Susan Sontag, On Photography
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.
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.
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