PRINT Summer 1993


THOUGH WE USE, HANDLE, AND observe objects of every sort, with the widest range of feelings, they seem placid when set beside the channeled dread we have of corpses. The chief reason we can look at most inorganic objects without horror is that they never lived. That’s an odd way to consider things, I know, but human death puts it in mind. The pathos sometimes evoked by objects when abandoned or ruined stems from the mortality of those who lived with them, and is always associated with past lives. These objects act upon the mind as surrogate bodies, possibly charged with memories, but nothing to compare with the real thing that was once sensate. Photographs of the dead visually record beings once like us, but now nullified and reduced to objects. With this kind of subject, whatever psychic distance implied by photographs is shortened in our recognition of our own destiny, on an unknown schedule. “Such a likeness [in photographs of the dead],” writes Luc Sante, “is the one photograph of ourselves we are certain never to see.”

What an irony that contact with the deceased in photographs elicits from viewers a rare and lively solidarity that is inconsolable. Photographs of living subjects that have since died don’t have this effect. However melancholy the vantage point of our “now” upon these people’s past, they’re shown in the same conscious state as the one in which we perceive them, and which everyone takes for granted. They were present for the act of witness; the dead, on the other hand, were only helplessly “there.” The spectacle of the corpse compels us to reckon with the ultimate divide in human experience, the most tangible form of loss. It describes that terminus where most of us emphatically have no wish as yet to arrive. But if we lack anticipation, we look at it with a curiosity that is well-known, almost despite ourselves searching the image with a hope to reduce terror by finding there a certain beauty.

How many pictures repel the sense of touch, as these do, yet attract the eye! Such a complex response reflects involvement in a profound existential issue, but the faded corporate, institutional, or familial uses of the death image do not readily admit the grandeur of the theme. Everywhere we’re struck by the contrast between the circumspect, even humdrum social purpose of such material, and the leveling shiver that the work induces in viewers. For the mostly anonymous photographers, the task at hand was routine, and it was performed unself-consciously. Because they were so obviously carrying out a job, the morality of it sealed into their professional role, they cannot be accused of being either cruel or unctuous. An image was commissioned, and a print of it put into a file or album. If the latter, for example in the case of a funeral scene or a show of a dead baby, the impression would be solemn enough and tragic, but ritualized all the same . . . and in the end, a product turned out.

The banal, unconcerned act of witness characteristically reinforces the physical import of the subject. Perhaps this instinctive or else schooled, workmanlike practice was necessary to confront what had to be seen. After the fact, it serves to dissolve potentially significant levels of guilt or pity in the browsing of the vast archive of death. It’s not just that these cadavers were unknowns that brings us back on emotional keel. Nor the fact that photography freezes figures in their tracks, and is therefore already a metaphoric extinction. As a term of photographic experience, viewers had from the first taken that in stride. Rather, whatever use these pictures once had has lapsed, leaving them as objects to contemplate in pure detachment, for the material data they might contain and for the esthetic pleasure they give. Here are unclaimed images reposing within dusty cabinets. For any such collection to be salvaged by a trade publisher today implies an idea that the artistic consciousness of researchers and viewers may be in league with each other. So, an eye surgeon, Dr. Stanley Burns, and the artist Joel-Peter Witkin collected some harrowing pictures they titled Masterpieces of Medical Photography, the goal of which was not to create a bizarre canon, but, I think, to acknowledge the element of fascination that is also sensuous in our dealing with images of the diseased and the dead.

Barbara Norfleet, who has just come out with an extended portfolio of this genre, Looking at Death, once edited a book called The Champion Pig, and subtitled Great Moments in Everyday Life. She has been in the forefront of those who cull photographs of civic or family ritual from commercial American studios, yielding a droll gallery of outdated mores. From the beginning, in 1979, her overview was anthropological because the gestures at weddings or pajama parties, the smiles of hunters with their trophies or of those at hot-rod meets, cotillions, baptisms, and graduations, from circa the 1920s through the ’60s, reveal not only a series of historical arrangements, dense with physical detail, but cultural poses, fantasies, protocols. Those of us who have reached a certain age can remember being immersed in some of them—and can yet look back upon them, too, as if into another and, of course, more innocent world. What made it “innocent” was the faith people had in the adequacy of their self-representations, a faith, which seems to us utterly misplaced, in their idea of what was natural. But the process that has congealed them originates not only in their toothsome period behavior, but in the paralysis conferred upon them by the studio camera. Left in the lurch by time, the result is the kind of fermented wholesomeness that David Lynch, for instance, has enthusiastically rendered as the underside of our national consciousness.

Norfleet went on to explore this territory in other books, notably one with her own photographs, Manscape with Beasts, 1990, a nightmare pastoral where animals were shown scavenging in a wooded habitat strewn with debris. From there, it was only a short step to the decided estrangement of Looking at Death. There’s an obvious kinship between a theater of obsolete manners and a panorama of the dead. One picture in this most recent book is shared with The Champion Pig, a holdover, and it reveals the interest Norfleet has in the way our culture denies a reality, thereby revealing a truth about ourselves. It is a family photograph of parents and baby, taken by the George Durette Studio, Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1938. In The Champion Pig, it was not disclosed, nor would one have known, that the baby is dead. Mother and father compose themselves for the lens, neutral, or perhaps a shade wary as she cradles the lifeless bundle in her arms. They are acting a little play in which the family fondly remembers the infant, who appears to sleep—but they aren’t with it. Though the picture is supposed to read as a keepsake of their affection, it is alive with other, incidental resonances, which makes it weird and more touching.

What more natural, and yet surprising a tack for Norfleet to have taken than to start Looking at Death with representations of fatality on stage and in film. Their dramaturgy and high production values may be designed well, but are truly phony when judged by the sting of the mostly hack bureaucratic work that follows. For stagecraft leaves out of the tableau precisely the feature that grips us when expiration is for keeps: the indignity of the dead. The circumstance of death and the interval of time before it’s encountered by the camera inflects each subject with a demeanor that has to be measured on the sliding scale of the grotesque. We don’t so much hanker after shock as value the grotesque in itself, but it’s nevertheless shock, and especially the abruptness of it, as in a New England hanging suicide of 1958, that sets off the real from the constructed death scene. Some recoil or residue of shock may account for the stiffness of those who pose in the company of death. They may be medical students, or mourners; no matter, they are taken over by a telltale gravity that is a mark of being unsettled. In the end, the book shows that we understandably don’t know how to pay our respects, that all we do is awkwardly represent ourselves in the face of a reality that can only be described.

Except that they’re necessarily loaded with the homeliest domestic bric-a-brac—a college pennant, milk bottles, ticket stubs—the New York Police Department murder photographs from 1914–18 displayed in Luc Sante’s Evidence weren’t meant to contribute to the sociology of death. Working on a narrative about the criminal history of New York, Low Life, which he published in 1991, Sante chanced upon this moldering file whose forensic purposes can only be guessed. He presents these uncanny pictures as a mystery folder.

This particular kind of research had been preceded by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, 1973, a kind of Northern Gothic foray into the pictorial record of a Midwestern county during the 1890s, haunted by madness and death. Microstudies such as these are typified by a selection bias—here, a sense that society has gone amok in archaic violence, assisted by a nature that does nothing but take its toll. The theme dominates all other possibilities, yet its causes and effects remain completely unexplained. When Sante speculates about these homicides with their meaningless names, his tone is that of an imaginative coroner. But in the end, he writes, “The pictures are silent, or are pools of silence within a commotion discernible only at their borders. They are dream images.”

By “silence” and “commotion” he refers, on the one hand, to the central luminous aura in which the corpse is bathed from overhead, and on the other hand to the darker margins of the picture, where the feet of investigators and the camera’s tripod, rushing down, are sometimes included as part of the scene. The magnesium powder creates a softer light in the print than our present flash. In line with this feature, which has more an expressive interest than a technical one, are the recession of the room created by the quite wide-angle lens, and the plunging look beneath, as if into a pit. Upended in that secular space, the sprawled, diminished, abject victim, arms out, almost seems to float in a celestial martyrdom.

The impression all this gives is of a monstrous inadvertence, where we viewers are assigned the role of privileged voyeurs, accorded a chill perspective from a high perch. Because of the often cramped quarters, such a view was the only way relevant particulars could be encompassed. But it leaves in doubt the status of the shot is this an interior with a figure, or a figure within a room? Often, the body is not even centered, or the axis is turned so as to induce a vertigo that is slightly disorienting but also pleasurable. Riffling through Evidence, one is introduced to a world described with a strange though pointed uncertainty of tone, unutterably material in detail yet spectral in effect—a world that is, in the end, apparently evil beyond measure.

Unlikely as it seems, the homicide photographs that depict this world take their place among the most beautiful images of our era. The fact that their undeniable poignance was certainly unplanned lends them an authority that conscious art rarely attains. It was a product not exclusively of their primal subject matter, but of their singular method as it dealt with that subject. Sante recognizes this very well, for his eyes, like ours, have been alerted to the worth of such a find by the great example of Eugène Atget, whom he mentions. For my part, I should say how much Evidence suggests an eerie cathexis in which the ghosts of Jacob Riis and of Lewis Hine come together, the. roughness of the one, the tenderness of the other, to inflect a view of death that, though always timely, is now, at the end of this century, especially topical.

Max Kozloff’s next book, Lone Visions, Crowded Frames, will be published in 1994 by the University of New Mexico Press.

Barbara Norfleet’s Looking at Death was published by David R. Godine, Boston, this spring. Luc Sante’s Evidence was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, late in 1992.