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David Eustace finds beauty in life after death

The renowned portrait photographer is fascinated by the fragility of nature in his latest exhibition Memento Mori

Taking its title from the artistic trope Memento Mori – which translates as ‘remember that you will die’ – the latest series by David Eustace explores the inevitability of death and the life beyond it.

Memento Mori, to be exhibited this summer at the Fine Art Society, London, marks new territory for Eustace, who includes sculptural work alongside his painterly series of flowers in decay.

Eustace, recognised for his work in fashion, celebrity and art photography, made his name in the pages of magazines including GQ, Vogue and Tatler. Gaining a reputation for portraiture, he worked between the UK and the US, photographing well-known figures including Dame Judi Dench, Tracey Emin, Sir Paul McCartney and Sophia Loren. Also among his sitters were the celebrated photographers Eve Arnold and Albert Watson.

He began his working life in the Royal Navy and as a prison officer at HMP Barlinnie before studying photography as a mature student. In 2015, he was to return to his alma mater, as chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University.

His work is held in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Here, Eustace discusses his inspiration, the power of smartphone photography, and why he has embraced sculpture. 

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What inspired Memento Mori? 

The idea for it came about during lockdown. I think this period reminded us just how fragile life and the world around us is. But even though death is inevitable, life goes on. I don’t believe death is a permanent state.

Everything that experiences a journey of decay immediately begins to develop a new purpose beyond death. I’m fascinated by this transition. Such moments let you experience the progress of a journey into the unknown. There’s a purpose beyond what we recognise as living, and this is what Memento Mori celebrates.

I focused on flowers because they’re only perceived as valuable in the short time that they bloom, before being viewed as waste when they wilt. Many people celebrate the blossoming of cherry trees, while others are disappointed that its flowers last only a few weeks despite having waited all year to see them. It’s important to celebrate this impermanence so that we can enjoy these fleeting moments in life knowing that they’ll pass but never disappear.

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Why did you decide to photograph Memento Mori on your phone?

Phone photography is viewed as something quite throwaway and not very serious. However, these images are just as significant as those shot on a 5x4, 10x8 or Hasselblad camera. I use cameras for what they can bring to an image in terms of composition, visual aesthetic and artistic intent.

For me, the power of photography lies in the statements that images make, not the prestige of the cameras they’re shot on. In fact, some of the most striking photography I’ve ever seen has been taken using the simplest of equipment. As I say to photography students: creating impactful photography is about concentrating on what you’re trying to portray through your images, rather than the equipment you’re using.

Keeping this in mind when shooting Memento Mori’s images helped me use my phone with intent while maintaining a simplified approach. I got as much joy from capturing images on my phone as I did on any other camera. I like trying different things with my photography. For me, it’s all about attention to detail and putting effort in.

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This exhibition marks the first time you’ve exhibited sculptures alongside your images. What was it like using a different medium?

It’s an exciting new chapter in my career. This project isn’t about me moving away from photography, but a chance to propel my practice forward while expressing myself in the unique ways that sculpture allows.

I’ve never been afraid to fail and have never tried to avoid new things. Luckily, the sculptures of Memento Mori have fitted like a glove in taking my art to another expressional level. To me, the medium is like a form of 3D photography.

Through the sculptures of Memento Mori I’ve brought together recycled equipment. I enjoyed working with discarded marble, stone and wood, and treating it with the same respect that you would with something that was newly made.

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Memento Mori is your first time working with the Fine Art Society. How has it been?

It means a lot to me. It takes a lot for organisations with reputations like the Fine Art Society to open a photographer-focused exhibition like Memento Mori during the height of London Art Week. It’s refreshing when people show that belief in your work.

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All images from the series Memento Mori by David Eustace

Memento Mori is exhibited at the Fine Art Society, London, 30 June–26 August 2022

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