One to Watch: Bona Fide Vanitas

by Jessica Gordon

A DANCE WITH DEATH AND DECAY: Inspired by 17th century Dutch still life painting, the photographs from Justine Reyes’s latest Vanitas series have generated considerable art world buzz. Pictured here, Still Life with Chicken Game and Flowers.

When Justine Reyes’s “Vanitas” series made the exhibition rounds this year, photo blogs like Nymphoto, Beautiful Decay and PDN’s Photo of the Day took note of Reyes’s classical interpretations of Dutch still life paintings, giving Reyes an instant buzz in the photo community.

Her somewhat dark-in-mood, hyperreal photographs feature juxtaposed objects—a skull alongside wilted flowers, an open cantaloupe next to an antique goblet—all against a black backdrop. All images are shot in studio on large-format, with the chosen objects having a specific meaning or significance to Reyes. The point, she says, is to remind us of the fleeting nature of life, youth and beauty. The word vanitas translates to “emptiness” in Latin, and as an art history term, it is associated with the Dutch 16th- and 17th-century paintings characterized by similar sumptuous objects peppered with death or decay and rendered in trompe l’oeil detail.

It’s ironic, therefore, that this recognition of mortality or element of death has brought more life—and notoriety—to Reyes’s work than ever before.


Since graduating with her MFA in photography from San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 2004, Reyes has thrived not only making art but also in securing grants and awards. She was an artist-in-residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in 2008 and was recently awarded the Juror’s Choice Award from Center’s Project Competition.

“When I am applying for grants, awards, residencies and exhibition opportunities, I make a list of everything that I want to apply for—for the year—and make it a calendar,” she says. “It’s easy to miss deadlines, but the calendar lets me know what is due each month. I also set aside a yearly budget for submissions fees, although most things I apply to are free. I try to apply for opportunities that are appropriate for my work and career level. Applications take up a lot of my time, so I want to make the process as streamlined as possible.”

Perhaps the most fruitful award that Reyes has applied for and won is her current nine-month workspace residency from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), which also entitles her to Visiting Scholar status at New York University. Not a bad year for a fine art photographer in a down economy. LMCC’s program includes studio space in lower Manhattan plus a small stipend.

“Every week the LMCC sets up studio visits with curators, gallerists, writers and so on for me and 19 other artists in the program,” explains Reyes, who supplements her stipend by working three days a week in a pro-digital service lab. “It’s interesting to have a space in a professional environment.”

And for Reyes, being part of an environment with other artists, building communities and networking has contributed to her current success.

“Community has been tantamount to getting my work out there and being part of what’s happening in this emerging art scene in New York,” says Reyes. “Being at LMCC has been fabulous and amazing; the pool of applicants is 1,100 for 20 spots, so everyone here is doing great things. Just having that access to being a part of peoples’ practice and getting feedback has been really amazing.”


You could say that Reyes’s comfort in the idea of communities began in her youth. Reyes was raised in Queens, New York, by her mother, grandmother and two uncles. Her interest in photography materialized when she was nine years old and her uncle bought her a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas. “I went around photographing everything,” she remembers.

Reyes attended LaGuardia Arts High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, concentrating in painting, but she took her first black-and-white photography class and discovered her love of the darkroom and of watching images develop in a chemistry bath.

After majoring in photography at Syracuse University, she went on to grad school at SFAI, intending eventually to teach but opting to try her hand at an art career first. She considered doing commercial work to pay the bills after grad school but had some buzz surrounding her “Mask Series” (portraits of herself wearing various embellished pantyhose as masks) and decided to focus on what brought her the most inspiration. “I thought it might be distracting to do photography with the ideal of making money, and I felt like it would be a world that sucks you in,” she says. “I wanted to make work that was important to me, and my hope was that later people would know me for what I do and hire me to do that.”

So Reyes embarked on what many recent graduates with hopes of an art career do: She moved back home, with her mother and the uncles who raised her. However, unlike many young adults, Reyes actually found inspiration at home, photographing her family members and turning the work into various projects.

The inspiration started when one of Reyes’s uncles passed away in 2006; she was so devastated that she channeled her sadness into photographing his belongings, set in the drawers they inhabited—a project she titled “These Last Things.”

“Uncle Vinnie was my muse and my model; his death made me rethink my relationships with family,” Reyes says.

In “Home, Away from Home,” Reyes’s mother and surviving uncle are photographed in their Queens home doing mundane activities (ironing, talking on the phone, watching Dancing with the Stars), as well as captured on the yearly trip they take as a family to exotic locations like Italy, Spain and Bermuda, always presented with a subtle, deadpan tinge.

“I don’t consider the project documentary at all; it’s conceptual, but I’m using real people to talk about larger ideas...thinking about mortality and that we’re all slowly moving toward death,” Reyes says. “The physicality of death, what that means, and what one leaves behind. My family is great and giving about letting me take pictures of them.”

It’s not hard, therefore, to see how Reyes’s “Vanitas” series—which has garnered her the most attention of late—was born.

“I’m very interested in the power of objects to be imbibed with use over time; these vessels of memory are really fascinating,” she explains. “I had been thinking about ‘Vanitas’ for so long after I discovered the paintings were so beautiful, and there was all this layered meaning. So I’m kind of playing on that; I’m taking that aesthetic and concept and pushing it to make it more personal. I think my photos look aesthetically formal, but I would hope they’re emotionally charged because I’m using objects that are important and symbolic to me.”

With seven exhibitions in the past six months, plus publications like Harpers magazine and The New Yorker taking notice and contacting Reyes based on “Vanitas,” her original plan to stay true to her art has actually worked.

“I don’t think I’ve had one moment that has defined my career,” she says of her current emerging status. “I’ve always known that this is what I wanted to do. It’s been a series of steps defining what success means for me, continually setting goals for myself and talking to as many other people as possible who are doing what I want to do and asking for their advice.”



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



Tout VTS


Tout VTS


Tout VTS

Contact PDN | About Photo District News | Camera Reviews and Gear Guide | Photography Blog | Photo News | Photo Magazine- Print Subscription |
Photography RSS Resources | Free Photography Newsletter | Photo Magazine Advertising | Photographer Features & Resources | Stock Photographs
© 2016 Emerald Expositions, LLC. All rights reserved. Read our TERMS OF USE and PRIVACY POLICY