Living near the tempest-prone shores of the northern coast of California, Heather Allison’s work is shaped by fog-filled skies and moody beaches. Best known for her pensively lit still-life photographs of exotic and domestic ephemera, Heather arranges taxidermy, flowers, bones, and books into dramatic compositions reminiscent of vanitas-style Dutch master botanical paintings. Her photos dance the line between the macabre and the sublime: a nod to her love of Victorian memento mori, she venerates both equally. Her love of and background in art history can be seen in her works, connecting the modern age to her predecessors in visual art.
Though she began her career in photojournalism and event coverage, it was the sudden passing of a family member that inspired Heather to explore the transience of life through still-life imagery; it is here that her passion for the medium was revitalized and continues.
Heather has an AA in Photojournalism from Brooks Institute of Photography, a BFA in Art History from the Academy of Art University, and is currently working on an MFA Fine Art Photography at AAU. Showing across the United States and internationally, Heather Allison’s imagery has been featured in such art publications as The Shoutflower. She maintains close working relationships with luxury interior design firms such as Raven Vanguard, and her works can be found in private collections both domestically and overseas.
How do the fog-filled skies and moody beaches of the northern coast of California influence the emotional depth and ambiance of your still life photographs?
The light and mood that the fog and stormy seasons create inspire me in my lighting and compositions quite a bit. With most of my images, I aim for the light to appear as if it is coming through a single window, as if it were natural and from these fog-filled skies. I also spend a lot of time walking the beaches and finding inspiration in all that washes up along the shore, the textures of the sand and rocks, and how much it changes day to day.
Your work often treads the fine line between the macabre and the sublime. How do you find balance in presenting subjects like taxidermy and bones in a manner that both evokes the essence of Victorian memento mori yet remains aesthetically appealing?
I think this comes down to my aim to find beauty in all things. When I work with taxidermy, I think of the life the animal led before, I honor it in my imagery, and I like to think of the act of photographing the piece as allowing it to live forever. Many of the pieces I use are antiques, so they have led many lives. When I work with bones, I think about how they were once part of something that lived as well, they helped sustain life. Additionally, I think decay and death can be beautiful, it's all a part of the cycle of life and deserves veneration.
Drawing from your background in art history, how do you see your work in conversation with the vanitas style Dutch master botanical paintings? Are there any specific painters or pieces from this period that have deeply influenced your style?
The vanitas of the Dutch Masters are not only beautiful, but they were created to speak directly to viewers, to remind them of the fleeting nature of life and to beware of vanity. The painting tradition takes inspiration from the bible, and although my work does not share that religious undertone, the inclusion of symbols and iconographic objects to tell a story and inspire conversation with my viewers is pulled directly from these paintings. I bring the ancient memento mori tradition into the contemporary working in photography rather than painting and speak to viewers not only of the delicacy of life but the beauty of living.
Rachel Ruysch was a Dutch still life painter from the Northern Netherlands who has inspired me greatly. Her incredible, overflowing, life-filled botanical paintings are the type you can get lost in for hours. The way she depicts color and light is something I aspire to. Rembrandt's lighting is, of course, a huge inspiration, and Pieter Claesz's compositions, specifically Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, have also provided direction in my work.
Your transition from photojournalism to the thematic exploration of grief and mortality in still life imagery is poignant. How did your father's passing change the way you approach and perceive the subject matter in your photographs?
For as long as I can remember, I have been preoccupied with death. When I was younger, this preoccupation was based in fear, but my father’s passing was such an intense experience that it changed from fear to understanding and acceptance. He was the reason I pursued a career in photography, and it became clear that it would be through my work that I would keep and grow the connection we had. My father had begun to play in fine art photography toward the end of his life, so this was on my mind during my studies in art history. I had always loved the Dutch Masters, but when I began to learn how deep the symbolism and iconography in their vanitas and floral images could go, I knew there was something there for me to explore.
The title of your body of work, "Awaken," is evocative. Can you elaborate on the significance of this title, particularly in the context of your exploration of grief and mortality?
"Awaken" speaks to my personal experience with grief and how my relationship with my mortality changed after my father died. When he first passed, like many others, I felt completely alone despite being surrounded by people who loved me, I felt lost, and even considered giving up photography completely. This ongoing body of work brought me back to life and truly changed its course. Researching the vanitas and memento mori tradition allowed me an outlet for my pain and healing; this project woke something inside me I didn’t even know was there.
With the current global focus on grief due to the pandemic, do you feel your work takes on a different or heightened relevance? How do you hope your audience engages with your pieces in light of the collective experience of loss?
When the pandemic hit and the shutdowns were beginning, I had many friends who had experienced the loss of a loved one express how much their everyday routines during this period felt like grief, and I felt the same. I think it is possible that my work could have a heightened relevance as we all grieved together for so many people and things over the last few years.
I hope my audience finds comfort and connection in my work. I have been lucky enough to have a few collectors tell me why they were drawn to a certain piece, to share their experiences, and talk about their losses. When this happens, it is everything. I hope my work lets my audience know that they are not alone.
The element of hidden messages and iconography in your work adds layers of meaning for viewers to uncover. Can you share a personal favorite piece where the symbolism has a particularly deep significance to you?
It is difficult to choose a favorite because they are all so personal, however, “Cyclus,” meaning Time comes to mind. The hare in the image is connected to ancient burial traditions while the fruit symbolizes abundance and life. They also hint at the passage of time as they are at peak ripeness and will soon begin to rot; we see the cycle of life, death, and time in one frame.
The images in this body of work, "Awaken," have text that accompanies them, what follows is the writing for “Cyclus,” it is written as if I am in conversation with my father:
When you died, it felt like time stopped. But also, as though it flies by. You have missed so much; so many changes, so much growth, new beginnings. I have no regrets in our relationship, though I wish I had given you more of my time. Now, the 2-hour drive between our homes seems inconsequential, like nothing. If I could have even 1 more minute with you, I would travel for as long and as far as I needed.