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John Lennon’s death on the 8th of December 1980, 30 years ago to the day, evokes one of the most iconic photographs of American popular culture. On that tragic day, the photographer Annie Leibovitz met Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono at their flat in The Dakota building in New York to shoot a photo for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Five hours after the image was taken, Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman. The subsequent publication of the photograph on the cover of Rolling Stone and in the mass media thus caused a tragic, almost morbid sensation since it was one of the last images ever taken of Lennon.
Apart from this historic coincidence, a reading of the photograph establishes why it has become such an integral part of our visual culture. The way Lennon’s body is wrapped around Yoko One is strongly reminiscent of the fetal position, or, in other words, the positioning of the body of a prenatal fetus as it develops. Lennon’s curled toes are deeply reminiscent of the newborn child. Importantly however, the fetal position is also assumed in children and adults seeking to protect the body in a state of trauma. Lennon’s nakedness signifying his vulnerability, and the position of his body signifying a bodily position which evokes a traumatic experience, eerily foreshadow the actual trauma that Lennon was yet to incur only hours after the image was taken.
Lennon’s passionate embrace also evokes the famous painting ‘The Kiss’ by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. In both images, the main subject is the relationship between man and woman: the man kisses the woman while the woman has her eyes closed and head turned to the side. The neutral and flat background in both The Kiss and the Leibovitz photograph help to elevate the main subject from their surroundings. The photo editors of Rolling Stone cropped the edge of the couch and Lennon’s jeans hanging from it to suit the ratio of the magazine cover. But while the woman in Klimt’s painting has her head tilted to the side, Yoko Ono on the other hand appears static, motionless, literally unmoved.
Yoko Ono’s expression, or rather, her lack of expression, is another reason why I believe this image has become impregnated into our memory. As the photograph was published after Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono’s expression and dark clothing cannot be disassociated with her subsequent mourning. In a sense, what makes the photograph so powerful is the uncanny representation of deeply felt emotions that were yet to be experienced. John Lennon clinging on to life – Yoko Ono pained by his death. The image becomes a another constituent in the deeply problematic relationship between photography and death. Jacques Derrida wrote that photography ‘implies the “return of the dead” in the very structure of both its image and the phenomenon of its image.’ Here, the allegorical ‘return’ is effectuated by a photograph that will always be remembered.
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