My objective has been to remain true to what I see as the essence of the original Dutch treatment of death and beauty with a modernised way of doing so which hopefully refreshes the contemporary viewer’s interest. My approach is to take greatly enlarged (‘macro’) photographs of autumn leaves: I seek to grab the viewer’s attention and encourage his/her contemplation by using the leaves as impactful rather than subtle symbols and by using extreme scale as well as detail.

The beauty displayed by autumn leaves en masse is still arresting even though very familiar.

When studied closely the beauty of certain individual autumn leaves can be just as great and less familiar. The fact that the moment of greatest beauty and of death coincide make these leaves a particularly effective symbol.

It would be wrong to associate beauty with tragic, premature or unexpected death. However, unlike in the 16th century, death in affluent modern societies arguably often comes too late rather than too suddenly. Medical intervention increasingly is seen to drag out the sometimes miserable last years of the dementia sufferer, the terminally ill or the physically incapacitated. Some faced with such a prospect see an absence of anything worth living for (metaphorically an absence of beauty) and would like to choose an assisted death or voluntary euthanasia.  Other, perhaps more 'classical', choices that might lead to a death with beautiful aspects include: the hero’s self-sacrifice, the seeker after glory, death caused by sybaritic excess, death to avoid sin and achieve certainty of heaven. I hope that my pictures are a springboard for the consideration of the way in which death and beauty can be intertwined in these circumstances.


The reddish colour palette of the autumn leaf and the decay seen when viewed up-close are full of appropriate associations: blood, fire, rust, hell etc. Leaves also have the interesting feature that their beauty seems to have no evolutionary purpose, which is perhaps the case in a personally chosen death.

Whilst I intend my symbolism to be a modern extrapolation from that of the Dutch still life, I also aim to modernise their other method of attention-grabbing by adding scale to hyper-realism. In achieving verisimilitude, the input of the photographer personally is vanishingly small compared to that of the early Dutch still life masters.

The representational painter of course depends on his training, colour makers and so forth, but generally the dependence of the photographer on equipment made by others is much greater.

Although the viewer is therefore less likely to be intrigued purely by the quality of the reproduction, there are recent developments in digital sensors and in software that have enabled the creation of much larger sharp images, and which do have the capacity to impress.

Indeed, in the right hands, the surprise caused by large scale works has been an important and successful element in modern photography . For example, an Andreas Gursky 300x150cm photograph creates the sensation for the viewer of ‘being there’ whilst seeing with a new vision in a way that no 25x20cm print of Ansel Adams can. But these large format images are still smaller than the portrayed object.

A different kind of surprise can be obtained by macro-photography where the subject is enlarged many times. However, macro-photography is often considered to be more of a circus trick; or at best a semi-scientific exploration, creating a surprise or horror at, for example, the insect’s jaws or hairy legs that displaces any artistic element. 

Matthew Greenburgh: Objective

I use macro-photography in a more conceptual way to bring out the abstract quality of the leaves’ patterns and colours at an unusual but not alarming scale and thereby encourage the viewer to look beyond the familiar response to this familiar object.

Finally, each of my pictures are directly related to one or more pri or works of art – sometimes an Old Master, sometimes another photograph, sometimes a work of literature. I explain how each of my pictures is connected to the earlier work of art in the Pictures section below. I aim to use the connection to bring out an aspect of my overall theme of beauty in death and death in beauty.

In addition, I want to explore the extent to which it is indeed possible to give a picture meaning in an explicit way. Some of the connections might seem tenuous: where this is the case I hope they are seen as part of a post-modernist game and not taken too seriously.


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