Jo Whaley’s theatre


Jo Whaley, Knows No Secrets, 1991

Still life artist Jo Whaley is an example of someone who’s early career comes back and influences their later one. As an undergraduate student in San Francisco she studied painting before her postgrad studies in photography. She then worked for several years as a scenic artist for the San Francisco Opera and other theatre companies. This job meant painting backgrounds, arranging props and working with lighting designers.

These art and theatre experiences later became the core of her photographic practice – she treats her still life photographs as small theatrical sets. The colour, lighting and placement of props evoke the stage setting of her early career, the difference is she works in the small arena of the still life table.

You can see more of her beautiful still lifes at her website, She has also published a book of her still life photographs in The Theater of Insects.


Jo Whaley, Consuming Habitat, 1992


Jo Whaley, Pulp Exposed, 1992


The Theater of Insects


Jo Whaley, Pareronia valeria, 2007

Jo Whaley has been making still lifes since the 1980s and her work has been widely published and exhibited. Her book The Theater of Insects came out in 2008 and contains many of her beautiful colour photographs.

The blurb states that she “… constructs mesmerizing scenes with vibrantly colored bugs that echo the tradition of natural history dioramas, but are artfully placed against weathered, man-made backgrounds. The result is a compelling marriage of natural and artificial, art and science.”

Pareronia Valeria (above) is a species of South Indian butterfly known as the Common Wanderer; it is a beautifully ‘designed’ creature. Whaley’s photograph shows a male and female arranged on top of a medical illustration labelled ‘pelvis of the man and the woman’. It shows the differences between the sexes and the resemblance between species.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 11.11.30 pm

Jo Whaley, Acrocinus longimanus, 2006

Acrocinus longimanus is known as the harlequin beetle because of its elaborate coloured pattern on its back. It is native to Central and South America, although it seems to want the whole world with its absurdly long forelegs.



Jo Whaley, Phasmid, 2002

Phasmids are named from the Latin word ‘phasma’ meaning phantom or apparition. Since most of them camouflage themselves as sticks and leaves they seem able to disappear like ghosts. But this spectral quality is countered by their hard linear forms, echoed in the picture by the geometric diagrams.


Jo Whaley at work on Morpho Deidamia.

Whaley talks about her practice in terms of theatricality; the still lifes are arranged with the same kind of detail as stage sets. The props, backgrounds, lighting and colour only come to life when every element is in place. She learnt this skill when she worked for the San Francisco Opera as a scenic artist, fresh out of art school where she majored in painting. In a way, she is still a painter and still a scenic artist.

“The difficulty with the still-life genre is that one has to animate the inanimate. My approach is to consider the still-life set as a theatrical stage, where the backdrops are fabricated and the objects are positioned to create a visual dialogue. In designing the set, I take my lead by considering the aesthetics that are apparent in the insects themselves.


Jo Whaley, Morpho Deidamia, 2007