Friday, April 26, 2013

When Did A Memorial Become Taboo

A few weeks ago I was checking out some photos and I was reminded of when I took a photography class forever ago. On the first day of class, my teacher asked everyone if we knew one of the most popular uses for photography when it first came about. Many people said family pictures or portraits, and we weren't wrong, but we weren't hitting the nail on the head either. As it turns out, taking photos of deceased family members was a trend in the early mid 1800's to commemorate the loved one(s). This practice is known as post-mortem photography. 

Post-mortem photography is a practice that has greatly changed in the past 200 years. It began in the Victorian Era, peaked around the end of the 19th century, and is rarely seen today. I say rarely because it still is seen and I'm not simply referring to someone taking a photograph at a wake, but I will explain this later on. In order to fully understand this type of photography and how technology, the news, and art have changed it's meaning, I must start with a bit of history.

When post-mortem photography first became a trend, children were most often the ones seen in these types of photos. Now, before you get up in arms about how morbid and disgusting this seems, you should take a few things into consideration. First off, children in the 1800's had a very high immortality rate. When you factor in the limitations of medicine back then as well as the lack of birth control, this shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Secondly, we are talking about a time when society wasn't overrun with technology just yet. Unlike today, not every household owned a camera, in fact, it was common practice to hire a photographer. People didn't always have the money to have photos taken at every significant occasion in a child's life and many times a post-mortem photo was the only picture a family might ever own of their child. Lastly, snap shot photography wouldn't be developed for some time and until then photos required two things: patience and being able to sit still, both things a child might lack. These photos were viewed as memorials and helped families mourn their loved ones. Even the layout and setting for the photos had special meaning as well as a style of their own that was always evolving.

It is fairly easy to determine whether a post-mortem photo is from this trends early days or closer to when the it began to die out based on the setting the deceased is shown in. In the early days these photos were usually a close up of the deceased face or a full body shot. It was extremely rare to see a person photographed in a coffin. The subject is usually depicted in a deep sleep or posed in a lifelike position. Children were often shown in their crib or posed with their favorite play thing. It was also common to photograph a deceased child in the arms of a family members, most often the mother. Adults were posed is more lifelike positions, especially with their eyes open. Flowers were a commonly used prop and hold so much symbolism that it is hard to really understand if they were used simply as a prop or to hold a deeper meaning or association to the subject. Another trick used to make the body look more lifelike was to paint pupils on the prints or add a rosy tint to the cheeks. Later on there was less of an effort to make the deceased seem alive. There was no longer a desire to make the subject appear lifelike and awake. Often times the deceased was photographed in their coffin and sometimes seen surrounded by loved ones. In any case, whether the picture showed a baby in a crib or a grandmother in a coffin, the fact that someone wanted to remember their loved one stands clear. 

Today, post-mortem photography is still alive, but it falls under two different names: art and the news. Photographers like Enrique Metinides and Joel-Peter Witkin are well known photographers that document grim and shocking scenes. 

This photo was taken by Enrique Metinides
Metinides is well known for his photo journalism in Mexico City where he documented crimes, murders, and even a plane crash. Witkin was one of the photographers during the Vietnam war and also photographs death, corpses, and dismemberment. He also explores more touchy and taboo subjects such as dwarves, transexuals, hermaphrodites, and the physically deformed. 

This photo is by Joel-Peter Witkin

On the other hand you will find artists like Maeve Berry and Lyn Hagan. Berry is an Irish photographer who is well known for a series called Incandescence. Incandescence is a filled with photos taken at a crematory that show burning ember of bodies. Hagan's work is a bit different. She has several pieces that are hand embroidered portraits of children in Paul Freckers collection. She also does a lot of work with bones of animals and thread. 

One of the pieces in Maeve Berry's series: Incandescence

While the news and art do not depict death in the same way post-mortem photography originally did, is it safe to call this type of work post-mortem photography after all? If you break down what post-mortem photography is you may come up with the simplest definition: a photo of a deceased person. However, the meaning and symbolism behind the photo has drastically changed. I read somewhere that these images, "reflect a fascination in how people react to impermanence and how such photos were 'a means of capturing the image of the person in one last futile gesture that denies their loss whilst at the same time admitting it totally". I am unsure of who said this, but that's Wikipedia for you. 

Honestly, when I started this post I thought I was going to give a matter-of-fact history lesson that would hopefully teach someone a thing or two about photography and past traditions when it came to death. However, what I ended up finding upon my own research was I had way more questions that I would like to leave open for people to comment on and give their own opinions. 

Here are my final thoughts as I end this post: Is history really that morbid? Were our ancestors such ignorant neanderthals that they couldn't see how disgusting what they were doing really was? Or is it us-society today that is ignorant? So often we are quick to judge and dismiss something because we don't understand it or are afraid. Death is what it is. It makes people uncomfortable and even makes them question their own values and beliefs. People get upset at just the thought of dying, let alone talking about what is waiting in the afterlife. 

I don't question that this is a tradition that will never be as popular or as sentimental as it was in the past, but I also don't question the love, memories, and sorrow each photo must have held for the loved ones of the deceased. Everyone mourns in their own way and if it isn't hurting anyone, why should we care?

We live in an age of technology that is rapidly growing and consuming our time, cell phones in particular. Yes, they do have great uses, I will admit that. We use our smart phones to keep in touch with family, call for help when our car breaks down, check the weather, keep up on current events, and find a better route in heavy traffic. On the flip side, we don't always use this technology constructively. We use this same device to stalk our exes, start feuds with loved ones, cheat on our lovers, and take a million self portraits in contribution of our own vanity. This being said, in a world where people document their every thought and even share pictures of "what's for dinner", would post-mortem photography ever have the same value and sentimentality that it did in it's early days? I think not. Even weddings don't stand a chance in these days of Facebook and Instagram. I can't tell you how many times I have heard about a newlywed couple upset because their friends or family tagged them in pictures in their own wedding on Facebook before the couple could even change their relationship status to married. I guess even social media has it's own etiquette and guidelines these days. Not that I think someone is going to Instagram or tweet a picture of Aunt Sally dead in her own house while they wait for the ambulance to arrive, but stranger things have happened. 

In the end, I think post-mortem photography holds so much mystery, beauty, love, and sweet sorrow. I don't think there will ever be a way to give it the justice and acknowledge it for the real reasons it was started in the first place.

I hope everyone enjoyed this post. Please share your thoughts and own questions in a comment below.

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