Photography as death mask

May 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

[…] Fernande received one last visit, but this time there was no question of exchanging a few words with the person or of greeting him with a smile. It was the photographer. He made his entrance with the tools of his sorcerer’s art: plates of glass sensitized to fix for a long time, if not forever, the way things looked; the camera obscura constructed like an eye, compensating for lapses of memory; the tripod, with its black cloth. […] She [Fernande] gives, above all, the impression of being exquisitely clean: the trickles of sweat & the seeping lochia have been washed away & dried. A sort of temporary hiatus seems to have set in between the dissolutions of life & those of death. (‘Dear Departed’ 35)

Fernande on her deathbed

Fernande on her deathbed

Not until the practice of photography was perfected could the death mask die, an art which has carried humanity through its many empires from the cradle. One might more accurately talk of a transposition of the effigy from a singular statuesque form to a multipliable image (i.e. one that can be distributed, becomes more ‘public notice’ than object). The representational value changes with it.

Stonemasons surely did not predict the threat until uncanny images were beginning to be etched into stone — the images of ordinary people, grandparents. Already, for some time before then, painting had served the memories of those that lived on: galleries of ancestors were made of aristocratic hallways one could gaze upon & remark on resemblances or deal an anecdote. These were noble images, regardless, who the subject was. Always, they posed with an inflated chest. They had life [from which we adopt the cartoonish fear of a portrait’s gaze that follows].

Photography was comparatively inexpensive. Before it was commonly used for the living, it served as a means of recording the faces of the dead — their stillness adding, in no small part, to the convenience of practicing the new skill. These photographs were treasures that could be put among the small icons of saints at home or carried onto new worlds & fronts in breast pockets.

They belong in the telling of modernity for their capacitation of distance without renunciation. That is to say, it allows for geographic remoteness but not the one of forgetting. We continue to deny death, if aesthetically quite unlike the nineteenth century attempts:

In imitation of life, the sleeping euphemism

In imitation of life, the sleeping euphemism

More extreme cases of forcing life onto the photographed corpses included family portraits, one or sometimes more among them a cadaver, as well as propped images of reading, play, or prayer were common. An alternative was to “dress” the frames with symbols of life, especially flowers.

Unknown citizen of Kars

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a mystic of Kars

In the case of children, this was all the more important it would seem by trend. “Innocent deaths” were the hardest to accept for they brought into question morality, dragging religion by the ear.

Young child with flowers, late nineteenth century

Young child with flowers

Then there were the truly elegiac pictures that required no embellishments. These looked on the faces of heroes & artists with the serenity of a landscape, mimicking the balance of their beauty & completeness. I’ve never come across a better example than Man Ray’s portrait of — what I like to think of as — the cure for insomnia:

Marcel Proust on his deathbed, Man Ray

Marcel Proust on his deathbed, Man Ray

Very soon after, post mortem photography was to find a much cruder application. The corpse in picture would become the terrors of newspapers &, later, of history books. The wars incited this change, & would change heroism too. There could be no greatness any longer, no moral disputes. Death will become a dangerous disturbance, little more.


We may say, looking at examples of such work today, that for us death has become a poorly integrated segment of a story. See, for instance:



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