Assignment Two: Ultima Forsan – notes and contemporary awareness

Rainer Maria Rilke: “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes.”

Photography and death

Susan Sontag wrote “Life is a movie. Death is a photograph” in her 1963 novel The Benefactor and the link between photography and death was one she would explore frequently in her work.


Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

From On Photography: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” [1]

“Photography is the inventory of mortality. A touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony. Photographs show people being so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives; group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies… Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.” [2] 

It has been well documented that Nan Goldin responded to her difficult personal life by obsessively photographing her friends in an attempt to never lose the memory of anyone again: “I was living in the moment, not documenting for the future. I think having an early death in my life, of my sister, made it more important to hold on to people. I’m aware even now that when I’m getting ready to leave a place, I photograph much more.” [3]

Goldin’s elder sister committed suicide on a railway track. She then recorded the illness and death of her best friend Cookie but looking at the photographs afterwards made her realise how nothing could protect her against that feeling.  “…I thought it could save the person somehow. That I thought I could keep people alive. I really believed it until recently. I would light candles in churches, too. I still do that. And I also thought I could preserve the memory of the person through a photograph. But without the voice, without the body, without the smell, without the laugh, it doesn’t do much. Well, it keeps a memory, but then it becomes a memory of the picture at some point. It’s important to understand when I took the pictures I was not thinking of their later use of preserving memory because I was in the moment—I didn’t know what would be lost!”


Famously, Roland Barthes refers to the inescapability of flat Death and the Photograph being “a certain but fugitive testimony” in Camera Lucida. A photograph is “mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages… Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes…” [4]

“By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient , over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” [5]

Audrey Linkman highlights the idea that photographs have long been used as catalysts for talking about loss and to banish the fear of forgetting [6] and there are further links and references her book, Photography and Death detailed a bit more here.

And a more positive take from Geoff Dyer at the end of The Ongoing Moment: “Of all the messages photographed in the wake of 9/11 none is as poignant and simple – so simple as to be self-evident – as one scrawled in felt-tip on the wall of a building. The picture is slightly blurred, the message difficult to read. Photography’s unique capacity to preserve or bring back the dead has often been remarked on. For Barthes this – ‘the return of the dead’ – is the terrible thing that we see in all photographs. This photograph affirms the opposite point of view, conveys the simple message that is also there in all photographs: ‘You are alive’.” [7]

The Uncanny

Freud writes in his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche: “There is scarcely any other matter, however, upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as that of our relation to death. Two things account for our conservatism: the strength of our original emotional reaction to it, and the insufficiency of our scientific knowledge about it. Biology has not yet been able to decide whether death is the inevitable fate of every living being or whether it is only a regular but yet perhaps avoidable event in life. [8]

As well as a common interpretation of Das Unheimliche meaning ‘unhomely’, there is the idea of ‘unsecret’. According to German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, writing in 1835: “everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” This seems to be an appropriate description of how Western cultures tend to avoid confronting death. Being ‘morbid’ is considered to be a negative trait. We live our whole lives with the certainty of death but repress thoughts of it.

It has been mooted that photography is a particularly apt medium for the uncanny and also is often closely tied up with emotions of anxiety and desire. [9]

In Uncanny Belonging: Schelling, Freud and the Vertigo of Freedom,  Teresa Fenichel describes the uncanny as a “border, an experience that returns us to earlier ego-reality experience, that both shapes and reflects the inherently unstable connection between inner and outer, fantasy and reality.” [10]

Contemporary awareness

Paulette TavorminaVanitas and Natura Morta (2009 – 2015)  From her artist’s statement: “In one of these paintings, the artist included the words ‘Eram Qvod Es.’  The translation resonates within me:   ‘Once I was what you are now.'”  This working is stunning to behold and technically beyond perfect but it leaves me rather flat as I feel it does not move on the tableaux of the Old Masters. It just feels like an indulgence rather than anything new.


Valerie BelinDisorder.  This project appropriates the still life/memento mori genre to talk about the relative immortality of plastic and how it is slowly strangling life on earth. “These useless objects, symbols of our hunger to consume, have replaced the objects that in traditional vanitas paintings symbolised the riches of nature (game, fruit, foods), or human activities and knowledge (represented, notably, by scientific instruments). In vanitas paintings such objects were juxtaposed with elements evoking the ineluctable triumph of death – usually, a human skull. Here, instead of the skull I have included a plastic mannequin head, arm or hand, suggesting a person asphyxiated or buried beneath the mass of dross.”  Here Belin has found a new spin on the genre.  It puts me in mind of Alain Fouray’s Recyclages exhibition I visited last year which – a powerful reminder of the sheer scale of the impact we are having through mass consumerism.  It was beautiful enough to draw me in and then blow my mind.


Nate Larson and Marni ShindelmanGeolocation  This project touched on some of my initial ideas about how to explore the new reality of death and memorialisation on social media and it appeals to me on a number of levels. The photographers would pinpoint physical locations tied to Tweets and then capture the scene before them. The results are subtly poignant, sometimes witty, sometimes depressing but always intriguing. We are pulled into a human story that is public but personal.


Joel Sternfeld – creates “arch, morbid documentary photographs”

David Claerbout’s images “alter our established understanding of time and the narrative process but also our notions of reality, illusion, and the relationship between them.”

Sonia Braas: “The motifs of The Quiet of Dissolution cannot be precisely located in time and place, and have the effect of allegories, of petrified moments of the unpredictable, the sudden and overwhelming – like nature in its compacted form. More, they succeed in describing the emotional state in which we find ourselves when looking at a natural catastrophe: we are captivated by what we see and ‘hold our breath’.”

Rebecca Norris WebbMy Dakota (2012) – explores the relationship between people and the landscape in an elegy to her brother who died suddenly. “My Dakota abounds with wave images — from those blue, wavelike streaks of broken swallows’ nests to the waves of ice where a dead pronghorn lay in a roadside ditch. The inland sea that covered much of the state millions of years ago has sparked my imagination ever since a rancher handed me the fossil of a sea creature he found on his land. After my brother died, however, I kept running across images that evoke oceans or waves, from undulating seas of prairie grass to accounts of pioneers suffering a form of seasickness when crossing those seemingly endless spaces. Slowly I began to see that behind this image of the inland sea that permeates the project was my grief for my brother, which continues to come in waves, even years after he died.”  A lot of these images resonated deeply with me but in ways I find difficult to explain. I suppose it is inevitable that this kind of project will be hit and miss depending on the viewer and there is no point in trying to second guess that.

Mariela Sancari – Moises (2015) This touching and very personal project is an attempt for the artist to deal with the grief of losing her father when she was younger. She states that without ever seeing his body she often doubted that he was actually dead. This is a series of images of men in their 70s which could be her father, were he alive today.  A brilliant premise for a project and executed very well.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 21.46.58

Sandy AlpertGhosts Who Now Dance  “Detached figures keeping their distance. Ghostly shadows within shadows. Space with no space.  When I began this project in 1998, I was haunted by the ghosts of my past. Feelings of isolation and loss infused these images. I was too close to it. It was too close to me. I had to leave it — unexpressed.  After more than a decade, in 2009, I was able to return to this work. As I now reflect upon these images I see a sense of grace. I see fluidity. I see a silent rhythm. I see ghosts who now dance. The realization of this work is, in itself, an act of forgiveness. Forgiveness of others and of myself.”  The fleeting abstract approach appeals to me. Some of the images are barely comprehensible at first glance and I feel that this slows down the viewer and creates an engagement which is very rewarding.

Maeve Berry – Incandescence (2009) “Images we will never see of ourselves.” These are stunning, possibly shocking pictures, taken inside a cremator: “Berry deliberately attempted to uncover beauty on a subject that most viewers fear or avoid and did so in the hope that these same viewers might be encouraged to linger on the images and take time to reflect on their content.” [11] They have the same mesmerizing appeal that all controlled fires do when you stare into the flames but with the added dimension of this being a meditation on life and death.

Briony Campbell‘s The Dad Project (2009) is inspiring on a number of levels. It was very personal, intimate, positive, collaborative and used video and recordings as well as still photography. A deeply moving piece of work.

Gabriel OrozcoBreath on a Piano (1993) – ‘aesthetics of trace’  I am drawn to Orozco’s style and have a great affection for a number of his images, although they have an emptiness I cannot quite fathom.  There seems to be an intuitive knack to making a beautiful empty vessel that the viewer can fill with themselves.


Pedro Meyer – I Photograph to Remember.  Meyer records the life-threatening illnesses of his parents. This is an interesting example of how documenting people who are dying can be life affirming and provide comfort to others. “The anguish of watching the physical deterioration of his once strong and vigorous father is evident in the images, yet they celebrate more insistently a different sort of strength: the constancy of the couple’s love for each other and tender solicitude, both physical and psychological, that they were able to offer even under such appalling circumstances. Touch and physical contact is the motif used by Meyer to convey the depth of his parents’ feelings for each other.” [12]


The more I researched, the more obvious it became that so many projects tackle issues of life and death, that this all became rather open ended.  This was just a small selection of the work I looked at.  I am hoping my tutor and fellow students will be able to flag up some other contemporary projects in this vein.


  1. Sontag, S. (2002) On photography (Penguin modern classics). London: Penguin Classics (p 15)
  2. Sontag, S. (2002) On photography (Penguin modern classics). London: Penguin Classics (p 70)
  4. Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (1993) Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. London: Vintage Classics. (p 93)
  5. Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (1993) Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. London: Vintage Classics. (p 96)
  6. Linkman, A. (2011) Photography and death (paperback). United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, United Kingdom. (p 83)
  7. Dyer, G. (2012) The ongoing moment: A book about photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate Books. (p 328)
  8. (p 13)
  9. Bull, S. (2009) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. (p 49)
  10. (p 18)
  11. Linkman, A. (2011) Photography and death (paperback). United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, United Kingdom. (p 178)
  12. Linkman, A. (2011) Photography and death (paperback). United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, United Kingdom (p 168)
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