The Vanitas Series: A Fresh Take on an Old Theme

Photographer Alexander James’ Vanitas series will amaze you. The photographs are rich, dark, emotional and perfectly executed. These are photos that will twist your mind and make you think about your perception of different art mediums. This series is something new and fresh to the eye; although your first look will deceive you of this. I have never seen photos quite like these, and this is exhilarating.

Although these photographs created an initial feeling of excitement, the series was meant to evoke a different set of emotions and thoughts. Once I began to study the items in the scenes, I realized that there was a deliberate message about life and death in these photos. Like the Vanitas paintings of 17th century Dutch artists, James’ series of photographs sets a scene using items that represent death and items that represent life.

For example, in the photo titled “The Great Leveler,” there is a skull and a vase filled with dying flowers sitting side-by-side. A blue butterfly flies over the skull and looks to be going towards the dying flower for nectar. It reminds me that everything must die; animal, plant and insect.

When I looked at the Vanitas series for the first time, I was immediately intrigued…and confused. “Are these photos or paintings? “, I thought to myself. Mr. James is, of course, a photographer, so these must be works of photography. But, my goodness, they look just like oil paintings! These photographs are truly magical to me.

How did he do it? My mind immediately turned to digital editing and manipulation. I hesitated to believe it true; for if they had been manipulated, they would not be (in my opinion) gallery-worthy. Once I learned the method used, I was relieved to know it was true genius that inspired these photos and not a computer program.

Once I knew that the “oil painting” effect was achieved by carefully setting up and shooting the scenes underwater, I was even more amazed by these photos and the photographic technique and method used. I must say, though, I somewhat enjoyed believing photographer Alexander James was a photography magician. I would have been just as happy to continue in my ignorance of the method used. I could have stared at those photos for a long time trying to guess how the effect was produced.

Photos Copyright ©2011 Alexander James. All rights reserved.

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