In this classic example of post-mortem photography, a mother and a father are sitting next to their deceased daughter. The long exposure of the camera has the eery effect that the daughter is completely in focus, while the parents, the live subjects in the frame, are blurry. The photographer might have even moved the daughter’s mouth so that it appears that she is smiling, while the parents facial expression is strained by their recent loss. The daughter is remembered via the photographic image, or, in other words, the photograph stands in for the missing subject. Here, the successful representation of a deceased family member hinges on the subject appearing alive.
Post-mortem photography tends to be a genre associated with the Victorian era (1837-1901), when photography was a technological novelty unaffordable to the working classes. The implication is that those commissioning a post-mortem photographic portrait of a family member also had the economic means to do so. Yet as much photography might have been celebrated as a novelty in the late 19th century, post-mortem photography is treated like a novelty from todays point of view. The strict association with the Victorian era tends to overlook a number of points: post-mortem photography is a global phenomena popularized in parallel to the inception and reception of the photographic medium all over the world. Post-mortem photography is not exclusive to subjects of the British Empire. Secondly, the association between the Victorian era and post-mortem photography underestimates to what extent a similar variety of this genre continues to be an integral part of contemporary visual culture.
From the very beginning, photographers explored death as a significant trope via the new medium photography. In ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man’, Hippolyte Bayard for instance theatrically staged his own death as early as 1840. Bayard’s fascination with his own death reflects a fetishistic attitude towards death photographers have explored ever since. Enrique Metinides’ strangely beautiful photographs of accident victims in Mexico depicts a morbid desire to capture the border between life and death. As I have explored in a previous post, the American photographer Weegee displayed an equally voyeuristic attitude in his photographs of car crash victims.
A far more personal interpretation of death can be found on a contact sheet by the Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya. Married to an Austrian woman and living in a flat in East Berlin, Furuya appears to have been taking pictures shortly before and after his wife committed suicide by jumping of the balcony on the 9th floor. The violence that Furuya’s wife would inflict on herself is foreshadowed by two photographs of tanks taken from a television screen. A photograph of the balcony is followed by the morbid image of Furuya’s wife lying on the ground below. In the presence of the East German police, Furuya appears to photograph through his open jacket to avoid being stopped by the authorities. He photographed his wife’s dead body until the very last instance. As Roland Barthes famously wrote in his book Camera Lucida: ‘Death is the Eidos of Photography’. As Barthes exhaustively argues in his book, the desire to photograph is inextricably linked to the desire of capturing subjects that the photograph will outlive. In Barthes’ case, it’s a photograph of his late mother which prompts his nostalgia through the photographic image.
The controversial photographer Andres Serrano photographed dead bodies not in the place where the death occurred, but where it is investigated: the morgue. The titles of the photographs usually inform the viewer about the type of death the victims experienced (‘Jane Doe, Killed by Police’, ‘Knifed to Death’, ‘Burnt to Death’ etc.). The caption thus fulfills an important function with regard to the reading of the image. Here, the viewer becomes an unwitting participant in the evalution of bodily features and anomalies. In above photograph for instance, two distinct aspects stand out: the subjects arms are stiffened while her body hair is, similar to goose-bumps, pointing straight up. Foreshadowing the huge popularity of American TV shows such as CSI, Serrano provokes the viewer into his own crime scene investigation.
Yet the most common encounter of photography and death can be seen in photojournalism. From Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ in the Spanish civil war, to more recent conflicts, death is an integral part of representing the horrors of war. The French photographer Luc Delahaye applies the aesthetic of the tableau to his photograph of a deceased Taliban soldier in Afghanistan. The soldier is doubly captured: by his enemies and by Delahaye’s interrogative camera. The soldier’s body position is strongly reminiscent of Christian iconography and more specifically the Pieta. In Delahaye’s photography, Mary morning the death of Jesus is replaced by rubble and dirt. The photograph depicts the loneliness of the soldier in the moment of death. The dirt and rubble, but also the reference to the Pieta, underline the initial perception that the soldier has died.
From Bayard’s staged death, to Victorian era post-mortem photography, Delahaye’s photograph represents the fascination with death, the macabre, the morbid. The main difference between Victorian era post-mortem photography and more recent examples of this type of photography can be found in the way these images are consumed. In the Victorian era the post-mortem photograph was usually a unique object commissioned for purely personal consumption. Contemporary art photographers or photojournalists on the other hand depend on the photograph entering a cycle of consumption. In addition to that, Victorian era post-mortem photography aspired to depict the subject as still alive. The photograph was seen as the medium which would momentarily enliven the deceased subject. More recent examples of post-mortem photography are far less ambiguous in its depiction of death.
I would argue that the way the photograph is consumed and to what extent the subject is enlivened in the image is deeply related to each other. As soon as the image enters a highly complex image economy via the mass media, contemporary post-mortem photography becomes the antidote to Victorian era photographs of the dead. Rather than depicting subjects that look alive, the dead are represented precisely as such.