At first glance, Sharon Core’s meticulous, softly lit still-lifes of fruits, vegetables, meat and plants could be mistaken for paintings. Inspired, and in some cases directly based on the early-19th-century still-life paintings of Raphaelle Peale (son of the well-known portrait painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale), Core’s “Early American” series of photographs reverses the usual relationship of photography to painting. Rather than using photography as an inspiration and means for painting, as did the Photorealists, Core makes photographs of paintings, taking as her starting point Peale’s intimate, tightly composed arrangements – in effect, “inhabiting Peale’s pre-photographic consciousness and making pictures of his sensibilities,” as she puts it.
On Saturday, March 23 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, Core will be signing her new book, Early American (2007-2010) published by Radius Books, and giving a talk on her work.
One of the fascinations of Core’s lush simulacra is how she employed photographic means to suggest the illusion of a flat, painted surface. She eschews digital photography, shooting her images using a four-by-five camera that produces unusually large negatives. She used a strobe light to recreate the painterly light of Peale’s still-lifes, in which objects, the table support and background wall are submerged in an envelope of soft shadows and pearly highlights. Core grew all the heirloom fruits and vegetables depicted in the photographs herself – a necessity, since the produce and plants painted by Peale differ markedly from modern-day varieties.
Verisimilitude was particularly important to her because of the exactitude with which Peale depicted his subjects: In the early 19th century, when America was mainly agricultural, such paintings were meant to be educational. A single composition of strawberries would depict not only the fruit, shown at different stages of ripeness, but also the flowers and leaves, akin to a botanical illustration.
Growing these plants became an experiment in itself. “I see the garden as an extension of my studio,” Core said, noting that she obtained many of her heirloom plants from Monticello. (Thomas Jefferson kept careful records of what he grew, and he was a close friend of Philadelphia’s Peale family.) So far the most challenging of Core’s horticultural experiments was a balsam apple, “a vine with a fruit with red seeds inside. I could grow it, but I couldn’t get it to look like the one in his painting.”
Given the formal sensibilities of her photographs, it is not surprising that Core started out as a painter. She studied painting as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, later earning an MFA in photography at Yale. She made paintings based on photographs before deciding that there was a redundancy in this method that could be eliminated by exclusively focusing on photography. She initially chose painting as the subject of her photography with an earlier series based on Wayne Thiebaud’s creamy, Pop-inspired depictions of cakes, pies and other confections. Core’s photographs uncannily capture the bold, painterly effects of Thiebaud’s works, down to the abstract lines of bright red paint, which she recreated by painting on a three-dimensional surface. She painted the crockery and baked all the cakes and pies herself.
Core started the “Early American” series in 2007, after she left Brooklyn and moved to Esopus. Since completing the series of 31 photographs in 2010, she has been working on photographs inspired by floral still-life painting from 1606 to 1907. That time period encompasses a variety of styles, from the hyperrealistic early Nederlandish paintings of tulips to the naturalism of Henri Fantin-Latour to the Symbolist fantasies of Odilon Redon. Core’s work has been collected by numerous US museums, including the Guggenheim, the J. Paul Getty and the Dorsky, at SUNY-New Paltz. She is represented by the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York City.
“Sharon Core: Early American,” book-signing/talk, Saturday, March 23, 3-5 p.m., free, Center for Photography at Woodstock, 59 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-9957, https://www.cpw.org.