Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fine Art Photography and the Dead

Today, this Page contains GRAPHIC photographs of the DEAD.
Proceed only with the understanding that you may be disturbed.

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When we think of the visual arts, we don't always envision the dead, other than in a metaphorical or symbolic way. Without going into the history of drawn, painted, and sculpted depictions (Goya et al), there are visual artists, however, who include the dead in their work, the most (in)famous photographers being Joel-Peter Witkin and Andrés Serrano, among others. These photographers who utilize the human cadaver in the name of art, can sometimes provide us with powerful insights into our own mortality and corporeal fragility, not to mention our fears and prejudices.

One can associate Joel-Peter Witkin's work with a Gothic look at art history and human sexuality, often conflated with the body and its distorted or discarded parts. Sometimes Romantic, often disturbing, always provocative, Witkin's work examines our reluctance to associate life, death, art, deformities, sex and religion together in one image.

 Andrés Serrano, on the other hand, photographs the dead with no pretense at making it palatable, other than to shield the individual from revealing their identity. His subjects include the tragically dead, accident and murder victims, and the unclaimed. He examines the details, seemingly to allow us to look for clues of their demise in their lips, fingernails, skin, and expression in their eyes.

Other photographers who have delved into the literal realm of human death include Jack Berman.  Berman's photographs from time in Latin America record medical specimens, body fragments, and portraits, but also show us an aesthetic attachment to fine art traditions. See an on-line portfolio of his Last Rites in Canadian Art Magazine. <<NEW>> On June 8, 2010, The National Post published an article about Berman and his work. Also see my July 1st, 2010 entry on Berman's new book.

Walter Schels and his partner Beate Lakotta recorded interviews with their subjects in their final days, revealing much about dying - and living. He made close-up portraits showing them in both life and death. A powerful body of work ensued. “People are almost always pretending something, but these people had lost that need,” Mr. Schels told the Guardian. “I felt it enabled me as a photographer to get as close as it’s possible to get to the core of a person; when you’re facing the end, everything that’s not real is stripped away. You’re the most real you’ll ever be, more real than you’ve ever been before.”

To see more of his amazing collection of portraits go to the Guardian's pages.


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