Monday, January 4, 2010

Wisconsin Death Trip

A great book from 1973 was Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip (Pantheon/Random House)(reissued in 1990 and 2000). It fits really well here because it examines both the photographic and written record to illustrate the life of the average person in this part of the world between 1890 and 1910. There is much evidence of tragedy in the reprinted newspaper excerpts and in the eyes of those pictured. It was a dark time, when murder, accidental death and disease were common occurrences. People faced it daily and in tragic ways.

The portraits in this book (originally his PhD thesis) are many and wonderful. Lesy has played around with some of the imagery, albeit in a 1970's kinda way.....  The text is a great read, too.

The portraits in this book are very much like the photographs that I collect: nineteenth century views of long-gone people. I find that it is especially poignant to look into the eyes of someone who lived more than a century ago; to see their expression, clothes, and posture as if standing before them in life. Roland Barthes discusses the impact of the snapshot in this way in his great book: Camera Lucida.

The Post-Mortem Portrait Archive
I also collect post-mortem portraits, a specialized yet somewhat common form of portraiture from the late 19th C and early 20th C. We can get philosophical here and say that all photographic portraits are post mortem....eventually. But what is even more interesting, is that the post-mortem portraits of babies and children seem to far out-number those of adults. One could say that this was because at that time, when photography was in its infancy and in the hands of a few professionals, there may not have been a chance for a child or young person to have had a studio portrait made. Their time of death would be the last opportunity to capture a likeness, so many photographers offered their services, either in their studio, the funeral home, or even at the home of the deceased or at the grave-side. On the back of early cartes-des-visite and cabinet cards, we sometimes see advertisements that offer these specific services. The 20th century saw the growth of the Kodak and a notion that these portraits were no longer appropriate for open and public display. The Cabinet card post-mortem portraits were no longer being displayed on the wall or piano top. They became more private. As we progressed through the 20th C, and even into the 21st, we find that these photographs are still being made by immediate families, especially with the invention of the Polaroid, and now with the ease of a digital camera.

In this blog, I will regularly feature portrait samples from my collection. There are many websites that maintain an archive of these as well, and I will also post links. For example, go to the Thanatos Archives to see their wonderful collection of 19th C material. Today, we will start with this fine portrait, an excellent example of early 20th century studio work.

It was shot after the slow disappearance of traditional symbolism where the casket or coffin, bassinet or carriage, flowers, and lace were the usual language of these images. It is fairly large, (5" x 7") and mounted on an even larger gray card, so it was meant for display, even in the pre-WWI period from which it may have come. Its stark and clinical approach is a bit of an anomaly, but there is a professionalism and clarity of purpose that I find quite intriguing. This is a simple visual statement: "This child is dead. But she once looked like this." I cannot look at this image without thinking that I am looking at a corpse, so I can't imagine a family member using this image as a fond visual remembrance of their baby. How did they do it? Yet, with the distancing of time and anonymity, I can find it beautiful.

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