Technological Vanitas

Electronics have become the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. But what becomes of technology when it stops working or can’t be updated? Brooklyn-based photo artist Jeanette May explores this question, crafting still lifes which tap into our complicated relationship with machines. From antique stereoscopes and art deco clocks to Bluetooth headphones, her meticulous collections comprise vintage objects from various time periods, all captured within a single frame.

Shown here are images from two series: Tech Vanitas and Curious Devices. Constructed, staged and artfully lit, the arrangements evoke 17th century Dutch vanitas – drawing on May’s early training as a painter. Some objects, such as microwaves and camcorders, are surrounded by rich silks and damask wallpapers. Others have been taken apart, revealing the intricate architecture of circuit boards, gears and wires.

May’s interest in design is clear. “Each object’s style, colour, and material construction epitomise a period of both aesthetic and technological advancement,” she says. In one striking image, a blue screen glows from a round burgundy monitor. Fibre optic lights glimmer in the background, reflected in a VR lens. To examine these pieces is to move through time; we are reminded of the speed at which technology is developing.

When viewed in this way, the images encourage us to consider the implications of ‘planned obsolesce’: the act of making sure a product will become dated – or even useless – within a given time frame. “In an era overflowing with products, the temptation of worldly goods takes on new meaning,” May explains. “My work examines the present and the past of technology without easy answers but rather, like the Dutch vanitas, with a sense of wonder and trepidation.”


Words: Eleanor Sutherland

Image Credits: All images by Jeanette May, from the series Tech Vanitas and Curious Devices. © Jeanette May/Courtesy of Klompching Gallery, NY