In Barthian terms, the difference between photographing a dead subject or a living one could be enunciated as a question of temporal uncertainty, that which would mediate between the taking of the photograph and the inevitable disappearance of the referent; but if we understand death as a cultural construction, subject to social, religious, economic or artistic considerations, the subject becomes a little more complicated. It is true that the relationship between photography and death can be approached from different perspectives: if in the journalistic field the representation of deaths, corpses or executions can be a controversial element in the development of the news, in the artistic field the connotations pivot between the morbid, provocation or more or less philosophical reflection on the transience of human existence. Already in the domestic sphere, the evolution of the genre has run parallel to the social consideration of death during these last two centuries, always maintaining a more utilitarian character for mourners, as an artifice to preserve and honour the memory of the deceased or a therapeutic instrument to manage the loss of loved ones.

This is why we cannot enclose the relationship between death and photography under the sole label of “Post-Mortem Photography” -photography of the dead-, avoiding a broader debate in which its study is included within the limits of other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology or the field of artistic creation, where in recent decades it has been incorporated into the discourse of contemporary photography to articulate gazes that move between compassion and horror. If in the first post-mortem photographs the visual representation of death is almost exclusively oriented towards its rituals and its social staging, establishing a rigid framework in which family, moral, social and economic values are codified, today its representation will be inserted into broader visual narratives – self-referential projects of illness, vindication of socially stigmatised collectives or mourning therapies – in which death, perhaps, will no longer be the only and last protagonist in the story. With all this, the evolution of the genre will not only be determined by the progressive change of social attitude towards death that each time has brought; the technological development of the environment itself will also propitiate the appearance of new manifestations and dissemination strategies.

Death appears early in photography as a continuation of a secular tradition dating back to the 15th century in which the practice of painting or drawing the deceased – mainly kings, nobles or clerics – was common throughout Europe. If the function of the early artistic manifestations was moralizing – “Memento Mori” reminding the living of their inexorable destiny – it will soon be replaced by a more elegiac intention, as a tribute to the memory of the deceased. The first “Post-Mortem” photographs, taken with this second intention, appear in the first half of the 19th century, shortly after the invention of photography in 1839. Although from a contemporary perspective these first images may seem morbid to us, we must bear in mind that until the beginning of the 20th century -due to a lower life expectancy, a high infant mortality rate and the ritualization of the mourning wake in one’s own home- death and bereavement were experienced in a closer and more intimate way. These photographs were exchanged naturally, formed part of the family album and occupied a privileged place in the domestic sphere. The religious practices of the time conditioned the attitude towards death and its iconographic representation: concepts such as the “Good Death”, the “Eternal Rest” or the “Angelitos” (Little Angels) were photographically transcribed into scenes that conveyed serenity and undoubtedly a certain spiritual tranquillity to the afflicted relatives and friends, and whose usefulness was glossed over by Michel Melot in his book “A Brief History of the Image”:

“The image as a substitute for the absent body and its vision as an effective means for the living to recover the memory of the deceased. This psychological and transcendental tool gives meaning to the living when accepting death, recognizing it and overcoming it” (Melot, 2010).

The first manifestations of post-mortem photography are confined to the realm of the private and they seek the dignification of the subjects and the visual recording of their figures – perhaps the only one in many cases – as a support for mourning and memory. Although it is not hidden, death is concealed, applying for this purpose conventions specific to the photography of the living and a visual syntax specific to the genre: through the use of various stylistic resources (corpse lying or seated, alone or accompanied by different combinations of relatives …), the use of symbolism (rest, flowers, costumes, religious elements …) and the de-dramatization of the scenes are intended a reassuring and healing effect.

The development and form of the genre evolve in parallel with technical developments: thus, for example, if the heavy cameras and complicated procedures of wet collodion limited the photographic taking to the studio, the dry plates will allow the posthumous portrait at home; the commercial format of the carte-de-visite will have its postmortem equivalent and a market will be created for famous deceased portraits and photographs of their exequies. During this first period, the practice of the genre will be maintained as a professional service provided by studio photographers in urban areas or by itinerant photographers in rural areas. Already in the present era, and as we will see later, the ubiquity of photographic devices will make it possible to portray the deceased almost furtively when the occasion will allow.

There is evidence of what could be called the first stage of postmortem photography in the abundant material recovered by institutions and private collectors. With an archive of over a million historical photographs, the Burns Archive has an important section devoted to the mortuary genre. In Spain there are photographic archives in public custody (town halls, museums, foundations) and private collections in which the material of an endless number of local photographers is preserved and among whose content it is possible to trace images of the deceased.

Victor Hugo on his deathbed (1885), Félix Nadar

The growing popularity of photography in the early 20th century and the increase in the number of amateur photographers – the KODAK Brownie was put on sale in 1888 – did not, however, leave a proportional record in domestic post-mortem photography, This fact is perhaps related to the implementation of an industrial model that compromised the privacy of the content, leaving these scenes – of an intimate and evident “anti-Kodak” nature – exposed to the scrutiny of laboratory technicians and to the gaze of other people involved in the commercial network of vernacular photography.

From the middle of the 20th century, for Western societies, death became an uncomfortable presence: turned into an invisible and solitary phenomenon, modern death is an “abdication of the community” (Ariés, 1989) in favour of companies and professionals specialised in managing the whole process: illness, death and final disposal of the corpse in installations built on the outskirts of cities. According to Linkman, the dissolution of Christian beliefs, an increase in social mobility and changes in the family structure have led to these processes of externalisation of death outside the home. The body-centric narrative of the “Afterlife” and the metaphor of the “Eternal Rest” that dominated the previous funeral ritual is replaced by the pragmatic objectivity of cremation and the facto-centric celebration of the life of the deceased. In this context, post-mortem commercial photography disappears and at the domestic level, although it may be emotionally justified, it is a socially reprehensible practice that the mourner will perform “on his own, in solitude and without the knowledge or permission of others” (Ennis, 2011), hide from the public eye and treasure in the intimate silence of the family album, as illustrated by the photograph that follows, whose author has preferred to remain anonymous.

Post-mortem photograph taken with mobile device. L.P. (2019)
Reproduced by courtesy of the author.

The Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published in 1969 “On Death and Dying”, a fundamental book where she reflects on dying and its processes from a psychological perspective and identifying the well-known stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The text questioned a puritanical model of death that -admitted by doctors and patients- dehumanized and disguised it with euphemisms, proposing a new formulation that would place the dying individuals in a leading position in their own death. This work is considered to inspire a transformation in the clinical practice of the treatment of terminal illnesses and the origin of the hospice and geriatric system.  The influence of this reforming current will favour the appearance of photographic projects around terminal or degenerative illnesses that seek not only “to give visibility to the illness and to vindicate all the needs of attention and help they need”, but “to convert [such projects] into scenarios or spaces of relationship” (Prado, 2014). According to Prado, each of these self-referential projects, based on the visual strategies specific to each illness, constitutes an anticipated mourning in which it is intended:

“a progressive recognition of the inevitability of death, the experimentation and manifestation of the impact of anticipated loss, reconciliation, detachment and memorialization in which develops a mental representation that will remain beyond death” (Prado, 2014).

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic shook the morale of Western society, from initial bewilderment and perplexity to the most furious stigmatization of homosexual collectives, accusing them of what Roy Greenslade, assistant editor of the Sun newspaper, called the “Gay Plague.  Disease and death provoked a creative response from the gay community against discrimination and prejudice; men and women raising their voices to alert citizens’ consciences and shake health authorities from inaction. Out of the private realm, illness and death were shown in images that offered “a visual testimony of their struggle” (Prado, 2016). Thus, for example, Therese Frare’s photograph is iconic – and controversially famous for its use in a Benetton advertising campaign – showing the final agony of David Kirby surrounded by his family: a scene of a great dramatic charge, inviting the viewer to look out at the very moment that precedes death, to recognise the father’s inconsolable suffering and to empathise with his pain in what Marianne Hisrch calls “affiliative gaze”:

“The work of reading isolated images necessarily becomes a work of overreading, determined by the particular familial or extrafamilial relation we hold to them. Recognizing an image as familiar elicits, as I have argued, a specific kind of readerly or spectatorial look, an affiliative look through which we are sutured into the image and through which we adopt the image into our own familial narrative.” (Hirsch, 2012)

Therese Frare.jpg
David Kirby (1990), Therese Frare

In the case of Felix Partz’s photograph, taken a few hours after his death in June 1994, we find an image in which the affiliative gaze is replaced by an inquisitive gaze, that of a spectator who seeks answers through a contradictory scene: Surrounded by colorful cushions and quilts, Partz’s body seems to be part of a Klimt’s picture, camouflaged among the whimsical forms of the tissues that barely disguise the ravages of disease and the horror of death. Partz’s gaze, trapped in its last instant of death, is presented to the viewer as an unanswered question. The function of this photograph seems to go beyond memory or posthumous homage, and insert itself into a performative discourse, continuity of the semi-fictitious narrative that fed the artistic avant-garde of the late 1980s. In this sense, the photograph -taken by AA Bronson of his friend and colleague in the General Idea artistic group- has a declarative character; each one of its ambiguities challenges us to debate our own mortality from a more universal perspective. Here postmortem photography is not so much documentary or personal, but adopts the strategy of art, abandoning the realm of the particular to propose a new context of legibility:

“The artist is governed by a will to discourse, by the awareness of a critical project, by conceptual and ideological strategies of the project itself, by the contexts of legibility…” (Fontcuberta, 2018)

Felix Partz, June 5, 1994 by AA Bronson

As Prado argues in her essay on the representation of death in the self-referential narratives of contemporary diseases, each of them – and their deaths – will use different visual strategies related to their own characteristics and will suppose a way of experiencing what could be called anticipated mourning. If in AIDS, the vision of the body devastated by the disease acquires a “symbolic and representational” value (Martin, 2010) that will be used as a convincing argument in activism against prejudice, ignorance and stigma, endowing the subject with the dignity of a fallen hero, in degenerative diseases death will be represented by absence, a metaphor for the slow and prolonged fading with which life is finally extinguished: “In this way, without drama or crudity, a predictable ending is explained that does not focus its attention on the body of the deceased but on the homage to his memory” (Prado, 2014).

This concept is illustrated in the photographic diary where Phillip Toledano recorded the progressive decline of his father for four years; color images that represent scenes of the relationship between father and son, where even when the disease is present, it does not take the protagonism of the story. There is a serene tone throughout the narrative, peppered with eventual notes of humor, which is resolved in a “post-mortem portrait” with the body of the deceased absent, corollary to a widely anticipated duel and metaphor of the emptiness that death will leave in the caretaker.

Days with my Father (2010), Phillip Toledano

In an essay on the function of the family album in mourning processes, Montse Mocarte argues that in its modern version it has ceased to be “primarily an object containing memory, proclaiming itself to a large extent as a communicator and reassurer of lived experience” (Mocarte, 2019). Exiled from the happy pages of the traditional family album, the images of illness and death have found in the online version of the album a new vehicle of expression to integrate these experiences into a broader narrative, where the focus of death is beyond that unique event that marks the point of reference between presence and absence. Forgetting will no longer be the purpose of mourning and its stages, absence is incorporated into the story to define a new status in the relationship of the mourner with the deceased.

Documenting the process of her father’s illness and death (2009), British photographer Briony Campbell instinctively positions herself against the paradox of isolating herself in the privacy of pain, or on the contrary, constructing a space of expression using photography and video to document the father’s last existential experience, reaffirming and extending the emotional bond between them beyond the temporal and spatial limits that conventional mourning would impose. The mutual intention to forge and maintain an enduring bond is manifested in the father’s consent to participate in the project and in the author’s own incorporation into the visual story; the final image in which the daughter’s hand holds the hand of the deceased father, as well as testifying to the will to preserve an enduring bond, is a visual metaphor that illustrates a double transition: on the one hand, the peaceful instant of transition between life and death – where the deceased will be the tragic protagonist – and on the other, the prolonged and painful transition that the mourners will go through, between death and absence.

Me and Dad, 25 August 2009. Briony Campbell
Reproduced by courtesy of the author

The contemplation of this transition between life and death can produce in the spectator “an ambivalent reaction of aversion and pulsion” (Morcate, 2019); we approach the very edge of the precipice interpellated by the curiosity to glimpse into its depth, at the same time as the very idea of our own fall paralyzes us. That same temporary and premonitory paradox that Barthes discovered contemplating the portrait of Lewis Payne, photographed in his cell a few hours before being executed in 1865: “he is dead, but he is going to die” is the temporal punctum that stings us when we stand before a portrait in life of the one we know will die shortly afterwards. Past and future in the same photograph: “the image is charged with meaning and contingency by being taken in the antechamber of death” (Morcarte, 2019) and the spectator explores the subject’s gaze trying to glimpse signs of that fear or hope before the imminence of what perhaps the condemned already knew inevitable.

In the work “Life Before Death” (2003), the German photographer Walter Schels (1936) places us in front of this situation with his series of 24 double portraits of 24 other subjects, terminally ill: the first taken days or weeks before his death and the second hours after his death. Conceived by the author with the intention of conjure up his own fears of death, the project was developed in German hospices with the voluntary collaboration of terminal patients, who found in Schels and his collaborator Beate Lakotta (1965) -author of the texts that accompany the photographs in the book- those who listened to their fears and hopes before the imminent. Confronting the gaze of each of these pre-mortem portraits and reading the testimony of each dying person speaking of their loneliness and the obstinate refusal of family and friends to face the gripping reality is more shocking than the individual’s own post-mortem portrait – sleeping serenely in the black shadows. The sharp gaze of the living person definitely unbalances the diptych and seems to question the spectator, whose memory will be nailed like a thorn in the side of the evidence that the transit to the shadows will have to be done in the most absolute solitude. Each of these diptychs is the materialization of what Barthes called a catastrophe.

Heiner Schmitz
Heiner Schmitz, 52 years old | First portrait: 19.11.2003, † 14.12.2003. Walter Schels
Reproduced by courtesy of the author
Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao
Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao, 52 years old | First portrait: 05.12.2003, † 15.02.2004. Walter Schels
Reproduced by courtesy of the author

In the examples seen so far, the generative function of post-mortem photography is related to the individual and memory – with quantitative differences and motivations ranging from the emotional to the documentary – but this memory preserved in photography is also fleeting and its legacy will run parallel to the transmission of the story that sustains it: once it has disappeared, memory will dissolve in the emptiness (Fontcuberta, 2017). Once again, Barthes warned us about the fugacity of the photographic object itself, which “attacked by light, by humidity, fades and becomes exhausted, disappears” (Barthes, 1980) and whose real value can never be witnessed by those who did not experience a love relationship with the subject, leaving only the indifference of Nature. Once the indexing function for which it was conceived has been extinguished, post-mortem photography becomes an icon, a devalued version of the tombstone, whose contemplation by an audience alien to the subject implies a morbid degree of voyeurism.

“Irremediably extinguished the referent, photography becomes a replacement and sublimation of the disappeared individual, converted into a continent-metonymic of the deceased and therefore into a sort of fetish-object” (Cruz Lichet, 2005).

In the series of portraits of strangers in the morgue by authors such as Jeffrey Silverthorne (Morgue Work, 1972), Andrés Serrano (The Morgue, 1992) or Sue Fox (Untitled, 1996) the question of the referent is banal and the body without memory becomes an impersonal space for artistic expression and death in a legitimate matter for a new aesthetic discourse far removed from the social and personal function that marked the previous practice of the genre. Freed from the restrictions of dignity and decorum imposed by the taboo (and ritual), death becomes present in art galleries by adopting visualization strategies typical of the police record or the forensic archive, showing a more sordid view of death.

Serrano conjures violence and death in his series “The Morgue” (1992), intentionally excluding any possibility of identification of subjects and using the objectified body as a scenario of confrontation: fragments of bodies beaten, burned or poisoned, carefully illuminated to produce a set of formal and aesthetic coherence, with which the author composes scenes in which he uses elements of Catholic iconography – cuts in hands and feet that resemble stigmas, sheets like shrouds or a risky escorzo reminiscent of Mantegna’s Christ – and which represent a significant change of register in the function of postmortem photography: the provoked gaze.

Andres Serrano BloodTransfusion
The Morgue (1992), Andres Serrano
Reproduced by courtesy of the author

As Tony Walter argues, “sooner or later, most of the dead need to be forgotten, so that a few can be remembered” (Walter, 2019), in highly functional societies it is paramount to reduce this time to a minimum in order to maintain a high standard of operability. Although the dematerialization of photography and the virtualization of the archive do not allow us to precisely quantify the use of postmortem photography at present within the vernacular realm – raising, moreover, reasonable doubts about the survival of this supposed “visual” legacy for the future -, the contemporary attitude towards death may be related to the idea of operative failure that dying implies for modern man, which would justify the invisibility and secrecy of its explicit representation in the public domain.

Therefore, death as a private and individual experience in the domestic domain will be socialized in functional terms as disappearance or absence, and consequently, without representation. Although the physical presence of the individual is extinguished after death – the increase in cremations reduces the need for a public and social space in which to dispose of the remains – its iconic presence can be extended beyond death by activating the commemorative mode provided by some social networks to maintain the digital identity of deceased users.  On the other hand, the appearance of platforms specialized in digital mourning, such as, will eventually allow family and friends to decorate that “white area on the social map” (Klastrup, 2014) that the death of every individual leaves, by creating a virtual space for the commemoration and publication of photographs, texts, videos or music related to the life and deeds of the deceased.

However, as we saw in some of the previous examples, outside the private sphere, death seems to have been mediated, becoming present in other manifestations of visual culture (TV, cinema, internet, etc.) as well as in the art gallery. Some authors have speculated on the reasons for this interest considering that perhaps the fascination to see corpses has always existed and the media has filled an empty space:

In a similar vein, Goldberg (1998) argues that representations of death have always been part of the media, but with the disappearance of real death in real life (fewer people dying from vaccines, no public executions, no longer the dead in the home, etc.), the media have filled this “void” by increasing their focus and descriptions of death as news and entertainment. (Klastrup, 2015)

But these deaths only exist in the context of the fiction in which they are reproduced. They are imaginary deaths, domesticated deaths. By Christian tradition, death is installed in our cultural repository, the media have vaccinated us against suffering, and we tolerate even the most bizarre forms of artistic production where the reaper appears. Death as an intellectual construction and eternity as a manufactured philosophical antidote have allowed us to bear for centuries the fatality of our destiny. Photography has demolished the last taboo – previously sex had fallen – dismantling the fictitious narratives and ritual veils under which death is disguised and, reclaiming its questioned claim, it will confront our gaze with the ultimate truth of existence.

ved døden
Ved Døden (At Death) 1990 , Krass Clement
Reproduced by courtesy of the author


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