Washington, D.C.

“Taken: Photography and Death”

The Tartt Gallery

The visual arts have long been used to delay the finality of death by keeping a deceased subject “alive,” suspended in human memory as if between two worlds. Photography’s ability to provide a unique sense of the presence of the subject has created a peculiar bond between that medium and death. This exhibition of more than 70 photographs from the mid 19th century to the present not only underscores the extent to which photography has been involved with death, but also provides an opportunity to see how photographic modes are imbued, consciously and unconsciously, with conventions and values relating to status, religion, and esthetics.

As the accompanying catalogue notes, the word “taken” is commonly used in reference to both photography and death. This notion that both the living subject and the photograph are “taken” from life gives to the photographic presence a factuality rivaling that of the death mask. However, unlike death masks, photographs are not simply decontextualized visages standing alone as pure, naked fact; they are two-dimensional images in which fact is configured, through pictorial devices, into cultural codes with social meanings. Nadar’s Victor Hugo on His Deathbed, 1885, for example, follows clearly established conventions in the way it combines photographic facts (a sharply focused visage of the deceased) with pictorial devices (close-up profile centered in an oval and illuminated against a dark ground). These conventions—echoed by Man Ray in Marcel Proust on His Deathbed, 1922, by Sally Mann in My Father, 1988, and by countless anonymous photographers—indicate that the deceased is a “loved one.” Because of this, the deceased must remain in memory as in life, appearing asleep, the causality of death hidden. The unspoken message—as in the phrase “our loved ones are taken from us”—is that God has taken the deceased to a better place.

When the deceased is not a “loved one,” but an undesirable (as seen in the numerous photographs of criminals, war prisoners, and outcasts), convention demands that the causality of death, no matter how brutal, be emphasized to verify the fact of death and to act as ritual degradation depriving the deceased of human dignity and the hint of salvation. Thus, Man Burned and Hung by a Chain, Mississippi, ca. 1920, (photographer unknown) shows a charred body (amazingly, with genitalia covered for decency’s sake) hung from a pole before a crowd of male and female spectators. Similar conventions exist when the deceased is simply an unknown person—an auto-accident victim or a derelict. Anonymous deaths, treated as novelty interrupting daily routine, invoke few proprietary strictures, allowing esthetic invention to come to the fore. In Weegee’s Untitled (Slain Gangster), 1940–45, for example, a body is framed in the upper part of the photograph; below, centered in a carefully composed space, a revolver points toward the victim. Here, it is not the fact of death, but the presence of art, that predominates. In W. Eugene Smith’s Wake, Spanish Village, 1951, though the conventions for a “loved one” are used, the way photographic fact and pictorial devices are manipulated betrays indifference toward the deceased—death seems merely an excuse for esthetic effect, the grieving kin props for artistic consumption.

Conversely, Berenice Abbott’s Dead Person, New York, 1930—a photograph of a body propped against a stairway—stands out as a most compelling work, because it carefully avoids hyperestheticization. Abbott lends dignity to the deceased by allowing him to remain the subject of his death photograph. In this way, she acknowledges the special bond between photography and death, while unsentimentally recording the passing from this world of a fellow human being.

Howard Risatti