The Nostalgia of Still Life Images

picture of old buckets from Geo Washington's Distillery

Water from the Well


I’ve talked about the power of nostalgic images before and it probably won’t be the last time I mention it. Experiencing nostalgia is a huge part of being human, and it can be a common emotion that art can evoke in us. 

Unlike timeless landscapes and nature pictures, still life images can be highly nostalgic. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a still life painting or a still life photograph; certain subjects can be strong reminders of something important in our past. A picture of a bouquet of flowers might remind us of something our mothers cared for, or a setting of tools might remind us of our granddad’s workbench, or an image of a desk and chair may remind us of our mother’s daily tasks. The list of nostalgic visual triggers is endless, and no matter how many times we see such images, the feelings of nostalgia never fade. 

At 66 years old I’m a member of the last generation who lived through times of wooden buckets with rope handles. Now days, like most things, buckets are plastic, and have plastic or wire handles.  In fact, it seems most objects today are plastic. Plastic houses. Plastic cars. And, therefore, plastic landfills (don’t get me started.).

Remember that scene from the 1967 film “The Graduate” when young Braddock was advised to “go into’s the wave of the future”?  Well, it wasn’t far from the truth, was it? 

Common to my generation is the longing for everyday objects made from wood, or metal, or rock. So when we are reminded of those times, it can be quite nostalgic. (If you’re not of my generation, then there are other kinds of objects that affect you just as much; objects that you grew up with and long for today.) 

For instance, as a young boy visiting my Grandpa Elmer’s place, I can recall like it was yesterday being told to go draw water from the well ‘out back’ and bring it back to the house. Grandpa’s well was the type with a large wooden bucket you dropped into a deep hole in the ground and then used a big crank and thick rope to bring it back up. That chore was no small feat for a scrawny kid like I was. But I don’t recall ever thinking it was work; it was more like I was doing something important for my Grandpa. And to this day I can still smell the sweetness of that water.

I’m drawn to nostalgic subjects that remind me of the good old days. “Water from the Well”  is a simple setting of old oaken buckets that reminds me of good times I spent at Grandpa’s house long ago, and that makes my heart smile, every time.  

What does it remind you of? I’d love to hear your story.

You can find more of my still life images here

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Small Town Virginia Project

picture of Loudoun Street, Leesburg, VA from the Small Town Virginia project
Early Morning at the Tally Ho

My Small Town Virginia project is an ongoing attempt to depict the charm of villages and towns near where I live, before it disappears completely.  I’m just beginning, and I will continue to visit and photograph in these towns and create these images for as long as my interest in the project continues. 

Some months back, I revisited a series of photographs that I took while living in Europe back in the 1980s. From a personal point of view, I found myself reliving those moments, and the nostalgia was a very pleasant experience. However, I also noticed how different the places were then compared to more recent photographs (by others) of those same places. Time moves on, and it doesn’t always make things around us better, does it?

Where I live in Virginia, we have many small towns that began as crossroads during the 18th and19th centuries and went through cycles of growth and decay during the 20th Century. My small town of Leesburg, Virginia has mostly kept its early 20th Century small town charm. But I don’t have to drive far to see towns that have completely lost their charm to the advances of ‘progress.’  

Even in Leesburg, progress is inevitable. Parking garages now sit where old mom and pop business used to be. Nostalgic old neon signs replaced with the typical glitz and glitter of modern times. Old incandescent street lamps torn out and replaced with 50 foot halogens. The list goes on and on. 

How’s your small town doing? Have you seen such changes where you live? I bet you have.

Lately, I’ve been on a crusade, and I wanted to share it with you. 

Small Town Virginia isn’t about doing a travelogue. I’m not interested in documenting historical artifacts and architecture. Nor am I trying to criticize the effects of modernization and progress. Instead, I’m trying to create images that recall the time when things were simpler in our small towns; quieter times, community times. 

I’ll be changing the images in the portfolio over time. Some of those here now will disappear and others will appear. The best way to see where I am in the project is to follow along. Leave me a comment on the Small Town Virginia page and let me know if you have favorites or to just make your mark of interest. 

An enduring value of photography is that it freezes moments that our brains want to dismiss in mere fractions of a second. Through photographs, we can relive those moments, enjoy the nostalgia of the experience, and then repeat whenever we want.  

And that’s what I love about photography!

Until next time,

Picture of J. Riley Stewart

Did you enjoy this article?  Feel free to share with someone you think might also enjoy it, and invite them to subscribe to “Under the Darkcloth.”  And please leave me a comment or ask a question by commenting below. Clicking the image of “Early Morning at the Tally Ho” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and see how it might give you just the right place to go when you need a bit of nostalgia and make a quieter time for yourself.

Copyright J. Riley Stewart, 2018, all rights reserved.