By Sheila Wallis
The development of the lens has had a profound effect on the way we think about visual perception and representation, and not least within the field of critical art history. In his controversial study Secret Knowledge, Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, the painter David Hockney rehearses the argument that a radical visual shift occurred in art at around the time of the development of glass and lens-based technology. (Hockney 2001.12) His case that a camera obscura was used by Vermeer has never been proven, and no reference to optical aids of any sort appears on the extensive inventory of Vermeer’s estate. What Hockney observes however is that there is a photographic precision to Vermeer’s painting that strongly suggests knowledge of the optical effects produced by a lens. Hockney does not argue that Vermeer’s astonishing ability is entirely underpinned by optical aids. Nevertheless, Vermeer’s characteristic perspectival accuracy and startling attention to detail do give the impression of having been informed by discoveries consistent with insights afforded by the invention of the camera obscura. (2001.17)
It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century however that painters began to develop a critical dialogue with the camera lens. By hinting in their work at the formal photographic tactics of cropping and framing, they were able to comment on the social and visual effects of the recent development and popularization of camera technology. This became not only possible but virtually inescapable as painters were compelled to acknowledge the effects of the indifferent gaze of the camera and its relation to a developing industrial culture.
For example in Degas’ Family Portrait, painted in 1867, the Belilli dog is seemingly cut in half by the frame as it exits the scene bottom right. Less than twenty years later in Bar at the Folies Bergere (1882) Manet’s formal arrangement strongly hints at the influence of photographic images. The dangling legs of the trapeze artist, cropped at mid-calf, leaves the viewer to imagine her performance overhead. Photographic images began to document and infiltrate bourgeois society during this period and both Degas’ and Manet’s paintings have a decidedly ‘snapshot’ feel to them, as though they are scenes that have been glimpsed and ‘instantly’ preserved in paint.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the photographic image has developed into far more than merely another ancillary instrument to inform the painter. It grew to assume both the role of subject and, to significant extent, content, of the artist’s work. The scope and extent of this developing relationship has perhaps become most complex and nuanced in the last 50 years and these interconnections are explored in the critical writing of, amongst others, Roland Barthes, John Szarkowski and Susan Sontag.
As this more critically complex and layered relationship between the photograph and the artist developed, it seems inevitable (at least in retrospect) that the photograph, capturing as it does a fleeting moment of time, would come to be seen as obliquely, but inevitably, a signal – a portent - of mortality. My intention in this dissertation is to explore the critical and material ground in which artworks that borrow from photographic source material can be re-cast – metamorphosed - into images or objects that articulate sorrow and loss. I want to consider whether the taking and making of images from photographic sources can be seen as somehow creatively enacting the transformative processes of grief and loss into mourning and catharsis. As Gerhard Richter muses over his painting of the dead Ulrike Meinhof, The photograph provokes horror, and [my] painting – with the same motif – something more like grief. (Shiff 2008.155)
It would be unrealistic to attempt an overview of all the established artists whose work overlaps with the use of photographs. Instead, I intend to select three artists whose work not only critically consider the photograph but also embody ideas associated with the work of grief and mourning. My selected artists are Christian Boltanski, Marlene Dumas and Vija Celmins. I will also introduce a critical account of my own recent practice, in which the themes of grief and mourning, interpreted and extended through the agency of early photography, are a prominent theme.
My intention is to show that through their use of lens-based images, Boltanski, Dumas and Celmins create a complex creative dialogue with mortality. I too set out to contribute to that dialogue in the context of my own practice. In each case, I suggest, the formal and imaginative transformations represent, on one level, an urge to convert grief and loss into mourning. Put simply, both the selected artists’ work and my own current practice explore a creative intervention with lens-based imagery that promises an opportunity for better understanding our relationship with some of the deepest existential questions. This kind of practice involves a complex discourse between the established identity of the photograph and the emerging identity of new works of art. It may be that some of the work under consideration will be seen to address grief, the dreadful emotional prelude to mourning, whilst other work might more nearly address mourning, the psychologically redemptive process that normally follows grief. Yet all three selected artists, as well as myself, I intend to argue, make work that, on one level at least, sets out to scrutinize these complex, inescapable human experiences. I am informed by and will refer to the philosophical and critical writing of Barthes, Szarkowski, Sontag and others. I am also informed by the experience of researching and reflecting upon my own studio practice.
The Difference Between Taking and Making
In his landmark book ‘The Photographer’s Eye’, published in 1966, the photographer, historian and critic John Szarkowski sets out the case for photography as a discrete art form, and systematically delineates the unique characteristics by which it might be said to qualify as such. He advocates the idea that photography has developed into a singularly democratic medium, shaped not by a creative elite, but by everyone who has ever picked up a camera. Szarkowski famously describes the photographic as being defined by selection – taking - rather than by synthesis – making. Paintings were made —constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes—but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken. (Szarkowski 2014) In making this seemingly straightforward yet ontologically far-reaching distinction Szarkowski defines what was to become a fundamental differentiation that later writers would continue to explore. Critic Susan Sontag reflects
‘Ordinary language fixes the difference between handmade images like Goya’s and photographs by the convention that artists ‘make’ drawings and paintings while photographers ‘take’ photographs.
I begin with the proposition that the specific transformation of found photographic sources into ‘works of art’ is a defining feature in the practice of Boltanski, Dumas and Celmins, and that their imaginative investment in the selected photographic image allows for new thinking. Here it is essential to unpick the meanings and distinctions between the verbs ‘taking’ and ‘making’ within this particular creative context. The ‘taking’ of the photographic image, in line with Szarkowski and Sontag, suggests surreptitious capture, or the almost illicit possession of an object. Implicit in this attitude is the thought that there might be a psychological, philosophical and/or even ethical relationship that operates in a different register to the ‘making’ of images.
Conversely, embedded in the notion of the making of an image is a sense of the giving of life, or a kind of bringing forth via the act of creation and delivery into the world. Moreover the ‘making’ of an image shows a commitment to the idea of capture that is more than simply the entrapment of a fleeting moment. It demonstrates an act of generosity from its creator to the source. There is, clearly, a temporal aspect to image making. That is, it grows, changes and develops over the period of time taken to create it – hours, days or weeks, even months or years.
It is rare nowadays to be without a camera. We casually employ one when we feel the need to record an experience - the smiling face of a loved one, a special occasion, or an inspiring landscape. It is generally thought that photographs perform the function of protecting the moment from decay. Photographs seem to preserve and safeguard our memories of fleeting moments and singular visual experiences. In Western culture we have become accustomed to this language and way of thinking since its invention. In her seminal work, On Photography, Susan Sontag (1977.3) insists that [Photographs]…are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.
However much photography might be perceived as a contemporary grammar, there remains a dichotomy within the photographic image, that it frames and fixes within a historical moment in order to sustain the appearance of life – and this is a difficult opposition. Whatever other meaning/s might be constructed by the viewer when looking specifically at a photograph, the underlying meaning is inextricably bound up with finality and death. This must be the case since photographic language is unrelenting in its insistence on finitude, a captured moment, testimony to an explicit, precise and - crucially - unrepeatable past. In 1980 Roland Barthes encapsulated this irreducibility in stating ‘The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’, or, even more succinctly, he describes the photograph as the ‘that has been’ and which, by implication can never recur (2000.77) Considered in this light, photographs might then be seen as a type of memorial, obliquely yet unfailingly signaling mortality and transience.
Barthes was an extraordinarily innovative and prolific literary theorist whose contribution to contemporary criticism of photography is difficult to overstate. His highly influential Camera Lucida explored a particularly subjective response to the photograph. In part two of the book Barthes describes his preoccupation with photographs of his recently deceased mother. He dwells on the seeming impossibility of locating what he could claim to be a truthful representation of her, the likeness of the face he so loved. He sets out his perception that what separates him from the photographs of his mother taken before he was born is History. (Barthes 2000.65) Eventually he discovers what he came to call the ‘Winter Garden’ photograph of his mother. She appears as a small child. He hails it as the most accurate in communicating a semblance, an essence of his mother. He declares that [it] is not ‘just an image’ but a ‘just image’. (2000.70)
After careful reflection on the ‘Winter Garden’ photograph Barthes concludes he is unable to transform his grief into mourning because of the very finitude of the photograph, its most specific and inescapable ontological characteristic, the problem at the heart of all photography. His pain remains immovable in a circle that is closed and from which there is no escape.
‘For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death.’ (Barthes.2000: 92)
Barthes here makes the connection that whilst the rites and rituals associated with death have gradually become less familiar in cultural practice and in daily life, there remains a stubborn insistence on the fact of death that reasserts itself in the photographic images we take. In Camera Lucida he offers a survey of our peculiar relationship with photography since its inception. Significantly, it describes the ‘eidos’, (2000.60) or form of photography as a sort of irreducible singularity of an event that can never be repeated – analogous, in that sense, to the death of an individual. Yet in the hands of the practicing artist, the irreducible singularity of the photograph may be susceptible to creative re-interpretation – to re-casting in ways that afford multiple-legibility to the viewer. The finality of the photograph may, eventually, be cast in redemptive terms.
Christian Boltanski and Postmemory,
The Enduring and the Transitory in Marlene Dumas,
Vija Celmins’ Bridge to the Material World.
Perhaps more than any other artist of his era, Christian Boltanski has
Consistently worked with photographs. And he has made an observation that chimes with Barthes’ consciousness of the photograph as memorial: “the moment you take a photograph of something, 3 minutes later, it’s something that no longer exists”. (Boltanski. 2014)
In an interview with writer Sarah Rosenbaum-Kranson for his show No Man’s Land, (Armory, New York, 2010) Boltanski alludes not simply to the inevitability of mortality but also, by implication, to the death of memory.
[T]he only question that’s in all my work is that I believe that everybody is unique, and at the same time, everybody is so fragile. After three generations, nobody is going to remember me or you. We remember the grandfather, but we can’t remember the great-grandfather. And it’s something so strange because everybody is so important; all of us are absolutely important and at the same time so fragile. (Boltanski 2014)
It may be possible to cast light on Boltanski’s intentions by reflecting on a critical-theoretical category that the writer and academic Marianne Hirsch describes in her 1997 essay as ‘postmemory’. The phenomenon is described as occurring where the connection to the original object or source is mediated not through literal recollection, but through the imagination and creative investment of subsequent generations. (1997.22)
Figure 1. Christian Boltanski. Meinschlich (Humans) 1994. Photographs and lights, Overall dimensions variable.
Boltanski’s quite obsessive preoccupation with the death of memory, embodied in his re-photographed (out of focus) photographs strikes a chord with Hirsch’s ideas. She developed the theory of postmemory primarily in relation to the children of Holocaust survivors, to describe their highly focused understanding of the experiences of those of their forebears, and whose narratives came to dominate their own lives. The stories and images passed onto this younger generation of children, who had not experienced the trauma of war first hand, have had their lives distinctly influenced by the suffering of the preceding generation. The accounts of the ordeals suffered are so powerful, so ever-present, that they become assimilated in the mind to the point where they become indistinguishable from the individual’s own memory.
In Boltanski’s Humans 1994, (Figure 1) the walls of a large gallery are claustrophobically packed from floor to ceiling with over 1,200 re-photographed, framed black and white photographs. Electric lights are suspended at different heights throughout the space. We are immediately overwhelmed by the disturbing implication of countless, anonymous individuals. Marianne Hirsch offers an interpretation that speaks of Boltanski’s concern with embodying collective grief.
…[N]either we nor the artist has a way of knowing whether the individuals in the photos are Holocaust victims or enlarged faces of random schoolchildren. Through their lack of specificity they represent even more forcefully Boltanski’s search for a post-Holocaust aesthetic that would contain his generation’s absent memory shaped by loss, mourning and ambivalence. Hirsch (1997.258)
The glass of the framed portraits permits us to occasionally encounter our own reflection. Above eye-level other frames are placed so high that we can never really see them properly. Some have dazzling electric light shining onto them whilst others remain in relative gloom. The obsessive intricacy and sheer quantity of images is as compelling as it is disturbing. We are forced to see our own face in the glass through which we apprehend the faces of those already dead. The creative tension between our speculation about individual, personal histories and the erosion of that uncertain yet unique story in the context of a myriad of others makes the work simultaneously absorbing and troubling – an emotional analogy, perhaps, for grief.
I made a large work called The Reserve of Dead Swiss (1990) and all the people in photographs in the work are dead. We hate to see the dead, yet we love them, we appreciate them. (Boltanski Tate Magazine Issue 2, 2014)
Boltanski offers the sober thought that in a sense the photograph can kill us and take our place. When a relative cannot easily remember your face, they might take out your photograph. But that image on photographic paper is simply not you. It never was and clearly cannot ever represent the emotional and psychological complexity of your individual life - all that you were to the people who knew you. Boltanski believes photography kills us when…someone picks up your photo and no one knows who you are. (Boltanski 2014)
In his collection of essays Encounters and Reflections, the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto recognizes the extent to which Boltanski’s manipulated photographs address the transience of human life when he observes ‘Nothing is more deeply anonymous than the image of an individual face nobody recognizes’. (1990:262) Boltanski’s work employs manipulated photographs to maneuver the viewers understanding of human loss. The overwhelming numbers and unrelenting anonymity that characterize his installation images seem to imply a shocking kind of disconnect, signaling collective grief, but simultaneously withholding the redemptive consolation of shared mourning.
Chlorosis (Figure 2) is the collective title for a series of loosely painted watercolour portraits made by the painter Marlene Dumas. They emerge from twenty-four photographs of her family and - surprisingly but significantly - from photographs of strangers. In conversation with Ralf Rugoff, Dumas offers this observation on the power of the artist in selecting from photographic sources
One could say that painting is also free from the responsibility of caring for and about its subjects. We can paint anything without asking permission of, or negotiating with, the original subject that has been photographed, because our model i.e. all photography has become mass property. We do not have to be where the scene is taking place. But this is part of the tension of a good artwork that one cares and at the same time does not really care. (Rugoff 2007.121)
The title Chlorosis is borrowed from a botanical term used to describe the condition suffered by plants unable to absorb sufficient light energy for photosynthesis. In order to explore the ways that I might embody ideas of grief and loss in my own recent work, I have looked particularly to Dumas’ Chlorosis series. For me, her watercolour portraits often seem to hint at phantoms, wraith-like specters whose vulnerability bespeaks their mortal condition. Reflecting on her painting processes she confides that Being married to oil painting, it’s a relief to have a much more irresponsible affair with watercolours. (Dumas 2003.146)
Figure 2. Marlene Dumas, Chlorosis (Love sick). 1994, Ink, gouache, and synthetic polymer paint on paper. (66.2 x 49.5 cm)
The distinct sense of fragility and strength, presence and intangibility, the otherworldly and the ordinary, seem at odds with Dumas’ mischievous suggestion that her relationship with watercolour is no more than a dalliance. The delicate, ephemeral quality of the medium and the inherent fragility of its support lend subtle complexity to images that remain firmly rooted in shared experience. Marlene Dumas states; I only look at the photograph to get a certain likeness. I want it to be grounded in reality’. (MoMA 2006)
In this watercolour series, Dumas’ seeming contradiction in expressing human experience as both enduring and transitory can perhaps be interpreted as a form of mourning for the collective human experience – and perhaps this is precisely why it is not important to her whether her sources represent friends or strangers. The watercolour based on a scowling magazine image of the notorious Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten is singular in that it is the vulnerability of the star that struck Dumas. She creates a yearning for something of which we cannot keep hold; something lost.
Like Dumas, but in distinctly different terms, Vija Celmins has an abiding and complex relationship with photographs. Whilst Dumas’ work has explored the screen, celebrity culture and the human body with all its implied emotional and psychological frailties, Celmins has always liked the anonymous quality of the objective scientific photographic document. (Phong Bui 2014) Celmins discusses taking images of this sort and re-inventing them as intimately meditative artworks. She employs the term re-describe to define the transformations she makes from sources that are invariably photographic. In conversation with the artist Chuck Close, Celmins is asked why she puts an artificial layer between herself and her source material. In reply, she describes her relationship with the photograph as neither artificial nor a layer, but rather a bridge to the material world. (1997.8) Intriguingly, she declares that her paintings put the photographs from which she works ‘back in the real world- in real time’. (Rugoff 2007.71)
In her delicate 1968 graphite on acrylic drawing entitled Hiroshima, (Figure 3) Celmins maps the surface with unwavering forensic scrutiny.
The drawing depicts a plain surface – a table perhaps, upon which is placed a photographic cutting depicting the aftermath of the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima. As viewers, we are several steps removed – this is, after all, an image of an image of an image. The photograph appears to have been carefully torn out of its original context, perhaps a newspaper or magazine. The two torn edges of the paper are contrasted with the crisp straight lines of the top and left side of the photograph. We are able to tell that this image has been removed from the uppermost corner of the publication. There are no words and the accompanying text, if it ever existed, has been removed. This must serve to heighten our perception of the artist’s sense of impotence as she treats this unprecedentedly shocking subject matter. In neither seeking to explain or judge the event, Celmins simply offers silent witness through the meticulous depiction of an ephemeral media image.
The notion of being in the presence of something so truly awful and remaining silent seems appropriate in this work. The image has a transitory stillness too, a brief and delicate presence, as though a gentle breeze could blow away this small, ghostly fragment.
Figure 3. Vija Celmins, Hiroshima, 1968. Graphite on acrylic ground on paper. Dimensions unavailable
Celmins renders dark shadows around both the lower and right edges of the photograph. We can tell also that the represented photograph has been rather carelessly folded at some point. Its surface bears the scars and crumples of mishandling. The support that the cutting rests on, and the shadows that bring it into sharp, recognisable focus do more than simply demonstrate the ‘thingness’ of the photograph. The formal arrangements create a necessary emotional distance, signaling both our historical and psychological distance from the horrific nuclear landscape. The multiple readings implicit in Celmin’s Hiroshima are much earlier the subject of analysis by the late nineteenth century philosopher, logician and mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce. He set out to define the source of meaning by sub-dividing the semiotic sign into three categories (or perhaps more accurately - overlapping principles), the Symbol, the Index and the Icon. The Symbol is, in effect, ‘man-made’. It is symbolic, that is to say, an artificial, arbitrary construct. The Iconic category comprises visually encoded signs that include graphic forms such as those employed in the highway code. The Indexical sign on the other hand is perhaps most straightforwardly described as having a ‘cause and effect’ character. An obvious example would be the footprint (signifier) in the sand, where the person who made it would of course be the signified i.e. that someone has walked here. Celmins’ Hiroshima’ takes part in all these categories. A three-fold dialogue might be said to occur, since in this particular work there appears to be an image (Icon) of an image (Index) of an image (Symbol). In the wider context, photographs might be said to take part in both the principle of the Icon and that of the Index. A photograph of a recumbent infant is iconic in inasmuch as we recognize that it resembles her. But it must also in a very direct sense be indexical and for this reason – she must have been physically present before the camera in order that her image could appear when the camera was operated. This particular truth is testified to by courtroom process – a compromising cctv image of the accused might well have legal sway, whilst a drawing of the accused, however compromising, would be deemed not so much inadmissible as irrelevant.
Celmin’s Hiroshima seems to address the psychologically loaded task of mourning, quietly inspecting irredeemable loss from multiple viewpoints. In this sense the work also speaks of the ethical, not just aesthetic, convictions of the artist.
Photographing the Dead
If it is something of a truism that the artist invites the audience to reassess subjects that are - for one reason or another - overlooked or disregarded, then bereavement and mourning must surely qualify for attention. And this is the context in which I propose that a reconsideration of Victorian post-mortem photography is critically important.
It is not always apparent to the casual observer that the subjects in Victorian post mortem photographs are dead and not simply asleep. In a curiously synchronistic comment, Dumas observes Images don’t care. Images do not discriminate between sleep and death. (Shiff 2008.147)
Figure 4. Southworth & Hawes. Post-mortem, Unidentified Child, Deceased. Circa1850. (16.5 x 21.5 cm) Whole Plate Daguerreotype.
This (figure 4) is a striking example of the art of the post-mortem photographer. The little girl, wearing white (symbolic of the purity of the soul of the baptised child) has been laid gently upon the plumped surface of the bed, arranged horizontally, her hands are folded delicately right over left, rhythmically echoing the position of the lower limbs. The tones of the daguerreotype plate are warm and rich, ranging from the deepest velvety blacks to the pure white lace and satin ribbons of her funeral dress. Her body looks flawless, unblemished by any visible symptoms of the illness that caused her untimely death. Her bare feet, legs and arms give her the appearance of a healthy, well-nourished toddler. With no flowers to signal that this portrait is a posthumous one, were it not for the benefit the tiny cross placed in the child’s hand (and of course the title), one could be forgiven for thinking this was simply the image of a child tired out from a day’s play who had climbed onto her parents bed and fallen into a deep sleep.
The daguerreotypist Albert Sands Southworth explained in some detail how he and his partner Josiah Johnson Hawes worked in the homes of the recently bereaved to create a pleasing arrangement of the body in its immediate surroundings.
“When I begun to take pictures, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to make pictures of the dead. We had to go out then more than we do now, and this is a matter that is not easy to manage; but if you work carefully over the various difficulties you will learn very soon how to take pictures of dead bodies, arranging them just as you please…the way I did was just to have them dressed and laid on the sofa. Just lay them down as if they were in a sleep… (Facos.2014)
Post-mortem photographers used several strategies to make their work palatable to their clients. With the loss of an infant, allusions were frequently made to the sleeping cherub or the angelic infant. Supported by this pictorial metaphor, parents had a lasting memento to console them as they made the painful journey through grief into mourning and ultimately into acceptance of their loss. In her fascinating examination of the history of photographing the dead, the photo-historian and author Audrey Linkman (2011.21) discusses the uses of the death-as-sleep metaphor in historical rituals of mourning. She explains that both concepts are linked by the state of unconsciousness and that by portraying death as slumber we are psychologically defending ourselves against the fearful ideas associated with death, decay and decomposition. Symbolic thinking of this sort, she suggests, allows us to begin to tolerate loss and accept our own mortality.
The use of the death-as-sleep metaphor is a familiar one, demonstrated for example by the use of the term the ‘last resting place’ in reference to cemeteries or burial grounds. The use of this metaphorical convention can be said to originate from religious belief and teaching. A striking comparison of death with sleep can be found in the New Testament chapter in which Jesus explains to the Disciples that he would travel to Judea to ‘awake’ Lazarus from his sleep. Failing to recognise the metaphorical nature of the statement, the disciples protest that surely if Lazarus is ill, sleep would suit him well. Jesus responds plainly “Lazarus is Dead’’. (John 11:11) Linkman, however, places little emphasis on the Victorian connection between the death-as-sleep metaphor and religious belief. In doing so she appears to disregard the evidence that the great majority of the British public did in fact assert an affiliation with one religious denomination or another. (1851 Census of Religious Belief)
In spite of the fact that the post-mortem photographer often took great pains to present the dead as though asleep, the Victorians were under no illusion that this would in any way give hope for the type of miraculous awakening that restored Lazarus to life. As Linkman (2011.21) plainly states, Sleep was simply the sweetener with which it was acceptable to dress and serve the dish that was death.’
After they were prepared by the studio, these Memento-Mori or post-mortem daguerreotypes were presented to their owners in gilded wooden or embossed leather bound, velvet lined cases. The newly developed metal plates placed carefully under pristine polished glass to protect the fragile, delicate surface of the daguerreotype plate. As (West 2000.147) explains,
‘[This] dramatised the experience of viewing daguerreotypes like the solemn ritual that surrounded the opening of a saint’s grave or reliquary. Opening and closing of the case allowed the viewer a brief experience of witnessing the miraculous, followed by the gesture of returning the image to its undisturbed space.’
Obvious comparisons can be drawn between this mode of presentation with that of the relics and remains of saints in the medieval and Roman Catholic tradition. Believers, far from seeing these as macabre items belonging to the bodies of the dead, venerate and revere these objects above all others, making pilgrimages across the world at great personal sacrifice in order to be in their presence or receive healing for themselves or family members. These objects through sincere devotion and belief are imbued with a supernatural power because they are seen as the most intimate connection possible, with the saint and by extension with God.
The technical, formal and cultural conventions associated with the daguerreotype – and specifically, the post-mortem daguerreotype - with its quite unique alchemical characteristics are fascinating. My concern and interest in these extraordinary cultural records, however common they might have been in the 19th century, are seen as problematic objects in the present. Miserable’, ‘morbid’ and ‘macabre’ are the descriptions most liberally peppered around contemporary discussion of post-mortem photography. In the tradition of post-mortem daguerreotypes I do recognize a striking parallel to my own Irish Catholic cultural background, where an uninhibited proximity to the deceased remains a common experience. I find it surprising that these fascinating historical documents now seem to be either largely disregarded or, in the event of popular exposure, are sensationalized. This may be because they have been passed down to a contemporary Western culture for which death is at least as great a taboo as sex was for the Victorian society that created the genre. Bereavement, not bonking, is the contemporary forbidden fruit.
A survey of post-mortem photography reveals that the practice of photographing the dead is as old as photography itself. With its high rates of infant mortality, Victorian society epitomized the urge to remember deceased loved-ones and family members by commissioning photographic portraits. By the end of the century, photographers were traveling to and working in the homes of the deceased as part of their everyday activity. (Linkman 2011. 48) Whilst posthumously painted portraits of loved-ones were popular among the elite in western society, the development of the new photographic processes of Daguerre and Fox Talbot brought the means of immortalizing images of their-loved ones to the middle and working classes. The new photographic technology was obviously less expensive than painting and perceived as being more intimate and realistic. (Linkman 2011.42)
As the photographic process developed further to include ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visites, and cabinet cards that permitted the photographer to not only make multiple negatives on a single plate, but to print on paper, further reducing costs, it seemed that the Victorian appetite for commissioning and distributing images was as insatiable as our own.
In many cases post-mortem images of Victorian children would be the only evidence the parents would have of a young life, cut short by one of the many of the 19th century food and water borne diseases. (Millward and Bell 1991.18) The photograph offered the means to preserve a precious memory. It provided an intimate memorial object that could be carried and kept, or sent across the world, and according to Linkman (2011.16) offered distant relatives otherwise denied the privilege of attending the deathbed, a kind of substitute for attendance.
Figure 5. Anonymous photographer. Untitled. Circa 1843. Sixth-plate daguerreotype.
The anonymity of many post-mortem daguerreotypes is perhaps their most poignant feature. Amongst the most common titles they bear are Sleeping Child, Unidentified Child, Anonymous Victim and Dead Baby Laid Out. These once precious personal photographs were a tangible focus of a family’s grief, cherished by its living members, all of whom, we cannot help reflecting, must by now be dead themselves. The images seem to exist in a unique limbo. Outside of memory, these now unknowable individuals were once alive and loved. Now in death they are reduced to visual documents. Family photographs, whether of the living, the dead or the living alongside the dead, are by definition private, personal mementos that required no formal title to identify them. Commissioned by the family and kept in special albums, they were initially passed down to subsequent generations. Their original owners could never have imagined that these images might one day enter the public domain, cut adrift from their specific familial moorings. Today the overwhelming majority of daguerreotypes, whether or not they take part in the post-mortem genre, have been shorn of their personal histories. They are thrust into the public domain and bound in an irreversible stasis that grimly signals a collective amnesia, just another bundle of dislocated identities adrift and forgotten.
It occurred to me that I might identify imaginative points of departure using daguerreotypes as the primary research and this is the territory that my practice currently explores. The Daguerreotype photograph could not be editioned. The uniqueness of the image must lend it a particular significance, resonating, in those terms, with the uniqueness of the painted portrait. By definition the daguerreotype had to be in the same place at the same time as the event it portrayed. As such it is an index of experience itself, a one-of-a kind representation that mirrored a single unrepeatable event.
Although I have used photographic source material in my work for some years, it is only relatively recently that I began to recognize a responsibility to interrogate my relationship to photographic processes. Photographs (at least before the advent of PhotoShop) can generally be said to have had the strictly epistemological function of presenting us with the visual appearance of an object. But painting provides evidence of thinking in a way the photograph does not, each brush stroke the result of a series of choices and adjustments made by the hand and eye and mind of the artist.
The photograph has always contained the potential to become subject matter for the artist and for me it represents a springboard to new creative thinking. It is also, in some senses, a form of ‘unfinished business’. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben observes ‘The subject in the photo demands something from us [...] that person and that face demand their name; they demand not to be forgotten. Agamben (2007.25)
The use of daguerreotypes during the Victorian era as deeply personal, intimate post-mortem records particularly arrests my attention. To what extent might a reflective recasting of these images offer a wider, ahistorical metaphor for mortality – perhaps one that might have contemporary currency? Could selection and editing, transformations of scale and translations of media re-invent the subject matter in creatively productive ways?
The challenges include reconciling the authentic grief and mourning of the sitters for their lost relatives with my concern to (re)create images that testify to the timeless theme of mortality. I am drawn to the fact that the inevitable stillness of the corpse in many daguerreotypes (notorious for their long exposure times), permitted detailed, ‘life-like’ recording of the deceased, whilst the inevitable fidgeting over time (up to 30 minutes) that is almost inevitable amongst living sitters imparts to their captured images the very opposite of life-like – what a contemporary audience would quite probably describe as a ‘ghostly’ or ‘spiritual’ presence.
Unlike digital photography, the processes involved in daguerreotyping have a physical logic about them, a ‘knowability’ that closely connects them to the processes of making drawings or paintings. In A Short History of Photography Walter Benjamin argues that through their long exposure times, demanding immobility of the subjects, early daguerreotypes caused the models to live not out of the instant, but into it, during the long exposure they grew, as it were, into the image (1931.204)
My current practice exploits these ambiguities. The living siblings and parents who prop and support their deceased relative were not, after all, indifferent to their situation in front of the camera. When faced with long periods of inactivity in front of the lens they participated actively and knowingly in the presentation of their own likeness. Effectively, they collaborated in creating the portrait, attempting to alter and correct their appearance as their image materialized on the daguerreotype plate. Barthes gives an absorbing commentary on his own participation before the lens in Camera Lucida
‘I have been photographed and knew it. Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into another image. This transformation is an active one: I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice..’ (Barthes 2000.10)
In the search to uncover and explore possible new meanings within the post-mortem photograph, I find the need to re-photograph the photograph (requiring movement on my part as I press the shutter) before I can begin to consider how its subject matter – originally taken at a point when grief must have predominated over mourning - might be translated into another medium. And not just another material medium. The translation must also begin to speak of the redemptive power of mourning, testifying to the extent that art addresses its subject in the context of multiple legibility. Re-photography permits a search for something that I believe to be latent - unfulfilled - in the image. It gives back to photography that which belongs to it - a ‘rendering unto Caesar’ as it were, of its own visual currency, back to the methodological authority to which it properly belongs, according to its own conditions and under its own terms. Re-photography is the visual trope that permits me to draw out more explicitly the trembling – shuddering? – of the living subjects as they wait out the exposure time whilst propping and supporting their deceased relative. Re-photography appears to propel the ‘original’ image into a new, unpredictable dimensionality, creating a heightened sense of presence that migrates into my drawn or painted transcriptions.
Drawing the Dead
It is with these technical, formal and speculative associations in mind that I approach the making of a series of charcoal drawings and watercolours derived from post-mortem daguerreotypes. They are an ongoing series entitled ‘Not Here Nor Anywhere Else’. The phrase is derived from a line in the writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot's intriguingly paradoxical essay Two Versions of the Imaginary. In one particular passage he broods on the sight of a cadaver, reflecting on the extent to which such a sight defies straightforward classification. The body is neither the erstwhile animate individual, nor any other person, nor, he contends, anything other. If this is so, then it cannot, in a significant existential sense, be either present or absent
Something is there before us which is not really the living person, nor is it any reality at all. It is neither the same as the person who was alive, nor is it another person, nor is it anything else. What is there, with the absolute calm of something that has found its place, does not, however, succeed in being convincingly here. Death suspends the relation to place, even though the deceased rests heavily in his spot as if upon the only basis that is left him [...] It is not here, and yet it is not anywhere else'.
Identifying this specific reference from Blanchot helps to summarise succinctly the concern I have with addressing, depicting and interpreting the enigmatic, inescapably transient human condition - the challenge of picturing presence and absence simultaneously.
In the first in the series of charcoal drawings ‘Not Here Nor Anywhere Else’ the viewer is confronted with a drawing in charcoal of a photograph pinned to a wooden door of a dead girl. She is seen alone, propped up in a chair, and rendered in meticulous focus. The delicate, inherently unstable nature of charcoal, its unfixed essence intended to suggest a lyrical equivalent to the visibly fragile, layered quality characteristic of daguerreotypes, is one of the two media that I have employed in recent work.
Figure 6 Sheila Wallis 2014 Not Here Nor Anywhere Else III Present (77x 112 cm) Charcoal on Paper
In ‘Not Here Nor Anywhere Else (Figure 6) a dead girl is once again seen in sharp focus but here the child’s perfect immobility is sharply counterpointed with the living animation of the mother who steadfastly bears and supports her. The pictorial movement with which the maternal figure is rendered could not prevent me from giving emphasis to the constancy of her gaze, squarely into the camera, directly at the onlooker. Her stable expression, unfaltering even in my ‘quickened’ re-photography, becomes the metaphor that signals the difficult journey from grief to mourning – shifting forms bringing into relief the sense of relentlessly sliding emotional ground that the death of a child must bring to a mother. The title ‘Present’ is susceptible to layered interpretation, implicating both the insentient stillness of the child and the unswerving psychological resilience of the mother’s gaze as she offers her child to the lens.
Figure 7. Sheila Wallis. 2014. Not Here Nor Anywhere Else IV. (77x 112 cm) Charcoal on Paper
In ‘Not Here Nor Anywhere Else IV, two surviving sisters flank their dead sibling who is seen propped up in a chair. The dead child is shown in scrupulous focus, wearing her Sunday best and with her hair freshly washed and combed. Her legs dangle above the floor whilst the unnatural and noticeably awkward tilt of her head signal to the viewer that something is not quite right. It gives the image a curiously contemporary ‘snapshot’ feel – perhaps the attempt of proud parents to photograph their hopelessly bored or impatient offspring. Re-photographing and then drawing the ‘original’ brings a new dimensional intensity to the figures, highlighting the inevitable evidence of restless fidgeting amongst her two supporting siblings. Their expressions might convey no more than discomfort at their own imposed immobility, or, at the other end of the scale, their expressions might signal undisguised alarm and distress at the loss of their sister. The audience must bring their own experience and intelligence to bear in ‘completing’ the work.
The sense of collaborative effort (more or less willing) in the production of post-mortem daguerreotypes has been significant in steering the technical, formal and imaginative development of my work on the subject. I employ a far larger scale than that of the daguerreotype in order to try and signal the great physical, emotional and psychological efforts involved in the taking of the original photograph - amongst both the subjects and the photographers. My work is shown unframed, creatively conflating the fragility of the paper with the fragility of the daguerreotype. The possibility of a redemptive transformation through creative intervention is what I set out to discover and formally resolve in this body of work.
Figure 8. Sheila Wallis. 2014. Not Just an Image, but a Just Image. (101.6 x 152.4 cm) Watercolour on Paper
The photograph has had a profound effect on how we picture and perceive ourselves. From the dangling legs of Manet’s trapeze artist, whose partial absence from the painting seems to excite, rather than diminish our apprehension of her, to the deeply personal reflections of the bereaved Barthes, disconsolately reflecting on the insight that however ‘just’ the ‘Winter Garden’ photograph of his late mother might be, the image of her (and by extension all other photographs) are inescapably, irretrievably, locked in the moment of their making, signaling the transience of life. Contemporary artists have embraced the challenges of critiquing photography through a spectrum of imaginative and intellectual transcriptions. If photography presents us with a presentiment of death through its fixedness, then the common imperative in the work of Boltanski, Dumas and Celmins is an imaginative reconfiguration of this stasis into a state more closely resembling that of mourning.
Boltanski appears to dwell on the extent to which reiterated photographs of anonymous individuals might become a visual metaphor for the seeming intractability of grief. Dumas’ seductively ephemeral watercolours of both friends and strangers, each counterpointed with a firm insistence on being grounded in reality seems to address the shared experience of life as a fleeting, evanescent encounter. Celmins, through her loaded, layered vision of mass destruction, offers an object lesson in the semiotic sign as she develops a piece of work that speaks to the transformative, redemptive power of mourning. As Darian Leader astutely states
‘The arts exist to allow us to access grief, and they do this by showing publicly how creation can emerge from the turbulence of a human life. In our unconscious use of the arts, we have to go outside ourselves to get back inside’. (2009.87)
In my own recent practice, a series of drawings and watercolours was inspired by a largely overlooked genre of historical post-mortem photographs. Drawing transfigures and refashions. Unlike the process of taking photographs, the time required to create drawings cannot be determined predictably. Drawings can arrive all too slowly. It is a process that I often find painstaking, labour-intensive and physically demanding. In this quite tangible sense, the activity of drawing (and by extension other art practice) invites broad parallels with the requirements of the work of mourning, seclusion, exasperation, analysis, despondency and endurance. Lines are traced and retraced, erased and revisited like intimate memories, until an accumulation of marks gives form to a new relationship with experience, finding a presence of its own. The work I’ve produced sets out not simply to depict, but perhaps resign us, through creative agency, to our mortality - if not with equanimity, then at least with a balanced recognition of death as constituting an essential part of, rather than a bizarre aberration from, our fragile hold on life. My sense, from this entire investigation, is that there is indeed a cathartic dimension to the arts – and not simply in the sense associated with art therapy. The informed and engaged artist may indeed experience a cathartic relationship with their work, but crucially this is carried out with the viewer in mind, and with good intention.
Calculated Word Count 8349
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