Archive for the ‘Memento Mori’ tag
The iconic iPhone. The iconic iPod. The iconic Steve Jobs. Rarely has the perception of an individual been so synonymous with the perception of a line of products, commodities, material objects. In this blog post I want to explore how this slippage between individual and object is largely due to how both are presented to the public. For this task I turn to apple.com, the virtual HQ of Apple, to find a remarkably simple black and white photograph depicting the late Steve Jobs. Yet beneath this veneer of simplicity lies a fairly complex set of visual codes which, I believe, require further examination.
The caption “Steve Jobs 1955-2011″ dramatically impacts our reading of the image. The man that we are looking has deceased yet in the photograph he is alive. And not only is he alive, but also, he looks far more healthy than most of his colleagues, friends and family members will likely remember him. Rather than depicting an ill man, the Apple corporate hierarchy has, of course, chosen a photograph that puts Steve Job in a rather ‘good light’ (the photographic origin of this expression should be acknowledged). Here is a man who looks calm, thoughtful, even content as he looks into the camera. As much as the photograph is simple, Jobs’ trademark black turtleneck sweater and his round frameless glasses further suggest that Jobs himself is a man who prefers asceticism over excess. In a sense, the very attributes of the photograph are meant to underscore Apple’s pursuit of form enabling function. My point is that in the photograph Steve Jobs was represented like one of Apple’s (other) iconic products. A white backdrop, a simple studio lighting set up and defined outlines – these are the visual codes of product photography.
Apart from the slippage between individual and object, other aspects in the photographs require further scrutiny. The wedding band for instance – Roland Barthes might have regarded it as the punctum – suggests that Steve Jobs was a loyal and trustworthy family man. As much as he was the head of a large corporation he was also the head of a family. Further underlining Steve Jobs perceived role as leader, it is no coincidence that the photograph was cropped at the middle of the chest evoking comparisons with sculptural busts. Like Plato, Caesar or Napoleon, Steve Jobs is one to be remembered.
Yet there is another element in the photograph, one that is also borrowed from classical sculpture, which, I believe, impacts our reading of the image the most: Jobs’ left thumb and index finger resting on his chin. Similar to Rodin’s iconic sculpture The Thinker, Jobs is represented as an individual deeply engaged in his own thoughts. He is the master, the visionary, the genius of Apple. The fact that corporations are controlled by board members, the fact that corporations are governed by shareholders, and equally, the fact that the products of such corporations are produced by hundreds and thousands of anonymous workers is not discernible in the photograph. It is not necessarily what is in the photograph, but also, what is outside of the photograph which tells us what type of corporate image Apple is pursuing in it’s visual communication strategy.
Those following the news footage of people resting flowers (and apples) at Apple stores throughout the world will not have failed to recognize the religious connotations of these actions. One iPad and iPhone application even illuminates a virtual candlestick to commemorate Steve Jobs’ death. For the next few days, Apple stores will continue to resemble sites of pilgrimage. A cynic might say that this is, perhaps, further affirmation that consumerism is our religion. Yet I would suggest that the manifestation of Steve Jobs as icon and the subsequent religious-like mourning of his death is not necessarily a reflection of a society deeply embroiled in consumption, but rather, I believe it reflects a society coming to terms with how individuals are virtually connected, how they share things and how they communicate. The sad irony then that millions of people found out about Jobs’ death via an Apple device.
To subscribe to this blog, please enter your email address here and check your inbox for the verification email.
I would like to thank my 1st year photography students at the Australian National University for providing me with invaluable material for this post.
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.