Notes on Photography and Death: Mourning, Spectacle, Evidence

Image: Marfa Ilinitchna Riazantseva, 1937 © Archives centrales FSB et Archives nationales de la Fédération de Russie GARF, Moscou, copies publiées à partir des archives de l’Association internationale Memorial, Moscou.

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts to our blog. Here, Anthony Luvera shares his.

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The inevitability and unpredictability of death is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. With much of the project of living spent seeking security and attempting to obtain and sustain control, it is the unknowingness of the timing and experience of death that makes it so confronting. Yet, attitudes to death are culturally constructed and coping mechanisms are formed through the meaning systems of social institutions.

The social theorist Chris Shilling has argued that ‘conditions of high modernity have made the modern individual’s confrontation with death especially difficult… Death has become a particular existential problem for people as a result of modern forms of embodiment, rather than being a universal problem for human beings which assumes the same form irrespective of time or place’ (2003: 153). When once the occasion of death was highly social, with public displays of mourning and events commonly taking place with the body of the deceased laid out to mark the occasion, now it is sequestered and privatised within institutions, and understood to be a problem for specialist knowledge and medical science. As the sociologist Norbert Elias observed, ‘never before have people died as noiselessly and hygienically as today… and never in social conditions fostering so much solitude’ (1985: 85). Where once religion provided a ‘sacred canopy… a shared vision of the world, the body and self-identity’ (Shilling 2003: 154) the increasingly secularised formation of Western societies has marginalised the communal spaces for death that once anaesthetised dread about the meaningless of living in the face of the unknowable event of death.

The photographic medium is underwritten by death, in both the production and consumption of images across the contexts of art, science, commerce and personal photography, and in analysis of the histories and ontology of the photograph. Deathly analogies and characterisations have riven considerations of the photograph since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century to today. From as early as 1840 when Hippolyte Bayard posed as a corpse in protest at the lack of recognition by the French government for his photogenic inventions, through to Andre Bazin who described photography as form of embalming life in his influential essay, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ (1960). Susan Sontag likened to the indexicality of the photograph to a death mask, writing ‘all photographs are memento mori that enable participation in another’s mortality’ (1977: 154). And more recently, historians such as Geoffrey Batchen (1999; 2004; 2009), Christian Metz (1985), Margaret Iversen (1994) and Audrey Linkman (2011) – to name a just a few – have all spoken of how the deathly qualities of photographs pose an uncanniness that might be seen as a return of the dead.

The strongest influence on the talk of death that circulates in ontological discussions about photography reverberates out of Roland Barthes’s, Camera Lucida (1980). In this text – arguably one of the cornerstones of contemporary photographic theory – Barthes has this to say:

All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know they are agents of Death. This is the way in which our time assumes Death… For Death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intently) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print. (Barthes 1980: 92)

Barthes stretches this death analogy throughout his meditation on the qualities of the photograph – written while in mourning for the death of his mother – leading a number of critics to attest it has produced an overbearing melancholic tone in much subsequent consideration of the photographic medium. He argues that the temporality peculiar to the photograph is best thought of as an expression of the tautology of the French grammatical term future anterior, which loosely translates as ‘That has been’. Photography is a past tense medium. As they can only ever be seen after the actual moment depicted, photographs will always intimate death.

Barthes’s comments about the marginalisation of space for death are just as relevant to our conversation here. As society has become increasingly secularised since the mid-nineteenth century – corresponding to the arrival of the photographic medium – space for Death is now primarily carved out in various forms of production and consumption of photographic representation. Communal responses and collective rites and rituals for death, dying and mourning have been tidied away while the hunger to view representations of death and dying has grown: reality programmes set in accident and emergency departments, documentaries about war, websites set up as spaces for memorialisation, and exhibitions in art and photography galleries – not to mention the deluge of violent films and television series that has arisen in recent decades. The forces of consumption that drive the production of the spectacle of death in contemporary culture might be likened to a fissure that forges its way around a blockage, as public audiences continue to seek out systems and spaces to try to obtain knowledge of death.

So, how are we meant to view photographs of death when they are displayed in public? Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence is an exhibition of images produced for very different contexts to the one in which they are now on show. The curator Diane Dufour contends this is an exhibition about the visual systems that gave rise to the production and articulation of the images – the product of professional practices of “evidence” as constructed for the various quantitative purposes of judiciary systems. The crux of this is the interplay of a reliance on the image as documentation and the image as persuasion when tied to specific narratives, measurements, calculations, diagrams, testimonies or the architecture of a courtroom. While all photographs provide evidence of a sort – this happened then – the truth claims of the images in this exhibition are especially vulnerable when seen out of their original contexts. For as much as these images purport to show or reveal something about the act or effect of violent crime, it is what they lack that reveals both the ability and the ineptitude of images to harbour notions of truth.

As a consideration of the role of images in the construction of evidence, Burden of Proof – by stealth or design – appears to me to do just as much to provide space for death as it satiates a public desire to see and to try to know death. To view images of or about death may not necessarily get us any closer to the truth of death, but the sting of their temporality is acute as they evoke the deathly riddles of the ontology of the photograph.

Anthony Luvera

Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and educator based in London. He is Course Director of BA (Hons) Photography at Coventry University. His photographic work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals, including the British Museum, London Underground’s Art on the Underground, National Portrait Gallery London, Belfast Exposed Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, Malmö Fotobiennal, Brighton Photo Fringe, PhotoIreland and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie. His writing appears regularly in a wide range of publications, including Photoworks, Source and Photographies. Anthony also facilitates workshops and gives lectures for the public education programmes of the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, and Barbican Art Gallery.

 

References

Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. Film Quarterly 13 (4), 4-9

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Jonathan Cape

Batchen, G. (1999) Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Batchen, G. (2004) Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum and Princeton Architectural Press

Batchen, G. (ed) (2009) Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Elias, N. (1985) The Loneliness of the Dying. Oxford: Blackwell

Iversen, M. (1994) ‘What is a photograph?’. Art History 17(3), 450 – 463

Linkman, A. (2011) Photography and Death. London: Reaktion Books

Metz, C. (1985), ‘Photography and Fetish’. October (34), 81-90

Shilling, C. (2003) The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin

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