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  • stevenrabone

Informing Contexts - The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.

Over the last couple of months I have been focusing my attention and practice on the art of still life photography. The purpose of this has been an intent to really understand what makes a photograph and the relationship it has with painting.

In order to achieve this I have studied and looked at a whole host of paintings from the likes of Caravaggio through to the dutch masters of the seventeenth century. However one particular painting really struck a chord with me.Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber by Juan Sanchez Cotan.

The true likeness that this image has to the actual fruit and vegetables is remarkable, the seeds of the melon, the leaves of the cabbage, even the string holding the quince are so life like you could be convinced this is a photograph. I was also fascinated by the composition, the quince and cabbage hanging in mid air, the square geometric framing gives this a modern feel and yet this painting was completed in 1602.

As Roland Barthes had said in Camera Lucida, ‘Painting can feign reality without having seen it. Contrary to these imitations, in photography, I can never deny the thing has been seen.’ and yet Cotan does push this statement to it's limits. We can only assume that during the painting process these items would have been directly in front of Cotan just as if he had photographed them.

In addition to the modern composition I do also admire the dark background and deep shadows as this is something that I am also adopting with many of my current works.

As I look to compare photography to painting it is clear there are many similarities between both forms of art. Notwithstanding Cotan's challenge to Barthes notion that the items have been seen I do believe this 'trace of reality' is the fundamental difference between art and photography, the camera using light and a sensor to capture what was actually in front of the camera. As Susan Sontag points out the painter constructs and the photographer discloses. In other words the painter has full artistic licence to create an image, either influenced by what is in front of him or his imagination whereas the photographer in his disclosure, is showing the evidence of what was in front of him.

In comparing Cotan's work with modern photographers, Ori Gersht, stood out as a practitioner with similarities to the likes of Cotan, the dark backgrounds being just one element. However there was a particular video and set of stills that really helped emphasise the difference between the two forms of art. As can be seen below, Gersht set about recreating Cotan's work, but in his own distinct style, firing a bullet through the pomegranate that had replaced Cotan's quince.

Susan Sontag's words were very much in my mind as I watched this video. Cotan had constructed his image, but it has been Gersht that through his film and still images has disclosed a new way of seeing and viewing this composition.


Sontag, S. (1978). Susan Sontag on photography. London, Great Britain: Allen Lane

Mysite. (n.d.). Photography. [online] Available at:

Barthes, R. (1988). Camera lucida : reflections on photography. New York: The Noonday


Images & Video

Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber - Juan Sanchez Cotan - 1602 (n.d.). Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Mar. 2021].


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