Sunday, February 7, 2010

F. Gonzalez-Crussi

Two books I acquired turned out to be among the best I've read on the subject of death. First, they do not sensationalize. Second, they are nearly poetic in their examination of the processes of life to death. Written by Dr. F. Gonzalez-Crussi, who in the 1990's was head of laboratories and professor of pathology at the Children's Memorial Hospital of Northwestern University in Chicago. He ponders death from his unusual perspective of, as he puts it, "a corpse handler" in his earlier book, Notes of an Anatomist, and continues where he left off in the essays within these books. His thoughts and writings emanate from his experience surrounding death and his "communion with the dead".  Suspended Animation, six essays on the preservation of bodily parts, is also illustrated with the amazing photographs of Rosamond W. Purcell. (Harcourt—Brace & Co.  1995)
His essays and her photographs within this book are poetical in nature, personal, and full of the awe and reverence of a writer and a photographer who truly respect both the physical processes and the nature of our brief time here on earth. The essays examine the various ways in which we try to preserve remnants of our physical existence. Chapter titles are: 
  • Microcosm in a Bottle
  • Of Flaying, Dismemberment, and other Inconveniences
  • Bologna, The Learned
  • Waxing Philosophical ... and a bit Hypersensitive
  • How We Come to Be
  • Nature's Lapses
... plus a Photographer's Note from Purcell. The photographs are rich still life details made in medical and anatomy collections in Spain, Italy and the USA.

An earlier book from Dr. Gonzalez-Crussi centers around a return to his homeland to revisit Mexico's Day of the Dead, the long tradition of the cemetery vigils of November 2. In this little book, also from Harcourt—Brace & Co. 1993, The Day of the Dead and Other Mortal Reflections, we find these chapters:
  • A Visit to the Embalmer, 
  • The Grin of the Calavera
  • Of Skulls in a Heap and Soft Parts in Glass Jars, 
  • Two Unrecorded Scenes, 
  • Moonlight Autopsy, 
  • Lights, Camera, Stillness! Death and the Visual Arts.
It explores many facets and perceptions, times and locations, all written in a wonderfully immediate and personal tone.

Continuing with the theme of today's entry, I include here an image of a stereo card in my collection. It is from "The Edinburgh Atlas of Anatomy" and is of the dissected human thorax. The over-sized yellow card has the explanatory text on the back and was doubtlessly used by medical students and anatomists in the late 19th or early 20th Century. One can see this image in full 3-D with a traditional stereo viewer.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Carved Skulls

When I was browsing for images of skulls, I came across these examples of intricately carved human skulls. They are apparently quite old and from Asia, and with a Buddhist connection, although I can't be sure. All I can say is that they are incredible in their detail and beauty. The patina of age and the imagery on each one is amazing. I wish I knew more about the graphic symbolism and their actual provenance. Maybe one of my readers can enlighten us.

Skull One:

 Or Skull Two:

And the best – Skull Three:

One can assume that these are now hidden away in a personal collection somewhere. I wonder what the ethical ramifications are for possessing something like this. Where were they taken from in the first place? And of course, the eternal question: Who were they?

The need to memorialize or even sanctify physical remains is certainly not new, as illustrated above. But what about today? We can't legally retain and decorate the bones of our relatives, so what can we do? Maybe we can have something as beautiful as these skulls by creating a reliquary for their ashes. There are many serious artists who are crafting beautiful urns and boxes to hold cremains. I assume they are not intended for burial. At Funeria one can find the most exquisite reliquaries. Their website opens with this on their portfolio page:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sleeping Beauties

One of the seeds of my interest in postmortem portraiture was planted when I saw the book Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photography in America. This beautiful hard-cover collection was edited from the Dr. Stanley Burns Archive and published in 1990 by TwelveTrees Press. The first edition is now quite valuable. It was followed in 2002 with Sleeping Beauties II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography. American and European Traditions published by the Burns Archive Press. Both fairly large books have gilt text on the plain black cover. The photograph collections within are among the best examples of postmortem portraiture you will find anywhere.

An excerpt from the Burns Archive Website describes Dr. Burns and his collection's origin below:
In 1975, Dr. Stanley B. Burns, an eye surgeon and vision specialist practicing in New York City, became interested in daguerreotypes and other early photographs. By 1978, Dr. Burns had acquired, through aggressive buying and connoisseurship, one of America's most important collections of early photography. 
In 1988, the Burns Archive moved into its permanent headquarters, a New York townhouse built in 1890, at 140 East 38th Street.

My own collection was in response to these. It is important to consider that all of these images are virtually one-of-a-kind. Literally so for the daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes. Most likely so for cartes-des-visite and cabinet cards because of the small chance of duplicates surviving so long. Even other prints were likely in the personal collections of the immediate family, so only rarely do I come across more than one copy. So, like the Sleeping Beauties books, here are more examples from:

The Post-Mortem Portrait Archive
From my postmortem collection, these examples are among my favorites. The first is a 1860-65 tintype in a daguerreotype case in which the face was slightly hand-tinted. An amazing photo, equally as good as any in the Burns Archive.
An interesting trend for some early 20th Century examples, is the vertical format baby wearing a white Christening gown. There seems to be an attempt to make the child look angelic and serene. These three similar Edwardian examples are printed 12-13 cm by 9-10 cm and mounted onto embossed card stock.


This one had written on the back: "Lester L. Shire, 3 mos. 5 dys".


These two little cartes-des-visite from the 1870's(?) are also amazing in their sensitivity and elegance.

The little girl in the chair seems to be watching the camera, but the tell-tale signs of death make it clear that she is not seeing anything. One of the saddest revelations from looking at these images is the reality of the death of these children. One sometimes forgets this when we are distracted by the beauty of the work.