Tilted Tripod 

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Mythical Floral Still Life

Golden Age-esque photographer, Margriet Smulders, creates intricate compositions of ‘sensual flowers, supple fabrics, twisted glass, water, ink and milk’*. Better known for her portraits exhibited in 'Who’s Looking at the Family' at the Barbican, London in 1994; Smulders is considered one of the most successful still life photographers.

Specialising in portraits, Smulders captures images that bring working people, families, their pride and their relationships to the forefront of the art world. Her work, both her portraits and still life pieces, are inspired and directly impacted by her family as she uses her family as her muse for her portraiture work.

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Smulders began studying psychology ‘because it was such a mess’* at her house growing up; her father and sister were both ‘psychotic’* and she wanted to be able to help them. The idea of her helping and making things better is supported as she has said ‘My big goal is to create a better world. That's why I always use a lot of flowers.’ Smulders’ still life work is packed with colour and flowers, brightening up a dark world. 

Still life images were added to Smulders’ repertoire after she saw an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum on Dutch still lives of the 17th century. Smulders’ images are heavily inspired by these pieces as she arranges selections of flowers on large mirrors, alongside silk and inks. Her psychological training can be picked up on within her work, as well as her feminist voice.

'Endless garlands of flowers curled around the borders of my note pads when I was a school girl. And thousands of roses were cut out from my mother’s gardening books. At the Academy of Arts, flowers as large as life were painted on my canvasses. There were always flowers. They flourished in the self-portraits of the eighties and grew bigger in the flower wallpapers made in the nineties.

You can see a whole world in my flowers. Lush and strangely erotic tableaux entice you into another dimension. Huge mirrors, elaborate glass vases, rich draperies, fruit and cut blooms are used to make these ‘paintings’.

...Imagine lingering and languishing in these fresh, sultry and lucid landscapes. I love this sensual state. To lose myself, to deliver myself as in a love affair. Reality doesn’t matter. When making photos I get lost in the scenes as if the flowers were caressing me in the gulfs of the sea.

But not all of the flowers are immaculate or in pristine condition, suggesting that something potentially nasty could take place... drops of blood and red juice on pallid blooms make the photographs slightly sinister. Darkness gives them an unknown and mysterious depth'

- Artist Statement 

Escape Into Life 2012, Margriet Smulders, Escape Into Life,  October 1st 2020, <https://www.escapeintolife.com/photography/margriet-smulders/>

Margriet Smulders’ ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ from 2012 is a mysterious, provocative image that utilises dynamic lighting as well as colour to create intrigue and create a sense of the unknown.

Smulders create a scene that puts the viewer in a position that seems as though they are underwater looking towards the surface, an idea which is developed by the direction of the light shining down and through the water. This concept is powerful and almost feels suffocating. This idea of struggle is combatted with the stillness of the water. This rises a question of, why would someone underwater not be struggling? 

Perhaps Smulders wanted to create the idea that this was intended and thought through. 

This puts us, as viewers, into an uncomfortable position whereby we are forced into an obedient, submissive position underwater. This could be a direct representation of society, Smulders is a self-confessed feminist, and could be presenting a concept of obedient women. Making the viewer ponder upon how women are horseshoed into a position where they must submit to the patriarchy even in dangerous circumstances; that women will drown in orders to be subservient.

‘Untitled Film Still #92’ (left) presents differing themes. Looking as though is has been taken straight out of a horror movie, Sherman presents us with a character whose emotions are clear. Staring past the camera, this character looks fearful which forces us to question why. Sherman fills the frame in this image so we do not have the luxury of more information, a technique she often uses to create mood and tension.

This time, Sherman has shot in colour, though this does not provide us with much more information other than the costume seeming somewhat school girl-esque. The connotations of a school girl, fearfully sprawled on the ground are sinister. Has this girl been hurt, or is she going to be? The main overarching question however: who/what is she looking at? 

The wooden floorboards in the background are the only sense of location. We could assume the character is in a house which could be hers or someone else’s.

The use of direct, white lighting on Sherman’s face adds to the ‘out of a horror film’ style and develops the tension as it comes across as harsh and menacing. Overall, the image does seem quite sinister with Sherman’s expression and the questions forced to the forefront of our minds. 

First Image: Directly inspired by Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Still #21’, this image is thought provoking in contrasting ways to that of Sherman’s. ‘#21’ presents the viewer with a precise and authoritative image of a woman amongst the concrete jungle of New York, the above image is a contrasting view of this. Although not captured in New York, the high-rise buildings in the background suggest a similar thing. Opposite to Sherman’s image, the male model is facing away from the camera. This creates a shyness about him, but also leave the question of ‘who is he?’ and ‘why is he there?’.

This time the model is much more prominent within the frame, despite being anonymous, the only link to his identity would be that of the first image, but without that this model could be anyone; forcing viewers to subconsciously identify with the image.

Both the first and this image were shot at the same location, this is a strong point to mention as from looking at the images you would not know this, thus creating a sense of Alice in Wonderland syndrome with this disorientation.

Second Image: The best way to describe this image would be as a fatigued yearning indicating hope and promise. This is further enhanced by the bright sky and upward angle of the image, yet tired from reaching and believing for so long. Though only the model’s arm is present within this photograph, we can gather a sense of self and an idea of how this person either had or has goals and aspirations. Almost seamlessly linking to the first image, this image paints a picture of insignificance. This lowly nature could be towards the goal, or thing the model is reaching towards for so long and also a direct reflection of the model themselves. The subordination of the model goes as far as not having him in the frame at all, amplifying his secondary status.

The arm is framed in the centre of the image with a whole background negative space. This negative space heightens the perceived importance of this reach whilst also detracting from it by making it seem so small and trivial. Furthermore, the subject-to-ground contrast adds clarity to the arm, portraying the reaching aspect as the logical and level-minded thing to do, something that could reflect how society teaches us to aim for high standards which, in some circumstances, are unachievable resulting in a tiresome future of disappointment.

Third Image: Yet another powerful image portraying somewhat controversial ideas that oppose societal belief, akin to the work of Sherman; by shooting upwards this image captures the model in a powerful position. She is seemingly holding up the crumbling structure around her with a single hand. Antonymous with societies perception of weak and feeble femininity, this photograph defines women as a force to be reckoned with as they work effortlessly to pick up the pieces of our brittle world. The model expresses no sign of exhaustion or weariness in this act which only exaggerates her strength and power.

The model, on the most part, near enough fills the frame; this highlights the magnitude of her role within the photo. The lack of distractions around her through the full frame composite once again reinforces the idea of her being the singularly important thing in the frame, leaving viewers neglecting the fact that the area around her is dishevelled and collapsing in upon itself. The idea that she should hide the broken nature of her home, for lack of better words, creates a hoodwinked feeling.

Fourth Image: A stark difference to the previous image, the model here is weakened and vulnerable, remaining within the boundaries of her femininity as defined by society.

Using the same technique to the first image, the model is delicately positioned in the bottom right corner of the frame, almost barely there at all. Instead of this suggesting insignificance however, this amplifies the sadness suggesting by her sorrowful expression.

Framed amongst the break in the brickwork, the model breaks the pattern causing an unsettling feeling and also draws attention to the gap in the wall. This gap could reflect a gap in the model’s life, perhaps she’s lost a loved one or even feels a part of herself is missing? Either way, having the model positioned this way provokes the viewer to ask questions that pull upon stereotypical themes of heartbreak and loneliness.