Conceptualizing Still Life Photos: How Photographer Jens Mortensen Comes Up with Ideas

March 1, 2019

By David Walker

Still life photographer Jens Mortensen shoots mostly commercial work for high-end department stores and beauty brands. But he continues to shoot for a few editorial clients, including The New York Times. One big difference between his editorial and commercial assignments, Mortensen notes, is the creative freedom clients give him.

Commercial clients usually come to him with concepts and images in mind. “For editorial work, I often get a say in the concept,” Mortensen says. “It’s a lot about creating a clever idea.” Times editors, for instance, tell him what a story is about, and leave it up to him to present ideas. “I try to inject a little humor into it, so it’s fun to look at.” At the same time, he tries to keep the ideas “really simple, [and] easy to understand.” Often, editors call on him to shoot both stills for the print edition of the newspaper, and animated gifs for online versions of the story. “I use the same image” for both, he says. “But the one on the website has movement to it.”

© Jens Mortensen

For a New York Times story about a gun maker’s call for a ban on high-capacity of ammo clips. © Jens Mortensen

For instance, Mortensen got an assignment last fall to create eight images for a series in the Times’s Science section called “11 Things We’d Really Like to Know.” The series was meant to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Science Times. Mortensen’s task was to come up with images that illustrated eight big question of contemporary life such as: Can we survive global warming? Will we be able to cure Alzheimer’s? Why are we getting so fat? (Franziska Barczyk provided illustrations for three of the 11 questions.)

“[Jens] was just perfectly suited to the tone of our project,” Science Times photo editor Matthew McCann explained via email. “His work first stands out for its vivid colors and bright lighting — as we’re forced to create visuals for audiences habituated to smaller and smaller screens, the right bright yet elegantly simple image can really stand out. The brightness also lends a sense of humor, or at least, fun, that hint at the tone of a story or project in a way that more conventional, documentary-style photography often can’t.”

McCann gave Mortensen a week to complete the assignment, with little direction. “I gave him a pretty vague prompt, something like, ‘we want fun and bright,’“ McCann explained.

“So I brainstormed,” Mortensen says. Thinking through the questions, which were about basic human health and survival, “all of a sudden I was thinking about one of those [human anatomy] torsos where you can take out all the organs. I thought that might be a fun way to base a story around…I like those torsos because they have that nice retro look, and [I thought] they would photograph well.”

McCann liked the idea, so Mortensen scouted around and found a torso, plus a few other props, such as an old fashioned syringe needle. He shot the torso in various stages of disassembly against a variety of colored backgrounds. Mortensen notes that bold colors are a current trend in still life photography. “Ten years ago, 90 percent of everything was shot on white or gray backgrounds—mostly white,” he explains. “Now there are crazy sets, with patterns and colors. You can have more fun.”

Mortensen photographed the half-head of the torso in a cast iron skillet to illustrated the question “Will We Survive Climate Change?” For the question “Why Are We Still So Fat?” McCann suggested surrounding the torso with a pile of hamburgers “just to be a little more blunt about our point,” the photo editor explained. For “When Will We Solve Mental Illness?” Mortensen shot plastic eyeballs, placed on a colored background, looking in different directions. Editors “said it looked a little too much like a freak show. They thought it might offend people.” So Mortensen “toned it down” by photographing the torso head inside a cardboard box instead.

© Jens Mortensen

For a New York Times story about Pepperidge Farm goldfish. © Jens Mortensen

“I try to keep humor in mind always,” Mortensen says of his process. His ideas are often inspired by cartoons. “Maybe I watched too many cartoons as a child,” he surmises, adding that when his daughter was growing up, “I used to watch SpongeBob all the time.”

The cartoon influence shows up in an animated gif, created for The New York Times business desk, of a Pepperidge Farm goldfish cracker swimming in a fish bowl. The fish gets very big as it swims to the front of the bowl, closer to the viewer. There, it hesitates, rocks back and forth, and quickly circles again. “The story talks about [Pepperidge Farm] goldfish,” Mortensen says. “What could be more fun than a goldfish swimming in a fish tank?”

But humor isn’t always appropriate. The Times business section also called on Mortensen to illustrate a story titled “When a Gun Maker Proposed Gun Control.” The story opens with a reference to the shooting at a Texas church in 2018 that left 26 worshippers dead, and 20 others injured. Mortensen explains that the story was “talking about how this gunman was able to empty a clip of 30 bullets very fast.” The Times had sent Mortensen a single bullet of the same type used in the clip. Asking himself how he might use it, he came up with the idea of creating a gif that shows 30 bullets lining up, one after another, at the speed they can be shot from a semiautomatic rifle.

Mortensen says commercial clients also hire him to shoot gifs, but they don’t usually ask him to come up with the idea, or even assemble the gifs. “I shoot the parts—they tell me what they want—and they put together the gifs themselves,” he says.

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