Contemporary Vanitas

A couple of weeks ago we had a visiting speaker at college, called Robyn Woolston, who said that what you throw away says a lot about you. I thought the things I throw away would make an interesting subject for my contemporary Vanitas image.

I chose a wicker wastepaper basket and pulled a few things out of it to see what it might say about me. Food wrappers, tablet foils, hair products, magazines, train tickets and more tells you about my lifestyle, where I’ve been, how healthy I am, what my interests are and what I value. Its a little worrying to think that someone can work out so much about me from the things I simply toss in the bin.

I planned to photograph them in the studio and make it look similar in style to a traditional Vanitas painting, using strong triangular shapes and trying to replicate window light, using one light from the side with another to light the background.

ContempVanitas1webI spent some time getting the composition how I wanted it. At first the big crisp packet dominated the image but looked much better when I folded it down and under the bin.

The first image was taken using the flash and looks fine. I’m happy with the way your eye is drawn in and around the image but as we had not used flash for the traditional version we did last week I tried this one without a flash too.

ContempVanitas2webAs suggested, the light is much softer and gives it a much gentler and more solemn tone. This is probably my preferred image.





For the third image I moved the light at the side to the back slightly and turned it to face towards the front a little. It gives the image a bit more texture but is far too dark for my liking.


This has given me an idea to create further images on this theme about people that I know.

Contemporary Vanitas Prep

My aim to take a traditional looking Vanitas image using things that I would usually throw away. So the props I will need are:

  • Wastepaper basket
  • Variety of clean waste / recycling
  • I won’t take a take a cloth as I want to use the surface of the table in the studio

I want to recreate natural soft window light on the display, looking as though it will be coming from one side. So I plan to set up the studio to look like this.


So I will need the following equipment:

  • Tripod
  • Light meter
  • Medium softbox
  • Barn doors
  • Honeycomb
  • I’ll use the black background that is already in the studio

I will be placing the camera to frame the items quite tightly on a small table and want to have everything in focus, so I expect to use an aperture of around F8.


Robyn Woolston

We had an interesting talk from Robyn Woolston this week.

Robyn is an artist that works across several disciplines and is also an activist. Working predominantly with waste materials, she aims not only to make us think about what we throw away but also about how we use various ‘waste’ spaces.

Smart Price

In her work Robyn has used thousands of reclaimed plastic knives and forks, plastic bags, lanyards and plastic gift cards. Items that would otherwise be sent to landfill and take several hundred years to degrade

I really like the way her work is so focused on her message. She has a clear understanding of what she wants people to think about and sticks very firmly to that.

Robyn explained how her own work was informed by her circumstances and the the death of her mother, pointing out that discussion about waste is closely related to discussion about death.

It has led me to think about what I throw away and what that says about me. Perhaps my own Vanitas photographs should be based around what I throw away.

More of Robyn’s work can be found at