Shelley Nott is a fine artist photographer, having turned her hobby into something more serious in her 50s. Here, she explains why her still life photography is inspired by the Dutch Masters – and why she is a campaigns ambassador for Bowel Cancer UK and Cancer Research UK
My life has been one of contrasts, from my beginnings in a North London Jewish home, through secular married life and a total re-birth once single again.
When did you realise that you wanted to set up your own photography business, and why?
I’ve been self-employed for the majority of my working life (I consider myself as unemployable!). My work has always morphed from one thing into another, as opportunities presented themselves, until my hobby of photography became far more serious after doing an honours degree at Westminster University in my 50s.
I spent some time doing commercial photography, while developing my fine art practice, but after two cancer diagnoses in the space of four months I took the decision to spend my time and energy on what I enjoyed and still life photography was it.
As a consequence, I have become very involved with Bowel Cancer UK and Cancer Research UK both very much in the news this week. I’m a campaigns ambassador for CRUK and for BCUK. I give awareness talks about bowel cancer, its symptoms and how to try and avoid it. As you will know, our Patron, Dame Deborah James, died last week and as it so happens, I gave my latest talk, on Friday, to a company that comprises mostly younger people. It really was quite thought provoking – even more than usual. This work is so important and being so close to Deborah’s death it really brought things into focus.
Where has your photography taken you?
Geographically? While I was exploring my practice not really knowing what I was going to concentrate on, I used my camera to capture patterns and architecture around Europe, Patagonia, USA and South Africa. None of these had any baring in the long term (apart from helping me to learn to look and see) – but it was great fun! Subsequently, I’ve spent many days in museums and galleries studying the Dutch masters’ work in London, Norwich, Amsterdam, Leiden and Haarlem.
How has your own style developed over the past decade? What gave you the idea to give a nod to the Dutch Masters, photographically?
This answer ties in with the next one – and it extends back more than 10 years. The Dutch Masters used flora, fauna and food and drink to tell a story. Everything had some symbolism and each item in the painting was there for a reason. A painting by a Dutch Master will be a celebration and a warning if you know how to read it. So, while they are beautiful images, they also offer something more, something deeper and that’s what I take with me when I produce my photographs.
What appeals about photographing flowers and food in particular?
I started simultaneously doing commercial photography for local food and drink producers, which was stressful but my clients seemed to like my style. I found it challenging and rewarding to create photographs where the food looked fabulous and natural. I never liked to use the fakery that often is employed in food photography – I felt I didn’t need to because the delicious food spoke for itself.
I grew up steeped in the symbolism of food, without really being aware of it. As a Jew, one learns to mark various high days and holidays with particular foods to be consumed and enjoyed but also triggering stories about that event. When I did my major project for my degree show, I told the story of the Seider Night which marks the beginning of Passover.
This got me exploring symbolism in art generally and I found myself being drawn into the world of the Still Life which had its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries in The Netherlands. I found I could translate that tradition into the modern world of photography, and I enjoy the research as much as the styling of each photograph. I love the attention to detail the genre needs and particularly with the food images, I enjoy my relationship with local food producers which adds another element.
Where can people find your work?
I exhibit my prints a few times a year – I’d love to do more! This year I’ll be at the Aldeburgh Gallery from September 15 to 21; The Quay Gallery, Snape (where I am a Fringe Event for the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival) from September 22 to 28; and St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich (as part of Art Fair East) from December 2 to 4. In addition, I take part in a number of markets and fairs where I sell my greeting cards: Primadonna Festival, Stowmarket from July 29 to 31; and Benhall Flower Show on August 13. I love exhibiting my work which enables me to discuss it with those visiting. I learn so much doing that!
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
To find galleries to carry my work and exhibit more and to get better and better at my practice!
Featured image picture credit: Foyers.Photography