Photography and Death by Audrey Linkman

Linkman, A. (2011) Photography and death (paperback). United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, United Kingdom.

Candy Darling on her Deathbed, Peter Hujar, 1973

I have read this book specifically for my current assignment and could not recommend it to the casual reader.  It is unusual in that it focuses on the death of family and friends rather than violence or conflict.  The most useful chapter for me was the final one, particularly the section Artful Death which documents a number of fascinating projects around death with a range of different approaches and styles.

Chapter One focuses on ‘Photographing the Dead’. It looks at the concept of a ‘good death’, cultural and social expectations and rituals and how post-mortem photography can be a great comfort to those grieving.

Linkman covers some of the technical issues around this, for example the use of lighting as a tool to manipulate expressions of the faces of the dead, the importance of the gaze and creating ‘sacred, aestheticized space’ with canopies of sheets.  “Strong shadows and bold contrasts could potentially evoke a sense of restless agitation, disturbance and threat, sensations that were hardly calculated to reassure the bereaved. Whereas soft lighting, delicate shadows and gentle gradation of half tones all worked to mitigate the stark, dark absoluteness of death by commuting black into subtle shades of ambiguous grey. Subdued tones worked to convey the suggestion of calm, untroubled sleep, a mind at rest and a soul at peace.” (p 51)

“The parent is either portrayed gazing down at the dead child or out in the direction of the camera.  The downward gaze obviously helps to focus attention on the dead child, convey the adult’s total engagement with the deceased and suggest a private world of grief. The outward gaze is more difficult to analyze.  Is the child’s dead body on the lap perhaps too painful to contemplate?  The parent’s eyes rarely engage directly with the viewer but the pose invites the viewer to engage more directly with the subject.  Our gaze acknowledges the child’s existence and recognizes that its fate will be our fate too.” (p 54)

This book refers to the taboos around death and how in the second half of the 20th century “the living distanced themselves from the dead and disengaged from any practical involvement with dying and disposal, death and everything connected with it began to appear alien and frightening. Interest in the dead came to be regarded as morbid.  In the absence of any sympathetic understanding of the experiences, attitudes and values of previous generations, post-mortem portraits came to be considered macabre and shocking.” (p 76)

The chapter concludes with a look at modern day practice and specialist websites such as Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep which helps grieving parents find professional photographers to capture images of the deceased child and family. “Photographers are advised to avoid focusing on pain and despair. instead, through lighting and the display of emotion, they should attempt to capture the relationships that tell the story of loss in an appropriate and sensitive way.”  (p 85)

Chapter Two is about ‘Mourning the Dead’ covering cemeteries, memorials and funerals. There is some interesting information about how different cultures approach this issue and the Javanese for instance do not see the mourning process as being about putting the deceased to rest. “Instead, the aim was to release the undead spirit (roh) and send it on its way, rather than hold it in the memory. Survivors aspired to achieve a feeling of detachment (iklas) following death, assisted by a belief that death was God’s will and comforted by the thought that the dead were able to confer blessings on the living. Survivors sought these blessings in their visits to the grave.” (p 104)

Again the end of the chapter touches on contemporary developments. “Whereas previously the funeral represented the final contact with the deceased, the Internet now offers continuing avenues of communication.” (p 150)

“In a society where the pain of loss has largely been indulged away from the public gaze, the virtual world has found itself playing host to a community of grief where sorrow can be acknowledged and shared, and where the bereaved can make contact with each other.”

“In 1996 Dennis Klass et al. published the theory of ‘continuing bonds’, which challened previous thinking by declaring that attempts to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the dead were, in fact, beneficial and therapeutic, and should not be regarded as pathological.  The second theory, advanced in the same year by Tony Walter, suggested that the purpose of grief is the construction of a ‘durable biography’ of the dead that enables the living to integrate the memory of their loved ones into their ongoing lives. This construction work is achieved through conversation with others who also knew the deceased.”  (p 152)

A crucial point is also made that “Photographs enable the bereaved to introduce their lost loved ones to new members of the family and acquaintances” – photography is not just a witness to death but also to resurrection and an ongoing presence for the living. (p 153)

Chapter Three is called ‘Exhibiting the Dead’ and, as the title suggests, looks at outlets such as galleries and published monographs and talks in depth about changing attitudes to dying, death and bereavement.  Linkman mentioned how often in the documentary tradition, death is photographed to reveals differences between classes or cultures.

The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s “raised important issues about control, identity, sexuality and an individual’s confrontation with mortality.”  Several projects around serious illnesses are mentioned:  Exploding into Life, Dorothea Lynch (1944-85); Supporting Foundation Comfort, Hannah Wilke (1940-1993); Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography, Jo Spence (1934-1992). Spence’s work aimed to wrestle with the sense of unreality she felt about the idea of death and ‘non-being’.

Richard Avedon (1923-2004) featured portraits of his father who was suffering from cancer. He refers to some of the final images as ‘the illusion of laughter’, ‘the illusion of power’ and ‘the loss of all illusions’.  It is striking that Avedon also includes images from the Palermo catacombs in 1959 “to denote his consciousness of life’s vanities and immanence” as did Peter Hujar in 1976.

“Serious photographers clearly used their cameras to help them make sense of their world and their place within it. Nan Goldin, for example, claimed ‘I sometimes don’t know how I feel about someone until I take his or her picture.’ It’s hardly surprising then that at times of severe emotional upheaval the instinct of some is to continue to take photographs. As subtle and experienced interpreters of visual images, photographers can use the pictures taken at times of difficulty to help them look back and understand what has occurred. Through this act they can hopefully come to terms with their loss or, as Walter would argue, construct that ‘durable biography’ that enables the living to integrate the memory of the dead into their ongoing lives.” (p 167)

Of Pedro Meyer’s personal project: “I Photograph to Remember is clearly a tribute to the courage, strength and humanity of Meyer’s parents. Its presence on the web allows many the ‘privilege’ of witnessing their deaths and drawing from them the reassurance and powerful lessons the Victorians believed such experiences could provide. It also serves to substantiate the words of Kubler-Ross and Kessler in speaking about the purpose of loss:

It unifies us. It helps deepen our understanding of each other. It connects us to each other in a way that no other lesson of life can. When we are joined in the experience of loss, we care for one another and experience one another in new and profound ways.”  (p169)

“(William) Yang’s photographs of Allan demonstrate that unconditional love – or some other equally profound and sincere emotion generated in response to the most extreme of human conditions – is necessary to move photographs of the dying beyond the voyeuristic.” (p 174)

Of Krass Clement’s 1990 series Ved Døden (About Death), recoding the hospitalization, death and disposal of his mother: “Clement’s work is distinctive in that it makes no attempt to idealize any aspect of this death, no attempt to create images that would help him or subsequent viewers to come to terms with dying and loss, no attempt at all to omit or obscure any part of a harrowing process where medical science and technological intervention conspire to process human beings out of existence. This series of photographs represents the diametric opposite of the carefully stage-managed last memory picture. Clement’s work draws attention to what we have permitted to happen; it draws back the curtain on what we shut our eyes to, and asks viewers to look at it now and see what we think of it.” (p 177)














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One Response to Photography and Death by Audrey Linkman

  1. Pingback: Assignment Two: Ultima Forsan – notes and contemporary awareness | Gesture & Meaning

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