I don’t think that we honour the small, fleeting things in life enough.
We live in an age of acquisitive hurry. Caught between the dictates of Taylorism and the blandishments of corporate advertising, we experience life as a maelstrom of deadlines to be met in order to earn the money to buy more things, the desire for which stems as much from the artifice of the adman as any genuine need in ourselves. It is a very modern notion of pleasure and achievement. While the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus considered pleasure the only intrinsic human value, for him it was to be found in refraining from unnecessary desires, to be content with simple things in life, of which the companionship of others was the most important. For him, hedonism was not the headlong rush to luxury and higher status, but the embrace of an inner tranquillity he called ataraxia.
It was the writings of Epicurus that came to mind when I first saw the work of the Canadian artist Shira Gold. Her delicate still-life images capture that sense of tranquillity as petals float lightly on the surface of water dark with quiet possibility. The value of her artwork does not come from the cost of its elements. Fallen petals, moths, scraps of toilet paper – these are not symbols of wealth and status… (except perhaps the last, when the recent fear of contagion became sublimated to an anal obsession that would have left Freud nodding sagely). What invests them with worth is their associative potential, their ability to suggest and to remind. As these modest fragments arc gracefully across the frame, they beckon for memory to join them in an intimate dance of recall reminding us of moments of genuine pleasure, free from the anxiety of getting and losing. The pleasures of being, connecting, and sharing.
What motivates you to make photographs?
I find the process so therapeutic. For me, it is like meditation or exercise – a tremendous outlet that betters my quality of life.
What draws you to constructing still-life images?
When I first began photography, I dreamt of a career like Annie Leibovitz – big, theatrical ideas with elaborate sets and a large crew. But it became obvious as I developed my personal approach to photography that my innate shyness coupled with my inability to delegate was not conducive to those early dreams… I didn’t go out looking for still life. It came about as I was conceptualising various series around different ideas. I found that working with inanimate objects gave me more agency and confidence to hone my skills. I was also juggling a life with small children, and working in the studio with still life instead of live subjects allowed me flexibility about when I worked.
Tell me about ‘The Fine Art of Letting Go’.
I’m fascinated by forgotten, overlooked, or seemingly simple things. I don’t think that we honour the small, fleeting things in life enough or give sufficient attention to those things that have little monetary value. This was the first of my still-life series and in it I reflect on my own tendency to hang onto things; not only trinkets but also emotional baggage from my past. I hold tight to my memories, worried that in releasing my bad experiences, I also risk forgetting the good.
I remember one of the sweetest moments with my children was watching them cutting up blossoms in their grandparents’ garden, plunking them into bowls and filling them with hose water. They stirred and stirred their ‘flower soup’ into a magical childhood potion. Now, whenever I see petals strewn across sidewalks, I’m reminded of childhood – my own and my children’s – and I wonder who else recognises the beauty in these fallen blooms.
To keep hold of those memories, I searched for petals strewn in ways that evoked my children’s potion. I preserved some petals I discovered, and photographed others where they had freshly fallen. The blossoms came from community streets and garden beds. Later, people who had heard of my project and wanted to participate shared flowers from their life ceremonies and special days.
What ideas and feelings do you seek to explore in this work?
I hope to capture the delicate balance between preservation and deterioration, strength and fragility – the awareness of impermanence that often accompanies the experience of letting go. I think that the mindful practice of reflecting on needs, experiences, and possessions is in itself an art form.
How are these images constructed?
All my still life images are created as composites, using photographs and scans or a combination of the two. I photograph each tiny object floating on a bath of coloured liquid or milk, or placed on a light box. Alternatively I use a flat-bed scanner to capture the image element. A finished piece consists of anywhere between four and twenty individual images assembled in digital postproduction.
You have said that these pieces seek to purify. That is a fascinating idea…
Using baths of milk or coloured liquid reminds me of the ceremonial cleansing found in the rituals of many different cultures. For millennia, water has been associated with healing. Milk suggests nurturing, growth, spiritual nourishment. By incorporating water and milk baths into my work, I hope to evoke such timeless, mystic purification rites.
How did Covid-19 affect your artmaking?
The initial months of the pandemic were incredibly isolating. But this extraordinary pause provided a unique opportunity to take stock of my life. I began a new series during this anxious but creative time, taking refuge in a tiny Covid-safe bubble and using artmaking to work through my fears. It gave me a sense of control over myself and helped me to understand the impact of the pandemic on my community and the environment. I was extraordinarily moved by how our often-invisible essential workers faced risks each day to meet the public’s basic needs. It taught me the importance of recognising everyone for what they contribute to our daily lives. The question for me then was about how I could use photography to work through these thoughts and feelings?
How was that question answered?
In the spring of 2020, a specific experience sparked a realisation that led to this series. After many unsuccessful hunts for ever-elusive essential goods, I turned to ordering toilet paper, disposable masks, and hand sanitiser online. When the shipment arrived, I tore it open with delight. But then, as I unwrapped each bubble-swathed item, I was struck by a self-revelation that was both comical and devastating. I realised that I had acted out of fear. So, I kept the packaging as a reminder of my contribution to the pandemic’s environmental impact, and of the way I had succumbed to the culture of fear-driven consumption. Reflecting on these moments informed and shaped the body of work I called ‘Bare Essentials’ in which I constructed composite images of masks, toilet paper, and even the bubble wrap in which these items had been packed.
The bubble-wrap images have a particular ethereal quality to them.
In these strange yet familiar times, I wanted to bring out a luminescent quality that made the material feel a little otherworldly. Yet, it was still important to me for the viewer to be able to recognise the mundane packaging for what it was.
You have called these works ‘conceptual portraits’. Who or what do they portray?
They reflect a state of mind – tension, confusion, the search for hope… the entanglement of messages that are part of our daily lives. I think that we can derive emotion and meaning through the environment and the things we live with. When inanimate objects are used metaphorically it allows the viewer a more flexible point of identification. Human subjects bring their own unique character, while the inanimate allow a viewer’s own private associations to come forward, opening up the possibility of connection across difference.
What is your creative process?
It really depends on the series. Inspiration can come at the most random of times. It begins with me noticing something unusual that I feel an emotional response to seeing. It is almost always based upon the experience or the situation I find myself in. From there, I do a lot of ‘playing’ with materials to figure out how I can translate my thoughts and feelings visually. It generally involves much trial and error and mess. (I often refer to myself as a ‘mad scientist’ during this stage.) The process is a bit of a dance – adding, refining – honing in on what works and what doesn’t.
How did the series ‘By A Thread’ begin?
In the summer, after several months of Covid constraint, our government decided to loosen the restrictions. Many felt a sense of freedom, but I found it incredibly difficult to adjust to this new openness. Then, when fall arrived, children returned to school for the first time since the pandemic began. Covid cases quickly rose, and restrictions tightened. While many in the community found the reintroduction of the pandemic rules tiresome, I took some comfort in the small sense of order and control they gave me.
I began shooting the moths in the fall of 2020, working on the series in parallel with ‘Bare Essentials’ until earlier this year. It was the first time I had seen the moths descend on the city [part of a natural ten-to-fifteen-year cycle in the region]. Something about it piqued my curiosity. I realised that the moths were an ideal visual metaphor for human nature.
In what way?
These years of pandemic constraints have been a true test of our resilience, amplifying our vulnerabilities. In the midst of darkness, moths are creatures drawn to the light. For many cultures they have become symbols of vulnerability, determination, and transformation. And now the moths were gathering in their multitudes reminding us of how we longed once more to convene together.
Can you give an example of how you translated those ideas visually?
In ‘Aptitude and Amplitude’ I wanted to suggest the push-and-pull of a return to whatever normal is supposed to feel like. The piece acknowledges that we have an instinctual ability to overcome distance and displacement, but that the journey we take to arrive at closeness and belonging is not easy for everyone. Closing the gaps in the space between ourselves and others can involve risk and requires thoughtfulness. But, in the process we become more resilient.
You have spoken about the healing properties of artmaking.
When I was thirty-five I was diagnosed with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. I have spent my life with an overactive mind. It spins and dreams, and it often feels like I am watching several TV channels at once. For me, photography is the only activity that can turn down the noise. It gives me a focus, allowing me to meditate on my life, on my past, and to connect more deeply with thoughts and feelings. Making photographs has been such a transformative experience. It is one of the greatest gifts I have received in life.
And when grief and loss took me to the very bottom, I found myself surrounded by the most beautiful moments of human complexity and love. The rawness of love, truth, and despair is profound. I want to turn pain and angst on its side to discover the beauty that accompanies our struggles. It is that energy that I try to harness in my photography and hope that the viewer can connect with it.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these photographs?
Having photography as my companion has given me a sense of place in this world. It gives me a way to put aside my innate shyness, providing a means by which to express my opinions and observations about life. My camera feels simultaneously like armour and a voice box. It is an honour to be able to use this tool and, through my art, form new relationships with people.
Shira Gold was born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1977. As a teenager, she learned about photography at Arts Umbrella, a non-profit school for youth arts education in Vancouver. Her artwork has featured in more than twenty-five exhibitions in North America, Europe, and online. Her images have been widely published in newspapers, magazines and art catalogues including The British Journal of Photography/1854, Dodho, Foto Nostrum, The Guardian (UK), PhotoED magazine, and The Times (UK). Shira Gold has been a finalist/awardee in various international competitions including the Fine Art Photo Awards (2019, 2020, 2022), the LensCulture Art Photography Awards (2019), the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards (2019, 2022), the International Photo Awards (2016, 2019, 2020), BJP Open Walls, Arles (2020), the Pollux Awards (2020, 2021), and the Lucie Foundation’s Carte Blanche (2022). She currently lives and works in Vancouver.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.