How to Arrange the Perfect Instagram Still Life in 4 Steps

It is unclear when I became Man Repeller’s resident commentator on Instagram culture, but incidentally, this is a role that I have shimmied into — perhaps for the simple reason that I spend so much fucking time scrolling through my discover feed that it would be unbecoming of someone who calls herself a writer not to generate story ideas based on the content being served.

The most recent phenomenon to populate my feed comes care of a combination of still life artists, photographers, prop stylists and the editor-in-chief of The Cut, Stella Bugbee, who runs an Instagram account called Freakebana. Freakebana is a play on “Ikebana,” which is the Japanese art of floral arrangement. Of the two disciplines, I prefer Freakebana because according to the rules of the Instagram account’s bio, in Freakebana, you can arrange whatever you want — soda cans, bobby pins, human flesh! — not just flowers. Bill Hader’s Stefon would probably have had a field day with the art form. But it is really the unassuming denizens of the internet with access to well-lit space who are the greatest benefactors of Freakebana execution.

See what I mean? Amateur hour, no question, but still! The light. My favorite kind of work emerges from studied photographers and individuals who have dedicated their lives (fine, accounts) to making things look good. Julia Stotz, for example, maintains what I find to be one of the greatest examples of various-object-arrangement.

And I never would have found it had it not been for this one fateful morning when I was bent over in squat position trying to approximate a betoken contraction remedy while scrolling through Instagram’s discover feed.

I am aware of the app’s algorithmic power — that it parses through my interests and proclivities, scraping the underbelly of my identity to ensure that my discover feed is not actually a discover feed so much as it is a collection of things Instagram already knows I want to see. Still I wonder, because I believe in the infallible power of a trend, have still lives been populating the shit out of your feeds, too?

I hope the answer is yes because I’m about to take you on a journey through a tutorial that will leave you capable of executing the perfect Instagram still life (measured by how well you can assemble benign objects) with help from the prowess of resident artist, host of the unofficially official “Still Life Club,” and sometimes shoe-pusher, Campbell Pearson.

Says Campbell about the process and her steps, “Still lives are about taking pleasure in the ordinary, and looking at the stuff around you in a new way.” Here are her steps.

1. Pick Your Objects and Mix ‘Em Up

“Pick the objects and keep in mind that opposites attract — mix high- and low-brow items, like a fancy vase and can of LaCroix, or a Joan Didion novel and your groceries. Note that contrasting shapes and sizes will make your images more interesting.”

2. Set Your Scene

“Find an empty tabletop, drape a blanket, tape up paper. Lighting is key, so shine a lamp if it’s dark, or get near a window (natural light is preferable). Keep in mind that your phone screen is a tiny place. An uncluttered background will let your chosen objects shine.”

3. Arrange! 

“Part of the joy of the still life genre is its embrace of the fake and carefully arranged, so go wild — the more surprising and unique your combination looks, the better. The most important thing is balance (but this doesn’t mean symmetry). Awkward shapes and negative space are your friends. Be mindful of populating the space evenly.”

4. Shoot!

“Utilize both foreground and background for depth, or shoot from overhead for a flat, graphic image. Try putting a square crop on your camera to get your composition right, or take a couple versions from different angles. You’ll know when your image feels right — and there is no such thing as wrong. Just remember: less is more, unless it’s less.”

Photos shot on an iPhone by Edith Young; see more of Campbell’s work here.

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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