I’ve been thinking about death, or more precisely, death and photography. Quite a popular area this mortality/art malarkey but it always seems to get contemporary photographers (and artists, and art-photographers, however, you want to be described….) into all sorts of bother; either in their own minds or in the public and/or critics’ eyes.
In the 19th Century, death and photography were no stranger to one another, with portraits taken to remind the grieving of who they had lost or to send to relatives to alert them to the news. In recent times, I have seen members of my own family photograph the headstone of their dear departed and send the pics to other relatives. Not quite a body but a safer alternative. Oh, and not appreciated by the receiver (not myself).
I read a great book once by Jessica Mitford called “The American Way of Death” which looked at historical and present day funeral rites. It reinforced how abstract death had become to the 20th and now 21st Century griever. Ignore the subject, sanitise the act, then wonder what happened when we get hit with a wall of unresolved grief.
The Victorians were right to photograph their dead. Their Queen kept old Prince Albert, on his deathbed, close by in photographic form. The Victorians, well they just grieved and remembered and then got on with it all. Many people nowadays face death with loved ones, they do see it as a process and are there, all the way. Some people still have wakes. Some people secretly photograph their dead on their mobile phones in an act of remembrance they cannot quite understand themselves.
Annie Leibovitz photographed Susan Sontag dead to the outcry and chagrin of many. Fellow photographers, Sontag’s family and critical thinkers all felt uneasy and even angry at how Leibovitz could “break” this taboo. But what taboo? She was dead, Leibovitz loved her, it was a final moment, a tribute in perhaps the only manner Leibovitz could comprehend.
Others saw it as a coup, the shiny photographer photographs the magnificent essayist. How could she resist?
Sontag talked of how:
A fiction about soft or easy deaths is part of the mythology of most diseases that are not considered shameful or demeaning.
Perhaps the photographic image can redress the balance, bear witness to varying deathbed realities; not only in the dead face of Sontag herself but in others whose deaths may be easy or may be hard.
Postscript: I wrote this piece a few years back but left it in draft form. Since then my own sister has died, a horrendous cancer ridden experience of dying. I photographed her at home with her adult daughters the day before she died. I had no informed consent which made me uneasy with the process. She was dying but looked dead. The daughters wanted the photograph because it was them and their mum, yet since it was shot, they have never asked for it and I have never offered. It resides in my computer and most likely always will. So no photo with this post.