Feeling Flushed: The Toilet as a Still Life

Feeling Flushed: The Toilet as a Still Life

The toilet has a humble and immodest history in photography. So, to follow in the footsteps of the greats, I set out to review it's past and recreate my own in the style of Alfred Steiglitz.

Nudes, landscapes, fashion, portraiture, and architecture all feature heavily in the back catalog of photography. Think Weston, Adams, Beaton, Cameron, and Shulman. We even have news (Fenton), abstract (Man Ray) and, well, the fantastic (Reijlander). But through all these genres the still life looms large - long exposure times meant that immobile objects or scenes were popular. Fox Talbot's classic "The Open Door," with faux cottage industry broom, started a trend that extends through to the likes of Sharon Core today.

Holding a small and special (well, at least for me!) place within this body or work falls the humble toilet. There are probably three broad types of toilet shot - the artistic, the documentary, and the famous. Let's take a look at a few of these.

One early photo by Eugene Atget wasn't specifically of a toilet, but a pissoire in Paris of Rue Saint-Jacques - it's a street photo and is recorded for posterity by virtue of being in the street. Within the context of contemporary photography these can sometimes look a little like artistic long exposures, however, they simply reflect the restrictions of the film of the time (for example, Daguerre's Boulevard du Temple). The first serious artistic photo was, strangely, of what is thought to be a wrily humorous submission to the Society of Independent Artists 1917 exhibition in New York. Titled 'Fountaine' by Marcel Duchamp, it was simply a urinal and intended as a visual commentary on modern art. The original Fountaine no longer exists, but in an odd twist of fate, the photograph by Steiglitz has usurped the original in the form of a piece of art!

Duchamp's Fountaine as shot by Steiglitz

Duchamp's Fountaine as shot by Steiglitz

This was followed by Weston's genuine artistic exploration of the toilet in 1925 during his self-imposed Mexican exile and is titled "Excusado." These were immensely formative years for Weston and all manner of objects were considered in the build-up to possibly his two most famous still life shots with "Pepper No. 30" and "Nautilus."

Moving into the documentary world we have fresh-faced Davidson's famous photo of Frank Zappa (Zappa Krappa as it's known!) - genuinely on the John in 1967. More seriously, there have been a number of photo essays on the topic of sanitation around the world, particularly linked to World Toilet Day - for example at the BBC and National Geographic.

A Tribute to the Steiglitz Original

A Tribute to the Steiglitz Original

To complete this brief trip, we have the famous - that is famous for the toilet itself or famous for who's sitting on the toilet. For example Thomas Crapper's original, NASA's space toilet or the 'Worst Toilet in Scotland" from Trainspotting. Both Halle Berry and Madonna are more recently (in)famous for Instagram selfies whilst on the bowl.

So what better way to finish than a homage to Steiglitz in the form of my own toilet. Long live the still life!

Banner image courtesy of Free-Photos vis Pixabay.

Fountaine Public Domain via Wikipedia

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Philippe Deguent's picture

Just a personal contribution... Portrait of T. Owlet

Mike Smith's picture

Does that constitute a tweet?!

Andress Kools's picture

Please, please, please correct your use of the name Stieglitz. It's not StEIglitz, but StIEglitz. You even linked to a Wiki-article that has the correct spelling. If you want to bring an homage to Stieglitz, at least write Stieglitz correctly.
Please, thank you.

chris bryant's picture

I am definitely not feeling flushed! Articles like this just drive me around the bend. Fstoppers must be plumbing the depths with a crap item like this. Is Mike Smith taking the piss, butt, if the author was a women, no one would Sewer. I am of course being Faecetious. And if I can just drop a last one in there, good job I am not a Klingon. Gotta run - don't want to get caught with my pants down.