Archive for the ‘Death’ tag
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.
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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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Let me introduce you to one of the most iconic photographs of post-war Germany: the politician Uwe Barschel found dead in a bathtub in a hotel in Geneva. I was nine years old when this photograph was imprinted in my memory. It was taken by journalists working for Stern magazine as they checked up on Barschel in his hotel room. It is a highly voyeuristic image and one can only assume that the journalists decided to pull back the shower curtain in order to get a better view of Barschel. The strong flashlight of the camera captures every little detail: Barschel lies fully clothed in a bathtub, his body submerged in water, his head leaning towards the side. A few details of the photograph are intriguing: his collar button is opened and his tie is loosened, his hair is wet despite being above water and his wristwatch peaks out from his sleeve. The non-water proof wristwatch would later give an indication of Barschel’s time of death. All these elements further raised the intrigue of what happened to Barschel.
Until this day, the circumstances of Barschel’s death have not been resolved. One line of investigation has been suicide as several drugs have been found in the room and in Barschel’s body. Another theory involves the Isreali secret service Mossad who were weary of Barschel’s knowledge of an arms deal between Isreal and Iran. The mysteriousness of Barschel’s last living moments coupled with the paradoxical representation of his death had the effect that this photograph gained iconographic status and remains well remembered in the German psyche.
The German photographer Thomas Demand who is well-known for his reconstructions of iconographic images, rebuilt the bathtub in room 317 of the Hotel Beau-Rivage in paper and cardboard. There is no trace of Barschel himself in Demand’s reconstruction, yet the vantage point of the camera, the bathroom tiles, even the water level in the bathtub remain strikingly similar to the original photograph published by Stern magazine. As if to grant the deceased subject more privacy, Demand drew the curtain slightly closed. Demand’s image is a comment on the role of photography in the production and consumption of memory.
But it is not only photographic memory that is referred to here. Jacques Louis David’s painting of Marat lying dead in a bathtub is part of this visual iconography in the construction of memory. I hesitate to assume that the Stern journalists were aware of David’s painting. Nor do I think that Stern readers immediately think of the Death of Marat when they see the photograph of Barschel. Nevertheless, the striking similarities between David’s painting and the Barschel photograph might explain why the latter has become one of the most iconic images in recent German history. Marat was assassinated while Barschel, as many believe, might also have been the victim of political plot. Like Marat’s note held in his left hand, Barschel’s wristwatch signifies the immediacy of his death.