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.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Morbid Anantomy

I highly recommend a look at a fantastic weblog where the topics fall into the same dark sphere as mine: Morbid Anatomy.

Run by a Brooklyn graphic designer since 2007, it is a great list of goings-on in the greater NYC area and the world at large. It includes a long list of great on-line exhibitions, anatomical links and other website references, a Morbid Anatomy Bookstore, and much more. It is hard to resist exploring this site and its amazing links for hours at a time....  Morbid Anatomy's Flicker page is an FANTASTIC collection of images previously featured in the weblog.

Another on-line set of post-mortem portrait photographs can be found on the Flicker page of The Post Mortem Archive. Not many, but nice examples.

More From My Post-Mortem Portrait Archive
From my postmortem collection, these fine examples illustrate a variety of fascinating styles used in this portrait tradition. Today I continue to feature a selection from my own physical archive. This weblog will be the only on-line resource for these images.

From the opulence and high-style of the late nineteenth century, we move to a poignant backyard snapshot from the early twentieth century. In all these cases, it is evident that the photograph was taken when the deceased was still at home. It is only later in the early 20th C that we begin to see portraits made at funeral homes. (see last photo, below)

This collection has grown to 230 images, most of which are from the 19th Century. I will continue to post examples here, but I would also like to feature more books from my library as well. Any suggestions from you? Please feel free to leave a comment. Thanks.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Motorcycle Funerals

While I driving around in the UK at the end of February, I didn't see any motorcycle funerals. Too wet, I suppose. But this site illustrates that the motorcycle hearse has been available to UK bikers for over 22 years. At Managing Director Rev. Paul Sinclair believes we should reflect people's lifestyles in their funerals.

Although my own photographic/art practice is focused on old, decrepit cemeteries and related themes, I know there is a world of current funerary practice out there that would be fascinating to the sociologist, cultural anthropologist, or historian. I suppose I don't pursue that avenue of exploration because of a reticence to intrude on people's privacy during difficult times. I am more interested in the decaying visual remains of a Gothic Victorian past; when death, funerals, and memorials were a bigger part of life; when people participated in an overtly fashionable act of mourning.

A good book about this glorious past is James Stevens Curl's The Victorian Celebration of Death. [Phoenix Mill (UK): Sutton Publishing Ltd. 2000] This is a well researched history (PhD dissertation) of 19th C. attitudes, contexts and traditions surrounding the growth of the Victorian Celebration and Mourning of the dead. For a dissertation about 19th C. American funeral practice and attitudes towards death, see Gary Laderman's The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Towards Death, 1799-1883. [New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996]

For those interested in current European funeral practice, in my first blog entry I pointed out Thanatorama. This French site (with English subtitles) features an inter-active audio-visual presentation to guide you through the immediate "afterlife" where you are the recently deceased. It is a fascinating journey through the cultural constructs of the funeral: embalming or cremation, and rites of burial as practiced in France today. Extremely well done. BUT be forewarned. There are a few images of actual corpses here...nothing gross or disrespectful, but a very informative story and well worth the journey.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Grave Portraits

Among my favorite discoveries when exploring cemeteries are the little faces we find adhered to gravestones. These usually oval cameo portraits may be common in one cemetery, but are usually rare in most. The older versions are much more common in parts of Europe, or cemeteries associated with a particular cultural or ethnic group. The technology is such that they are among the most permanent form of photographic imaging processes known. Some are fired ceramic. Others fired enamel. When looking on-line recently, it seems that there has been a resurgence of this service in North America even with references to digitally printed photo-tiles. These are still fired onto porcelain as before, for permanence. See this site for an example of current applications.
These photographs are from an old cemetery on the East-bound road to Dugald, Manitoba, in an area with Eastern European ancestry. I photographed them one sunny March day in 1980 where I discovered this tradition for the first time.

It is interesting to compare the above with this unique plaque found in a small Newfoundland cemetery near McIvors. It is odd in that is not of the living person, but of his corpse. There are no other photo-plaques in this cemetery (yet).

A permanent likeness of the deceased on their last resting place has been a long-standing tradition, as illustrated this Mummy portrait of a young woman, 2nd century, Louvre, Paris. (...and let's not forget Tutankhamen.)

This tradition was also seen in the 17th Century as well. See Wikipedia's entry which includes this coffin portrait (right) of Barbara Domicela Lubomirska née Szczawinska, 1676. Oil on tin plate. Current location is the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland. It became a tradition to decorate coffins of deceased nobles (szlachta) with such funerary art in the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, the time of the baroque in Poland and Sarmatism. This tradition was virtually unknown outside the Commonwealth.

In Italy we found along with 20th C photo-plaques beautiful 19th C bas relief portrait sculptures. Most are very accomplished, as one would expect in this land of great marble sculpture. Some of these images are from Cortona in Tuscany, others from de Cementerio de San Michele in Isola near Venice.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Sorry for the long delay... I'm back now, so here is a little tidbit to keep you interested.

There are many websites which list the witty and often apocryphal epitaphs found on tombstones. For example, a Wild West headstone in the Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone, Cochise County, Arizona, USA, bears the classic epitaph:

Here lies Lester Moore, four slugs from a .44, no Les, no more.
One of many web-pages with a list of these witty couplets is at this link. But for a more historical and complete catalogue, see this book from the 19th Century which archives many epitaphs from ye olde English graveyards (pre 1870's). It is reproduced in full at the Internet Archive Open Library, and is entitled:
Epitaphiana or, The curiosities of churchyard literature, being a miscellaneous collection of epitaphs with an introduction giving an account of various customs prevailing amongst the ancients and moderns in the disposal of their dead.
by William Fairley
Published in 1875, S. Tinsley (London)

Here is an embedded reader courtesy of Internet Archive Open Library which presents the book in its entirety, enjoy: