Photography and death:
Death in photography has always been a controversial subject and this continues to elucidate comments especially when considering the ethical implications of photography itself. Nostalgia is also an important element of photography and this has been revealed in several artist’s work most notably those like Sally Mann and Luc Delahaye who have both treated the subject of death with some detail especially in their portrayal of dead and decomposing bodies. When one writes about death in photography, we also have to deal with the ‘death of the subject’. After we press the shutter the subject 'dies' at that moment. They will never be the same as in the moment when the photograph was taken as they will be older, their mood will change, their energy or facial expression will also change. This also applies to landscapes and with practically everything else we photograph since things are not the same even a second after the picture was taken.
This statement which is briefly the topic of Roland Barthe’s ‘Camera Lucida’ demonstrates that the death of the subject is an intrinsic part of photography. It is intriguing to note that Barthes was not a photographer but he essentially understood the philosophical implication of taking a photograph which is forever imprinted in time. The same argument is made by Susan Sontag in her seminal essay ‘On Photography’ which deals with historical views and the role of photography in the capitalist driven ambience of the 1970’s. A typical example of subjects which died after they were photographed were the examples of photography taken during the Depression by Diane Arbus. These photographs showed the situation on farms during the Depression and are full of striking and emotionally disturbing imagery especially in their portrayal of children who were suffering from malnutrition. One could argue that this is subjective but there is no denying the power behind the images and that they freeze a moment in time which will never return. Thus we also have the argument of relating photography to politics which confirms the news value of photography as an important medium for preserving events.
Barthe’s essay ‘Camera Lucida’ is also a reflection of the power of death and was written as a sort of catharsis for the death of his mother. The dialectical imagery which Barthes portrays is also crucially important since we are faced with the theory that the subject dies after the photograph is taken. And in a way a photograph is a relic of the past since when someone dies, the only memories left are the photographs of events which remain imprinted forever in time. The personal note of pain is also very much evident in the essay which contains an outpouring of grief and perhaps an imagery which means that life will never be the same again. In a sense the photograph of a dead body shows that this is being revered and is in a way a homage to that person who has expired and is no longer in this world.
In her seminal article, , Photography After the Fact, Erina Duganne deals with the subject of death in photography especially in the light of the work of the award winning photographer Luc Delahaye who worked on several subjects but who is chiefly remembered for his stunning portrayals of death in the Afghanistan war against the Taliban.
With the exhibition ‘History’, Delahaye attempted to free himself from the shackles of photojournalistic work describing himself as an ‘artist’. However Duganne argues that the distinction between the two is not so easy and that Delahaye remains essentially a photojournalist although his work has matured quite intensely from its early beginnings.The ‘Taliban’ pictures are definitely a case in point since Delahaye’s documentation of the last Taliban offensive and the subsequent deaths and violence which are depicted quite starkly in his range of photography on the subject are actually examples of superb photojournalism although one could also argue that these are art as well.
Delahaye argues that the images which he has taken in the exhibition, ‘History’ need to be seen in a different way and not just a portrayal of simple news events. However the manner in which these images tend to shock is also of paramount importance since it reveals a photographer who is attempting to convey a message with his photographs, albeit with certain violent effects that show a shocking visual aspect to all that is contained there. In fact when interviewed by Duganne, Delahaye insisted that he wanted his work to be portrayed as reticent and personal, reaffirming the view that the photographs are images which should be pondered over and not taken as a simple capturing of a particular event. Of course there are problems with such photographic essays since these will always be viewed in a certain sense as depicting particular news value since Delahaye ahs always been associated with his work as a news photojournalist.
Interestingly, Delahaye’s work in History has been compared to other photographers who have chosen dead bodies as their subject. One particular exhibition is by Sally Mann which was reproduced for The New York Times in 2000 entitled ‘What Remains’ where the images of bloated and decaying bodies elicited a strong reaction from art critics. The debate which is ongoing indicates that photojournalism can be accepted in a context of violence whilst when art is in the equation, the debate turns around on its axis and is totally different. Mann’s photographs were intensely criticized by Sarah boxer also of the New York Times due to the fact that some of these were doctored to produce maximum effect. This cannot really be compared to Delahaye’s work where the photojournalist produces images of striking reality although these can also be described as art. Duganne sets much store on the transformation of Delahaye’s work from photojournalism to art and how this has been resisted by some critics and commentators. Although this is a very debatable argument, the article does seem to imply that most of the changes made by Delahaye in his style of work are intrinsically cosmetic but the end result is that one can only give an opinion on a photo when faced with a moral dilemma. Are the images portrayed trying to convey a message or are they art in the very sense of the work. Thus the great question once again sets itself. What is art? If one were to analyse Delahaye’s work on a purely aesthetic and visual sense, this would merely be described as a photographic reproduction but when one observes it holistically, it does attempt to convey a message, in this case the message has to do with the pity and horror of war and how this reduces humans to nothingness. In that sense, Duganne observes that Delahaye’s work has reached its intended goal and conclusion.
Duganne delves much deeper into the credentials question, can an artist be described as a journalist or vice versa? Interesting she recounts an incident where Mann wanted to photograph some bodies at a mortuary but was denied access on the pretext of being an artist. When she returned and presented her credentials as a photojournalist she was allowed to enter and take photos to her heart’s content. His shows that an artist has restricted parameters in which to operate if described as such whilst a news journalist can gain access to areas which are restricted to the common mortal. Of course this is the same with Delahaye, he was allowed access to the war zone in Afghanistan to take photographs without any sort of restrictions due to his press credentials. If this was not the case, he could never have taken the images as he took them and that is an obvious advantage for his work.
Duganne then brings up the interesting point of dignity in death. She mentions an article by Susan Sontag where it is argued that the faces of European and American dead are usually obscured due to respect for their families but this is not necessarily the case when depicting the dead of other nationalities. This enables photojournalists to be perhaps more crude and inhumane when it comes to the dead of other nationalities as is the case with Delahaye’s portrayals of the dead Taliban. This moral dilemma is something which seems to preoccupy Duganne and she sets much store on the issue when comparing Delahaye’s work with Mann’s grisly images of anonymous dead. There is another moral dilemma here, are the dead really subjects for artistic expression? Duganne is non-committal on this but she cites Delahaye’s work as a prime example where subtly and artistically creative photography can actually dignify the dead. For the anonymity and fairness of death is actually given some meaning and personality by the dead Taliban soldier who appears to meet his Maker with a certain amount of dignity in this remote and wild place.
Duganne then compares Delahaye’s work with another photojournalist, Alfredo Jaar who also finds problems with expressing himself in the photojournalistic field. Obviously this is another topic for debate and here we are once again brought face to face with the familiar themes where the photographer has to ask him/herself what is the real meaning behind the imagery and the photographs themselves? The debate then turns to preserving thememory of those photojournalists killed on assignment or in action and the restrictions placed on the photojournalist in carrying out work. Essentially Duganne argues that this is the main difference between a photojournalist and an artist. The former is restricted by the exigencies and requirements of the news media and what is requested by the editor whilst the latter can express him/herself to the heart’s content without fear of editing. The issue of censorship also comes in here but essentially an artist is free to delve into various topics without any need of restraint. That perhaps is the intrinsic struggle which is faced by photojournalists when they express the wish to become artists.
In Audrey Linkman’s ‘Photography and Death’ we are also faced with the dilemma faced by the photographer when death is a subject that needs to be portrayed with the correct amount of dignity and not just for exhibitionism’s sake.
Another photographer who has emblazoned figurative imagery in her work is Cindy Sherman who immortalized a series of obscure persons with her Bus Riders series. Tthe series of works for which Cindy Sherman is best known is Bus Riders which was created between 1976 and 2000. The series of photographs was mainly shot in 1976 but their gestation and editing of the images went on for several years culminating in the publication of the whole series in 2000, particularly the ones titled, ‘Murder Mystery People’. Sherman used several elaborate and finely designed costumes as well as copious amounts of makeup to transform the identity of each image for the shut. The bus riders take on a new, very personalised identity with focus and expressions striking personal. The bus seats are replaced with normal wooden chairs adding to the aesthetic simplicity of the setting.
Another landmark photographic series for which Sherman is also known is the Complete Untitled Film Stills which she worked upon from 1977 to 1980, a shorter yet more intense three year stint. Sherman appeared herself in the photographs variously as a B-movie, foreign film and film noir actress although she has repeatedly stated that she is not an actress ‘per se’ in these shots. She explains that the story comes from her facial expression, something which she describes as ‘acting by accident’. The personality of Sherman also demonstrates an intrinsic link with the death of the subject since we know that this will never be the same again.
Another photograph which seems to freeze a moment in time is Clearing Winter Storm where the rugged beauty of the sky after the storm at the Yosemite National Park is stunningly portrayed. Clearing Winter Storm is definitely a photograph to be pondered upon in greater detail. It has all the elements of beauty in it yet there are also some parts of it which invoke the mysterious and the intriguing. The cloud effects are perhaps the most satisfying parts of the piece which almost grows on you in its viral intensity and one tends to appreciate it more as it grows on you. However the aspect which is perhaps the most interesting is the fact that the photograph catches a moment after a storm which is unique in its sense of hope for something better.
While Barthes and Sonntag are chiefly concerned with the death of the subject in their seminal photographic essays, other writers on photography such as Ashley le Grange and Liz Wells have also focused on the importance and immediacy of the subject in question. The art of photographing the dying has certainly been perfected by artists such as Luc Delahaye and Sally Mann who have taken this photography image to another level. What is definite is that photography and its ability to freeze a moment in time will be forever debated.
Sontag Susan; On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. ISBN 0-374-22626-1.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Erina Duganne, Photography After the Fact, pgs. 57 70, Beautiful Suffering, Williams College Mus. of Art/U. of Chicago Press, 2007
Genocchio, Benjamin. "ART REVIEW; Portraits of the Artist as an Actor", The New York Times, April 4, 2004. Accessed May 21, 2012.
Elkins, James "Camera Dolorosa" in History of Photography, vol. 31, no. 1, (Spring 2007) pp. 22–30.
Halley, Michael. "Argo Sum: Camera Lucida Review" in Diacritics, vol. 12, no. 4 (Winter, 1982), pp. 69–79.
Nickel, Douglas R. History of Photography, vol. 24, no. 3, (Fall 2000), pp. 232–235.
Ashley la Grange "Basic critical theory for photographers", 2005, Focal PressDavid Bate "The key concepts:Photography", 2009, BergLiz Wells "Photography: a critical introduction", 2009, RoutledgeAudrey Linkman "Photography and death", 2011, Reaktion BooksSally Mann; What Remains, Little Brown 2009