Please find a summary of Matthew Greenburgh’s works, including ‘Leaves’, here.
My current practice involves an exploration of ideas about beauty and death and their representation. I conduct this exploration through the medium of photographs of arrangements of magnified autumn leaves that refer to other relevant works of art. Leaves are at their most beautiful at the point at which they begin to decay and hence have a potent symbolic value. The reddish colour palette of the autumn leaf and the decay seen when viewed up-close are full of appropriate associations: blood, fire, rust, hell.
The still life has an important role in the history of photography and remains a vibrant means of communicating ideas. I aim to bring an original approach to this field but one that acknowledges the influence of certain key trends in theory and practice.
Beauty, death, their presence in each other and in the everyday: this timeless theme was approached in a compelling way by the Dutch still life painters at the beginning of the 17th century. Their practice was to use ordinary objects as impactful rather than subtle symbols (skulls, candles, timepieces, fallen petals, etc) and to generate astonishing verisimilitude. The objective was to attract the viewer’s attention and divert it towards contemplation of the underlying theme; an appreciation of natural beauty and human skill is combined with a realisation of their ultimate futility given the certain intrusion of death.
Dutch still life painting has proved directly influential with many modern photographers. Part of the connection is the still life painter’s emphasis on lighting and their de-emphasis of visible brush- work in the search for surface realism, which is seemingly a natural province of photography. Photographic art inspired by classical still life range from the ‘faithful’ re-creations of Sharon Core (amongst numerous others) to the shattered mirrors and explosions of Ori Gersht. Using a less art-historical approach, the still life of leaves as a symbol for death and decline is used effectively by the Starn Brothers and by Janet Malcolm. More generally, Barthes, Sontag and many others have pointed to the inescapable connection between the photograph and death/mortality.
Plant still life photography was present at the origin of the medium and Fox Talbot’s and Atkins’ pictures continue to have a visual power deeper than their nostalgic effect or scientific objectives. Plant still lifes were also perhaps the first works of pure photo-typology in Karl Blossfeldt’s “Urformen der Kunst” (English ed: “Art Forms in Nature”,1929 ) and this area has carried on providing inspiration, for example in the earlier works of Garry Fabian Miller. More broadly, it could be argued that Blossfeldt’s plant typology had an important influence on the Bechers and, through them, on a number of key strands in contemporary photography.
Whilst I share some of the objectives and techniques of these approaches, I aim to examine the themes in a new way by using (a) scale and detail to achieve a high degree of abstraction and to create an unfamiliar beauty from a familiar object associated with death and (b) direct references to other works of art that also deal with death and beauty to provide a more conceptual framework.
I achieve the requisite large scale by using a DSLR with a macro lens combined with focus stacking to produce photographs of each part of the subject and then I stitch these together so that the resultant pictures can be printed in large format. I undertake substantial post-production work to eliminate the errors produced by the process and to manage the visual mood and impact of the picture. The type of connections to other works of art are shown in more detail in the texts accompanying the pictures in my portfolio submission. In brief, sometimes I arrange the leaves to echo the structure of other photographs or paintings and sometimes to resonate with certain images in poems.
In terms of the underlying theme, it would be wrong to associate beauty with tragic or premature death. However, unlike in the 17th century, death in affluent modern societies arguably often comes too late rather than too suddenly. Medical intervention can drag out the sometimes miserable last years of the dementia sufferer, the terminally ill or the physically incapacitated. Some faced with such a prospect see an absence of anything worth living for (metaphorically an absence of beauty) and wish for an assisted death or voluntary euthanasia. Other, perhaps more ‘traditional’, choices that might lead to a death with beautiful aspects include the hero’s or martyr’s self-sacrifice and the acceptance of mortal hazard in the quest for glory or freedom. I am hoping that my photographs can be a springboard for the consideration of the issues in such cases.
I wish to instil a certain ambiguity in the positioning of my photographs within the simplified narrative of photography’s journey from mimesis to modernism to post-modernism: as mentioned above, the realism of the leaves belongs to the beginnings of photography, and the semi-abstract presentation of my pictures has modernist elements. The references to other works of art are intended to have playful, post-modernist aspects – some of these references are deliberately tenuous and to a certain extent I am seeking to question the validity of the curatorial note or art-critic telling the viewer what to think.
In summary, my pictures are designed to be ‘beautiful’ natures mortes with connections to other art about death and beauty – I am seeking to lighten their “heavy burden of depiction” (as Jeff Wall put it) to give them a viable conceptual standing, and to justify their existence as new images in an era plagued by the superabundance of such.