Tech Vanitas

As widely observed, we live in an age filled with devices that make domestic life faster, smarter, easier, and more complicated. Consumers may choose from an astounding number of tech products. Items fill our shopping carts and our homes. The more we yearn to keep current—the newest phone, computer, camera, audio system, espresso maker—the more we produce, consume, and discard. Cutting-edge technology becomes outdated, embarrassing, quaint, collectible, and finally, antiquated or forgotten. Jeanette May's Tech Vanitas photographs embrace the anxiety surrounding technological obsolescence.

The original vanitas paintings celebrated the new wealth of The Netherlands in the 17th Century. Their still lifes recorded the affluence of finely crafted domestic merchandise: silk, porcelain, Venetian glass, silver goblets, and cultivated flowers. By including skulls and references to time, vanitas paintings also signified the inevitability of death. Contemporary still lifes exist in the form of advertising imagery; the newest gadget is carefully styled and photographed to convince potential owners of technological ascension. Perhaps more than death, we fear becoming Luddites.

Just as the Dutch Golden Age still lifes portray the abundance afforded a prosperous culture, Tech Vanitas embraces luxury, honors design, and acknowledges the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures. These contemporary vanitas utilize digital photography to capture precarious arrangements of consumer technological ephemera: a coffee percolator and film camera teeter atop a shiny boombox that spews magnetic tape across the keys of an Underwood typewriter. May’s images of anachronistic technologies confront still life’s traditional tension between temptation and rejection of worldly goods. 

The photographs in this series are captured digitally and presented as archival pigment prints in editions of 10. Print sizes include 24 x 36” and 16 x 24". These photographs are available for exhibition and purchase.

Produced by EI Studio with the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program.

Tech Vanitas is sponsored, in part, by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC).

Additional support for this project: Waltz Inc., Lower East Side Ecology Center Gowanus E-Waste Warehouse, and individual contributions.