture.

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