Is the Still Life the Form of the Moment?

Aperture , May 19, 2020
Six photography curators consider images that have new resonance in the era of social distancing.

In 2000, the J. Paul Getty Museum invited eleven artists, including photographer Uta Barth, to create work in response to objects in the institution’s collection. Finding inspiration in Claude Monet’s Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning (1891)—a painting that demonstrates how light alters the perception and appreciation of a subject—Barth created a series of multipart photographs that examine how daylight streams through her living-room window.


Her not-quite-stereoscopic diptych . . . and of time . (AOT 4) (2000), presents two subtle variations of the same scene: a sparsely appointed interior bathed in warm, soft light. In both images, the outlines of a paned window are cast against a wall, floating over the cushions of a vibrant, yellow sofa like specters. A paper lamp appears suspended in the upper right corner of one image. By relegating these tangible objects to the edges of the frames, Barth emphasizes the negative space in the room, as well as how light can help to reorient our perception of the familiar, transforming the spaces we inhabit into unconventional scenes.


The contents of Barth’s home, from furniture to small ornaments and vessels, have regularly featured in her work for over two decades. But the real pursuit of these visual investigations concerns the act of looking itself. Prolonged observation, especially when applied to one’s immediate surroundings, can encourage reflection and a more nuanced understanding of the mundane. In this moment of collective pause, appreciation of the still life and the careful looking it involves has never felt more relevant.

—Arpad Kovacs, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles