Modern day photography – the contemporary still life

by Michelle Chaplow

In terms of still life imagery, the world of photography takes inspiration from the great masters of classical painting, creating contemporary twists on traditional still life shots.

Many living artists work in this field, and one of my favourites is Laura Letinsky, a Canadian contemporary art photographer who is renowned for her still lifes. She has exhibited worldwide in prestigious galleries including The Photographer´s Gallery in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Her work is included in permanent collections such as San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Hermes Collection, Paris. Laura is a professor at the University of Chicago in the department of Visual Arts, and a Guggenheim fellow.

Her minimalist images, with their gentle graduation of natural lighting, combine and fuse traditional artistry from the classic still life with contemporary flair, resulting in new modern images that are indeed are masterpieces within their own right

I decided to recreate a series of five similar images, using a pure white table cloth contrasted with vibrant colours, selecting bright red tomatoes as my subject. My own take on the modern day, contemporary still life

Contemporary still life – La Tomatina 

The beef tomato is of particular interest due to its random, irregular shape, while the small cherry tomatoes reminded me of billiard balls laid out on white linen fabric. Within still life photography, you set the stage, then the styling happens almost haphazardly and the idea develops.

The beef tomato, La Tomatina

The beef tomato

 The beef tomato

Here we have a minimalist subject balancing on the edge of the table. The cloth is being blown by wind, so that it develops an almost triangular form, while the tomato is perfectly balanced on a grey cement tile at the very edge of the table, creating an element of tension and uncertainty.

La Tomatina, contemporary still life

The beef tomato and the red ‘billiard balls’

 The beef tomato and the billiard balls

Six small tomatoes enter the frame, arranged randomly, introducing an element of homogeneity – belonging to the same family, while the tension created by the precariously balanced beef tomato remains. There is almost an element of hierarchy in the scene, with the beef tomato representing the master, or leader, with the smaller vegetables as servants or followers.


La tomatina contemporary still life photography

The incision

Image three: The incision

Six becomes seven, and a sharp knife piercing the tomato stands tall in an almost dagger-like way. The aftermath; the cut, the wound.

The insertion of the knife, adding more weight, increases the likelihood that the tomato could fall, but the knife stands tall.

 The passage of time.

La Tomatina contemporary still life photography

The passage of time

The light changes – time has passed, a lit candle has appeared, a used match rests perfectly on the cherry tomato in the foreground. Looking closely, one of the now eight small tomatoes has been flattened. The knife and its position creates visual tension once again.


The precariously-poised beef tomato is no longer in view. The tension is absent, the candle burns and five tomatoes remain in a random, harmonious minimalist scene. We are back to a gentler, less threatening image.

contemporary still life - Serenity



So there we have it a series of modern five takes on a traditional still life. Photography has no bounds, no limits and as the art form advances, more and more interpretations of modern day photography will appear. There is a lot of fun to be had creating contemporary  still life scenes, why not give it a try for yourself?