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Saturday, 12 March 2011


"All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality."
Susan Sontag, On Photography

On July the 20th 1874 the New York Times reported a story, originally from a Kentucky paper, of a trader working the Ohio River who had fallen ill and decided to recuperate in a town called Ripley. Among his possessions was a small iron casket containing the bones of two of his children who had died twelve years earlier. According to another of his children he never let the casket out of his sight. Would he have been satisfied with a post mortem photograph of the children? Probably not. A photograph is merely a representation and the physical proximity of his deceased children was what mattered to him.

Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes claimed to see a connection between the act of photography and a form of death, or an affirmation at least of mortality. In freezing a moment of time the photographer acknowledges it has passed, hence a simple snapshot is a reminder that all of us must die. 19th century post mortem photographs don’t fit this argument. If anything, they were an attempt at immortality, to preserve the subject’s brief life beyond death. There are thousands of post mortem photographs still circulating today and most of them are of unidentified, unknown or untraceable people. All the photographs tell us is that at some point this person was alive. As it happens, post mortem photographs are often the last definitive proof of an entire family’s existence. All other possessions have been dispersed and lost. Rather than acknowledging mortality they confirm life.

It is easy to imagine our 19th century ancestors as gloomily obsessed with death. The evidence presented by portrait photographers is of a dour, unsmiling people dressed in dark clothes that cover the body, and we have been left a proliferation of photographs of death and illness. Not just post mortem portraits for the paying public but autopsies, the famous in their satin lined coffins, remains dug up from archaeological sites, medical studies and then there are spirit photographs, which aren’t of the dead because they were faked but they are about death. If not most then a considerable percentage were taken out of scientific curiosity. It is worth remembering that in the 1860s Etienne Jules Marey conducted an experiment on a decapitated criminal to identify the moment death took place. A satisfactory medical definition of death wasn’t available and there were all those chilling stories from the Revolution of blinking eyes and moving lips to deal with. Anthropology was a new social science and to be taken seriously it needed to overcome old prejudices about barbarism in non-Western cultures. That meant an objective study of funerary practices and to be objective it was useful to have that disinterested recording machine the camera on hand. It wasn’t a case of obsession so much as having a lot of unanswered questions to deal with.

Ever since photography was invented the camera has been on hand to document death but then the presence of death has always been an intrinsic feature to being alive. Inevitably life in all its forms and expressions couldn’t be documented without death. If any one person deserves the blame for the death of post mortem photography it was George Eastman. Once he put cameras in the hands of ordinary people they were able to photograph each other very much alive. We didn’t need post mortem photography anymore although there was plenty of death about to keep documenting.


1 comment:

  1. Sontags death was certainly memorialized by her partner Annie Liebovitz. I remember seeing a documentary about Annie which, as I recall, contained footage of her photographing Sontag as she lay dying and then once she'd passed. Annie seemed almost mechanical when doing it. She was able to keep a wall between her and reality because she looked as emotionless as her subject. I'm not really sure what she needed to document and for whom.


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