Context & Narrative

Rob Townsend

Assignment 5: Two Ways of (Still) Life


Making it up: Two Ways of (Still) Life


Click the image for a bigger version.

Two Ways of (Still) Life

Two Ways of (Still) Life

About the work

My starting point for this assignment was that it should continue in a similar vein to Assignments 2, 3 and 4 in its subject matter and inspiration. In one way or another those preceding assignments were all quite introspective and used photography to depict thoughts/emotions that I was experiencing (creative block, an overwhelming and fragmented lifestyle, career dissatisfaction). The subject matter for this assignment came quite easily, as there’s one big (positive) thing going on in my life right now that I wanted to depict photographically.

After over 20 years of working in IT project management, latterly as a company director, I recently made the decision to take a career break to study photography full-time.

The staged image submitted here is intended to depict this decision in the form of a still life composition. It draws inspiration from two main sources:

  • Oscar Rejlander’s 1857 epic moral allegory The Two Ways of Life in terms of its use of symbolism and the left-right construction
  • The general style and visual language of the still life genre in art, both painting and photography

I chose a still life approach as it suits the subject matter, which is small-scale, personal and introspective. My intention was to make the scene appear on the surface to be a mundane capture from everyday life, rather than a fantastical or surreal scene. Upon closer reading, and perhaps with the assistance of the title or a little further explanation, I want the viewer to perceive a number of carefully constructed signifiers that cumulatively create the sense of narrative of someone giving up one way of life for a more satisfying alternative.

Production process

As instructed in the brief, I recorded the overall production process for the image with notes and work-in-progress photographs.

  • From the initial idea some weeks back, I started writing down lists of potential props that fit the message
  • I had a strong sense of visualisation for the image and so early on I sketched out the desk layout in my notebook
  • I had to work out an appropriate location: my own study is completely the wrong layout and the desk is too narrow, so I asked my wife if I could use her home office instead
  • A couple of props had to be bought or borrowed so I was doing that as I was going along in the preparation stage
  • Lacking any decent photographic lighting, I borrowed a standing light from a studio photographer friend
  • I basically had a three-day window to complete the shoot – a combination of my wife being away (so I could rearrange her office) and the duration of the lighting kit loan
  • I started with simple test shots to check how the desk would fit in the frame and where to position the lighting
  • I had a few goes at laying out the props and playing with the viewpoint until I settled on a position almost level with the desktop
  • Based on research into still life I rejected an early idea to include a whiteboard on the wall – classical still life tended to have plain backgrounds
  • I settled on one execution to tidy up with a bit of post-processing and uploaded it to the OCA Level 1 Photography Facebook group for comment
  • Again based on still life research I removed a couple of items as carrying existing allusions not relevant to my message (the apple and the flower)
  • I added or changed a few props based on feedback from people that I’d shown the work-in-progress version to
  • I made notes and sketched out the final layout
  • I finalised the lighting setup
  • I experimented with the light level as I wanted to see the effect of slowing down the shutter speed; in the end the sweet spot was lamp power down to about 30% and a 20 second exposure
  • I shot what turned out to be the final version and set about the post-processing
  • The biggest task was moving the clock (I’d promised my wife no new holes drilled into the wall so had to work with an existing picture hook and move it in Photoshop!)
  • Apart from the clock, most of the processing work was colour adjustments and cloning out blemishes

I found the experience more enjoyable than I expected. It had an element of a puzzle to it, as in it required thinking about what should go where for the best overall effect. To methodically try out different arrangements was strangely therapeutic. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that constructed photography is my new favourite genre, but I have got a new-found appreciation for those that do work in this way. It’s been an interesting diversion away from my usual creative approach.


Here I describe the signifiers that are in the image. I am of course aware that the assignment is not a challenge to cram in as many signifiers as possible! I hadn’t realised quite how many I had included until I’d completed the construction of the scene. Most of the allusions are deliberate, although a handful I only noticed after the event and yet they support my intended message so I mention them at the end.

The tie represents the corporate side of my life. It’s twisted and tangled to signify that it’s a complicated life, and the fact that its been discarded alludes to the decision to take a career break. I also positioned the tie to point to the headache tablets to signify stress.

The overflowing in-tray is another obvious signifier for an overly busy life (although I could have made it messier?). The calculator and the wallet are supposed to represent that this side of my life is all about money. The wallet also contains train tickets and an Oyster card to depict the nomadic existence of working away from home.

I specifically chose an old-style telephone as I wanted to somehow depict that I have followed this lifestyle for a very long time. This juxtaposes with the modern laptop, which I had as closing to represent the decision to take a break from work.

The Starbucks cup is intended to depict the negative side of capitalism (alluding to their reputation as tax-dodgers). I concede that this is a bit of a stretch but it meant something to me!

The books (either their titles or their contents) represent a capsule version of the narrative:

  • Consulting book = start of journey
  • Harvard book = discovering downside of corporate life
  • Dot.bomb book = about my sector (IT)
  • Fight Club = about split personality
  • Who Do You Think You Are (title) = embarking on self-discovery
  • Revolution in the Head (title) = thinking differently
  • What’s Stopping You? (title) = decision to change direction
  • The Thought Gang = academia

The right-hand side of the image is all about the academic/artistic side of my life going forward. The mannequin, the pencils, the sketch pad and the photo of a painter are (admittedly fairly literal) allusions to the arts, while the spectacles are intended to connote study.

The only direct reference to studying photography is that the pencil pot is in the style of a camera lens. The Pot Noodle is a tongue-in-cheek reference to being an impoverished student.

The fork is intended to connote a decision being made, a fork in the road. In terms of specific positioning, the fork is one of many items pointing at the right-hand side of the image, in particular the painter photo – with the others being the mannequin, the glasses, the pencil and the hour hand on the clock.

The clock is in the centre to depict the present (so the left side is the past and the right side is the future). The time is 5pm, the traditional hour of work finishing. As noted above, coincidentally this makes the hour hand point at the right side of the image.

Finally, there are a few allusions that were unintentional and only noticed after the event, yet they support my intended message and so may be noticed by a viewer:

  • The colour red is repeated on the left side (Starbucks cup, tie, in-tray) and this helps to bring a negative sense to the left-hand side of the image (the small amount of green on the right is similarly coincidental)
  • The left side is what I have ‘left’ behind and the right side is what’s ‘right’ for me now
  • The left side of the desk base is narrow whilst the right side is broad (narrow-minded vs broad-minded)


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:

  • Materials: I’m happy with the choice of subject matter, individual props and lighting equipment that served to make the image very close to my original visualisation
  • Techniques: I used a number of compositional and symbolism techniques from still life, based on my research; I used lighting techniques to soften the shadows bring a clean, deadpan aesthetic to the image, and made exposure decisions (low ISO, slow shutter speed, small aperture) to bring depth and clarity to the image
  • Observational skills: for this kind of image this is I believe related to the design and compositional skills mentioned below; the ability to select the appropriate props and to arrange them in the way that best supports the intended message
  • Visual awareness: I leant heavily on my research into the visual language of still life and attempted as far as possible to be faithful to the genre; in addition, I knew I wanted a very clean, crisp sharpness to the image and I think I achieved that
  • Design and compositional skills: key to the success of an image like this is the aesthetic, and I hope that the combination of lighting, exposure decisions and careful arrangement of the items lead to a well-composed image that supports my narrative intent

Quality of outcome:

  • Content: this is an assignment where everything in the frame had to be carefully selected and justified, and I believe that I made appropriate decisions on what to include and exclude (this evolved during my preparation and shooting)
  • Application of knowledge: as mentioned elsewhere, I used my research into still life and my analysis of Oscar Rejlander’s The Two Ways of Life to guide my approach to the construction of the image; I also remained aware throughout the assignment of the application of the knowledge gained in part four on reading photographs: the semiotic aspect to imagery and how to manipulate this to communicate an intended message
  • Presentation in a coherent manner: presentation is everything in a constructed image; I put more care into this aspect of the image than in any previous assignment (or indeed any previous photographic endeavour in my life)
  • Discernment: I interpret this as knowing what to include, what to exclude and how to present it – and I have covered these points elsewhere in this self-evaluation
  • Conceptualisation of thoughts: the overarching objective of the assignment – and indeed my last three assignments – has been to depict internal thoughts; I believe that I have been successful in this photograph in applying this to the chosen subject
  • Communication of ideas: my intent was to get over a personal message about changing my life in a particular way, and I did consider a lot through this whether the imagery was either too obvious or too obscure; in the end I came to the conclusion that, along with the title and a little explanatory text, the idea I wished to communicate would unfold for a reasonably observant viewer (I also realised that not everyone will interpret the image in the same way as me, or in the way I hope others will… c’est la vie)

Demonstration of creativity:

  • Imagination: although this is essentially a realist image rather than a fantastical or surreal one, I think I demonstrated a reasonable amount of imagination in the concept and execution
  • Experimentation: for me this does represent experimentation, as constructed images and studio work are very far outside my comfort zone
  • Invention: as I’ve admittedly been working with some specific sets of art history influences, I’m not claiming the image as being particularly inventive


  • Reflection: working in a different visual style and preparatory approach has been extremely enlightening for me, and has shown me a different way of using photography, one that I previously shunned; I do feel like I’ve genuinely learned something in this assignment
  • Research: my main research is detailed in an earlier blog post but in summary, I made significant use of Clarke’s The Photograph (1997), Bate’s Photography: the Key Concepts (2009), Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2009) and Kevin Bell’s Still Life Photography (2012); in addition, I researched still life photographers online (including but not limited to Nigel Shafran), and as usual I referred to the work of other OCA photography students for inspiration and pointers
  • Critical thinking: throughout this assignment I used the knowledge gained from the reading photographs section of this course, and Assignment 4; the applications of semiotic theory, in particular denotation/connotation and signifiers/signifieds, was the whole foundation of the image, its intent and its execution


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Bell, K (2012) Still Life Photography [Kindle Edition] from: (accessed 19/11/2015)

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cotton, C (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson. (accessed 17/11/2015) (accessed 18/11/2015)



5 thoughts on “Assignment 5: Two Ways of (Still) Life

  1. I like this a lot! not sure if I would associate a pot noodle with the positive, however green the pot though! How big would you print the picture?


    • Thank you! The Pot Noodle was my one tongue-in-cheek contribution to an otherwise quite dry composition 🙂 … Good question regarding printing… as big as possible would be best, but I’m kind of loathe to buy a new portfolio case after investing in an A4 one already! I guess that makes me a cheapskate… :-/


  2. I need to come back here for a proper read and view (currently on a 15minute break from my own work) but had to laugh at the clock moving. I’ve just been wrestling with an image where the clock had a tiny perfect burnt-out reflection of my soft-box… doh… ended up taking the whole clock out. I do like this image, other people’s desks are always interesting even before they tell such an interesting story.


  3. Pingback: Assignment 5: tutor feedback | Context & Narrative

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s