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Thanatopsis: Seeing Death with Postmortem Photographsl

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  • Taking its title from William Cullen Bryant’s famous poem, from the Greek words thanatos meaning“death” and opsis meaning“sight,” this presentation explores how a twenty-first century audiencesees deathwith memorial photography. Through blogs, Tumblr posts, and Twitter feeds and an escalation of eBay auctions and Etsy sales, nineteenth century postmortem photographs have become a macabre spectacle not only because of their morbidity and beauty, but also because of a modern fascination with elaborate mourning customs no longer practiced today. As carriers of the past, postmortem photographs fascinate viewers because they represent the authentic in an ever more mediated environment and retain the aesthetic of the physical photograph in a world of born-digital media.
  • From its inception, photography has embraced death, as it embalms forever what it has captured momentarily. No better period was this exemplified than in the Victorian era, when bereavement became an art in itself. Postmortem photographs of the deceased by themselves or with family members became a universal practice. As a nascent technology in an era of high mortality rates, photography provided an emotionally satisfying means to “secure the shadow, ere the substance fade,” as the popular slogan for photographic studios read.
  • Delving deeper into this pictorial practice, one discovers that remembrance photography’s alliance with the Victorians overlooks its occurrence in tandem with the establishment of photography around the world. More importantly, postmortem photography’s association with a specific period undervalues the extent in which this genre persists in contemporary visual culture. Rather than a past phenomenon, the pictorial representation of death lives on in the present as the grief-stricken continue to use photography to mitigate mortality.
  • We can trace photography’s association with death to its conception. The first photographic depiction of death is Self-Portrait of a Drowned Man, taken by Hippolyte Bayard in 1840. Upset that he was not credited with inventing photography, but Louis Daguerre was, he staged this photograph of himself as a corpse. In an era of long exposure times, a cadaver—even a fake cadaver as in this photo—was an excellent subject because it was immobile, producing a quality picture.
  • This, of course, was only the beginning of photographing death. The ritualization of death in the Victorian era was primarily the result of a staggering mortality rate. As a result of its pervasiveness, death was seen as an integral part of life. Among the traditional artifacts of death were elaborate caskets, grand cemeteries, mourning clothing, jewelry made of human hair and, of course, photographs.
  • [Pass-hu-mus]Posthumous paintings were common for the upper classes and were precursors to postmortem photography; in the mid-nineteenth century, they were produced alongside each other. The painting to the left attributed to James B. Read was painted in 1856; it’s intended as a [pass-hu-mus] posthumous portrait because of the closed book, dark sky, fading roses, and that the boy holds his hat in the act of departing from his family. The portrait of Johnnie Crockett, on the right, taken by his daguerreotypist father in 1850, is more unforgiving in its documentation of reality. Sadly, the viewer knows that the boy is not sleeping, but dead.
  • This full-plate daguerreotype, taken by master photographers Southworth & Hawes around 1850, shows the beauty and craft of creating a lasting image. The unidentified young girl is posed as if she’s sleeping, with her hands clasped, and her dress pulled up to show her legs. Contemporary viewers are often shocked at how healthy and robust the newly dead of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries looked, compared to how the dying look today, when many patients waste away after long periods of medical care.
  • Before embalming, photographs had to be taken immediately, as in these daguerreotypes from 1855. Long exposure times for the dead were not a problem, though they sometimes made live mourners look rigid in comparison. Children, dressed in their christening gowns, were depicted with the sentiments of the “last sleep,” a dominant theme from the 1840s to the 1880s, when embalming allowed for elaborate scenes in homes and at funeral parlors. In the daguerreotype to the right, the pink tint applied to the infant’s cheeks, to match her mother’s, seems almost like a denial of death.
  • Sometimes eyes were left open so the deceased looked alive, and the images were frequently vignetted or masked to hide coffins. Looking at this carte de visite from the 1860s, a viewer wouldn’t know that the girl was dead except for the saying on the card, “In life how fair, the end how beautiful,” and the large crucifix placed at her neck.
  • Dramatic deathbed scenes in Victorian art and literature were common, and in 1858, English photographer Henry Peach Robinson created Fading Away, depicting a young girl near death in the presence of her family. Robinson is noted for his combination prints, as he created here with five differently exposed negatives. Although it was known that the photograph had been staged, objections were made because it was perceived to be an intrusion upon a private scene. Beaumont Newhall comments: "The public was shocked by the subject; it was felt to be poor taste to represent so painful a scene. Though such criticism no longer seems valid, we should not ignore it as a Victorian sentimentality. Far more painful subjects were painted in those days. But the very fact it was a photograph implied that it was a truthful representation, and so the scene was viewed literally." The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present. (1982). New York: The Museum of Modem Art, 76.
  • Even more shocking were images of the Civil War, the first major conflict that was photographed extensively, bringing horrific images of the dead to the front pages and into people's homes. At the time, no system existed to deal with those who had died in battle, so corpses were buried haphazardly or left to rot in the battlefield. The war’s unexpected and unprecedented death toll—estimated to be as high at 750,000—questioned Victorian ideas of the “good death,” characterized by acombination of convenient illness, pious character, and familial affection and support.People died far from home, away from friends and family and often alone, with no last words to comfort their survivors. Often, bodies were found next to pictures of loved ones, as if the dying were recreating domestic deathbed scenes.
  • By the 1880s, funerals became more elaborate, and images were made of the family standing around the casket; first at the gravesite and later in the funeral home. By the twentieth century, the emphasis shifted from the postmortem portrait to images of the funeral as a social event. By the 1930s, professionals had taken over all aspects of the death and dying process, and most people lost first-hand contact with the dead. Death no longer seemed like a natural process, experienced at home and in the presence of the family, but something that was alien to everyday life.
  • The practice of postmortem portraiture continues unabated throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it is done without muchopen discussion.By the middle of the twentieth century, professional photographic services were no longer necessary, as anyone coulduse a camera. Contemporary postmortem images represent the struggle between a public denial of death and a deeply felt need to grieve. The act of making a remembrance portrait has become a private act for many. Often, these images seldom circulate outside a trusted group of friends and relatives.
  • For most of us, though, photojournalism is the most common way people encounter death images in contemporary times. Arthur “Weegee” Felligwas one of numerous newspaperphotographers who found that editors and readers responded insatiably to images of death, and thus specialized in visiting crime scenes. Weegee’s name is remembered is not so much for histechnique, but for his tendency for investing his images with irony, such as this one from 1942, with a corpse beneath a marquee forthe film Joy of Living. His photos critiqueurban America, which struck a chord in the lives of their audience.
  • That image differs dramatically from The Wake, taken in 1951 by photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. In his Spanish Village essay for Life magazine, Smith focuses on a way of life still bound to physical labor and the seasonal rhythms of growth and harvest. Smith represented a culture that was monolithic in its beliefs, loyalties, and traditions. The reaction to the essay from the American public was immediate and emotional, providing hope and nostalgia for their own lost innocence.
  • A new version of the photography of corpses arosesince the 1970s. Andres Serrano, Rudolf Schafer, Jeffrey Silverthorne, Rosamond Purcell, and the team of Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig, among others, have photographed the dead for artistic purposes rather than as mementos or documentation. Beautiful and shocking, their work disturbs viewers in ways that have as much to do with the nature of the image as the nature of the corpse, which is often anonymous. Here, Hans Danuser photographs a dead man in a pathology instruction and research laboratory in 1989.
  • Jeffrey Silverthorne’s1972 seriesMorgue Work involved photographing people who had died unexpectedly. He emphasized the horror of the details through downward shots and close-ups. Yet Silverthorne conveys softer, even sensual, images of peoplewho appear to be sleeping. After the initial shock and revulsion, the images provoke curiosity about the circumstances of death–often partially answered in the title–and the arbitrariness of fate. In Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, her peaceful expression and lively pose seem ironic and in conflict with the stitches on her body. The image questions our understandingof the distinction between life and death. As a side note, I’ve found this image on a number of websites dedicated to gore and death photos, especially of naked women. The image is always rotated 90 degrees clockwise, so it looks as if it was a forbidden shot taken in secret, rather than a deliberate work of art.
  • Another oddly peaceful death image is 1994’s Glassman by Joel-PeterWitkin. The print is deliberately blotched and scratched, its top edges are curved as in a nineteenth-century format, and it is subtly tinted. The corpse, propped up on a chair, naked and bloody after his autopsy, confronts the viewer, yet his gaze is far-off and dreamy. Witkin’s aim was to show the beauty and grace of the corpse, and he believes the man looks like Saint Sebastian with his pose and elegantly arranged fingers. After the brutality of a life and death that is only possible to imagine, the man’s facial expression reveals a serenity achieved only after he has passed away.
  • When Andres Serrano’s “Morgue” series was first exhibited in 1992, many perceived itas a violation of the sanctity of death.The series consists of three dozen, large-scale photographs, with the corpse in the foreground against a monochrome background. His cropping techniques make the viewer consider the cropping of life in violent death. It’s hard to tell the sex, race, and age of his subjects. Viewers are only given the cause of death, such as fatal meningitis, as in this photograph.
  • This image in the series, Jane Doe Killed by Police, is the closely cropped profile of a woman in the advanced stages of decay. Peeling, mottled skin transforms her face into a mask of camouflage. Above her ear is a gunshot wound, still glistening in the center. Serrano cropped the image at the chin, effectively beheading her. One of the most compelling aspects of the image is the woman’s sightless eyes and their submersion into her face. Contact lens rests on her lower eyelashes, as if the corpse is emitting tears. Her status as Jane Doe means that she will remain in the morgue freezer for months, unclaimed.
  • Sally Mann’s 2003 What Remains series, with its deep blacks and stark white patterns, delves into the emotions and biological processes that constitute death and decay. Working from this fascination, Mann photographed decomposing bodies on the grounds of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, also known as “The Body Farm.” While the images are unsettling, their wooded location make the corpses look more natural than in a morgue or a funeral home.
  • Mann uses the nineteenth century wet collodion process and a 100-year-old camera, which serves to strengthen the archaic beauty of her pictures, giving the impression that the images themselves are subject to the same decay as their subjects. Her close-ups of the faces of the anonymous dead seem less shocking than the work by Serrano, Silverthorne, or Witkin because of their natural setting, state of decay, and the handcrafted nature of their production.
  • At the same time that photographers were focusing their cameras on the anonymous dead, so too were they documenting the deaths of friends and intimates, especially during the early years of the AIDS crisis. Nan Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio, a series of photographs of Cookie Mueller, follows their friendship from when they first met in 1976 to Mueller’s death. Cookie in Her Casket, NYC, November 15, 1989 shows Cookie, heavily made-up, adorned with jewelry and flowers, in a candlelit room. In the series, Goldin is not attempting to capture death, nor deny it; rather, shedocumentsall that confronts her social and emotional realm.
  • Another series that follows people from life to death are diptychs by photographer Walter Schels and journalist [Be-otta]BeateLakotta. Forty-eightblack-and-white pairedphotographs depict terminally ill patients in hospice care before and after death. Interviews that provide moving insights into the experience of dying accompany each of the portraits. This series is unique from the other contemporary death images I’ve presented because of the direct eye contact of the subjects. The anonymous nature of those depicted is shattered by their personal narratives, acceptance of their impending deaths, and their gaze towards viewers.
  • Contemporary postmortem photography is used most commonly in grief counseling and therapy for stillborns and neonatal deaths. Photography makes the baby’s death more “real’” for the parents experiencing loss, validates the parents’ feelings at the time of their child’s death and afterwards, and provides a record of what the baby looked like to share with others. The nonprofit organization, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, connects the medical community, parents who lost their infants, and volunteer professional photographers to create what they call “remembrance photography” or “heirloom portraits.” Often, the images are in black and white, as that format is more forgiving of the dead. As in nineteenth century postmortem photographs, these portraits may be the only likenesses made of the infants, and much pride and artistry went into their creation. While the images are heartbreaking, they are cherished by parents and family members who haveno other form of remembrance.
  • Our fascination with postmortem photographs—be it family snapshots, news images, or fine art—has continued in the digital realm. During the August 2012 shooting at the Empire State Building, for example, people used Instagram to document the event, because it is the fastest way to take pictures and transmit them to others. After complaints about Instagramming the corpse of murder victim Steven Ercolino, the photographer defends himself by saying: “Images like this are unfortunate but this was my reality and I captured it as such.” We live in an unusual time in history in which almost everyone carries devices that can shoot and share pictures, but we have not yet agreed on the etiquette of documenting everything we encounter, including death.
  • In addition to Instagram, social media networks, such as Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and blogs, and commercial sites like EBay and Etsy are full of postmortem images. The popularity of nineteenth and early twentieth century images of the dead stem from their abundance and variety, their unique physical formats, and their status as morbid curiosities. As a society we have become less comfortable with this kind of proximity to death, yet we encounter violent deaths in movies, television shows, and the evening news. The visceral response these images provoke reflects a fascinating and significant cultural shift in attitudes toward mortality. Death is no longer a socially acceptable topic of conversation, and grief and mourning is privatewith few visible manifestations. Postmortem photography, once openly discussed and displayed, is a concealed tradition, yet we remain obsessed with these images of death.
  • Postmortem photography is not a bygone practice, but one that we have always engaged in since we had the technology to do so. With a click of a shutter, time freezes and the dead live on. While we can never view our own cadaver, we see in the departed something of ourselves. This, and not death itself, is the source of the horror and interest we feel when we look upon a photograph of a corpse. For we cannot help but identify with the image of the departed, that shadow without living substance, with the other's self. The face in the postmortem photograph—be it daguerreotype, carte-de-visite, Polaroid, or Instagram—fascinates us because it is a reflection of our own.
  • Transcript

    • 1. Thanatopsis: Seeing Death with Postmortem Photographs Margot NoteThe Art of Death & Dying Symposium University of Houston October 24-27, 2012
    • 2. Thank you!Follow meon Twitter:@margotnote