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Attitudes to the dead vary both temporally and culturally when George Wheeler writing on the Camp Santo, the cemetery, of Bologna wrote in 1876:
It is a custom in Italy to place photographs of the deceased above their tombs, and the effect is sometimes ludicrous. In one case, the photographed individual when living, appeared so deformed, that death must have been a happy release. Another portrait which I saw, was that of a jolly-faced fellow, in his shirt-sleeves, smoking a long pipe, and leaning over the back of a chair.
His comments written over 140 years ago highlight how the customs of a different country were viewed as odd even at the time.
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The death of a child in the 19th century was muted by the almost universally held belief in Western Christian societies of an afterlife for the innocent. The way we view child death in less religious contemporary society is different and understanding the common practise of photographing the deceased is difficult to come to terms with.
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Improvements in medicine and changing attitudes to death have meant that it is largely hidden from contemporary society as something to be shunned and hidden from. At times when religious certainty was more prevalent death was accepted as a natural passage to the "farther shore". In America it was not unusual for the recently departed to be photographed and for mourning clothing and jewelry incorporating photographs to be worn. Contemporary adverts for photographic studios stated that they could photograph the dead as a remembrance to the living.
Root's Daguerrean Gallery. There is no place like this in New York for perfect daguerreotypes. Here is displayed a multitude of the most beautiful speeimens of this art, showing the perfection of Mr. Root's mode of taking them. This gentleman has placed in the Crystal Palace some forty or fifty pieces, which attract great attention, and will probably secure the first prize. Any one who has seen them cannot but admire the sharpness of the figure, the perfection of the drapery, and especially the remarkably clear and natural expression of the eye one of the most difficult attainments in this art. No higher testimony can be given to the exellence of Mr. Root's daguerreotypes than the constant press of business on his hands, his rooms being thronged every day with visitors. He succeeds admirably in taking the likenesses of children. And what mother would not love to preserve the infant features of her children to look upon in after years, especially should they be taken away by death. We have rarely seen a more beautiful illustration of this than in the following:
Sweet child, that angel face must fade,
As years shall come and go.
For time doth ever mar the fair
And bright of all below.
But thy fond mother's jealous care
Hath robbed the yawning tomb,
And by the might of art, hath fixed
For e'er thy youthful bloom.
Within her sacred shrine there hangs
In all its infant grace,
On Root's unequaled, perfect plate,
Her darling's glorious face.
Then, mother of the blooming child,
Trust not the fleeting hours,
But, as this mother did by hers,
Do thou at once by yours.
Then, should the sudden dart of death
Your loved one call away,
You'd bless the hint by which you had
The picture done to day,
By Root, 363 Broadway.
The failed bank robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield in Northfield, Minnesota is a key event in the tales of the American West. The participants in the robbery were Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Frank and Jesse James, Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller, and Bill Chadwell.
When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 it buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and left ash-covered impressions of corpses of those caught in the hydrothermal pyroclastic flows and killed either by asphyxiation or possibly heat shock. By 2003 around 1,044 impressions of bodies had been recovered from Pompeii and in the nineteenth century Giorgio Sommer, based in nearby Naples, had photographed some of these archaeological remains.
The French artist Édouard Manet painted a number of oil paintings depicting the execution by firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (1832-1867) and two of his generals in Santiago de Querétaro. Maximilian became Emperor following French intervention in Mexico but had continual opposition and France withdrew its forces leaving him in a precarious political position that led to his execution on 19 June 1867.
French photographer François Aubert was working in Mexico at the time and photographed the execution in a gruesome series of photographs that caused consternation in Europe at the time. The death of royalty was, not surprisingly, a sensitive topic in monarchies. Aubert photographed the firing squad, the blood stained shirt full of bullet holes, and the Emperor in his coffin.
Legend maintains that Maximilian paid each of the seven executors shown here one ounce of gold not to shoot him in the head; he wanted, the story asserts, his mother to see his face one last time when he was in his coffin.
Millions of skeletons were preserved in the vast catacombs under Paris when well-known Parisian photographer Nadar photographed the subterranean world in 1861. In 1862 Gustav Flaubert and the inseparable Goncourt brothers visited the morbid location and wrote:
Bones so tidily stacked that they call to mind the wine cellars of Bercy. There is an administrative orderliness that removes all the drama from this library of skulls. What's worse, one must put up with all those Parisian jokers who go underground on veritable pleasure parties and amuse themselves by hurling taunts into the mouth of Nothingness; it makes one cringe.
You need to take only a few steps through these subterranean passages to satisfy your curiosity. It's one of those places that everybody wants to see and no one wants to see again.
Nadar was right that no number of photographs or the way they were captured with electric light could get over the prosaic nature of the fact they are just large piles of bones at times artfully arranged and at other times in vast piles. There is a shock factor of the first image but beyond that it is more of the same.
Henry Clay Jr. (10 April, 1811 - 23 February, 1847) was the third son of US Senator and Congressman Henry Clay. He graduated from West Point and raised a regiment, the 2nd Kentucky Volunteers, to fight in the Mexican American War (1846-1848). He was killed leading a charge of his regiment in the Battle of Buena Vista. The daguerreotypes show his burial site and later his body was transported to Kentucky and interred in Frankfort Cemetery in Frankfort.
This sad scene represents the soldiers in the act of collecting the remains of their comrades, killed at the battles of Gaines' Mill and Cold Harbor. It speaks ill of the residents of that part of Virginia, that they allowed even the remains of those they considered enemies, to decay unnoticed where they fell. The soldiers, to whom commonly falls the task of burying the dead, may possibly have been called away before the task was completed. At such times the native dwellers of the neighborhood would usually come forward and provide sepulture for such as had been left uncovered. Cold Harbor, however, was not the only place where Union men were left unburied. It was so upon the field of the first Bull Run battle, where the rebel army was encamped for six months afterwards. Perhaps like the people of Gettysburg, they wanted to know first "who was to pay them for it." After that battle, the soldiers hastened in pursuit of the retiring columns of Lee, leaving a large number of the dead unburied. The Gettysburgers were loud in their complaints, and indignantly made the above quoted inquiry as to the remuneration, upon being told they must finish the burial rites themselves.
Among the unburied on the Bull Run field, a singular discovery was made, which might have led to the identification of the remains of a soldier. An orderly turning over a skull upon the ground, heard something within it rattle, and searching for the supposed bullet, found a glass eye.
When looking at large numbers of the dead we seek out memories similar incidents such as the Bhopal disaster (1984) with its chemical release or Hillsbourgh (1989) in a football stadium. Photography documents events that are long forgotten but does it capture the emotions of an event extending over hours? A single shot taken in a fraction of a second may be all we can judge a situation from.
On 20 May 1896 there was a celebration to mark to coronation of Czar Nicholas II in Moscow. As a part of the festivities the Czar's dole consisting of an "ornamental tin-mug, a sausage, a gingerbread cake, a bag of nuts, and sweets, tied up in a cotton print handkerchief with stamped views of the Kremlin" was to be handed out to a crowd of over half a million. The pushing crowds resulted in a panic and people were trampled to death in the thousands. The following excerpt from a contemporary newspaper account gives a sense of what happened:
All Friday night, May 20, crowds of men, women and children of the poorer class from the manufacturing districts of Moscow, with tens of thousands of moujiks living within a radius of 100 miles of the city, wended their way to the Khodinsky plain, where they lit fires and camped. Before 5 o'clock in the morning half a million people had assembled, awaiting the distribution of the bundles, which had been appointed to begin at 10 o'clock. Many of the vast crowd of tired and hungry peasants and workmen began to clamour for the gifts before 6 o'clock Impatience and disorderliness became contagious, and soon thousands began squeezing, cursing, yelling, and fighting to reach the booths first to secure food and drink and the coveted souvenirs of the coronation. The deafening din, combined with the menacing attitude of the crowd, terrified the distributors, who sought to pacify them by throwing bundles to the foremost ranks. This aggravated the danger, for the people, fought, crushed, and trampled each other to death, and desperate rivalry soon changed to a terrible conflict for life.
The horrors of the scene were indescribable In the narrow passages between the booths hundreds fell suffocated, and were flattened like pancakes by the maddened crowds which swept over them. Order was not restored until 8 o'clock, when the plain presented the aspect of a battle-field. Thousands of crushed bodies were lying about. Many were trodden out of recognition, with their eyes hanging out of the sockets, and broken legs and arms. Some were almost stripped of clothing. Cries of pain, curses, and prayers were heard on all sides. The exact number of deaths is never likely to be known It is stated on good authority that the number will exceed 3500, while 1200 of the injured were convoyed to the hospitals apart from those taken to their homes.
The photograph is of the aftermath and the text is put together by journalists who did not necessarily witness the event. A photograph is always partial truth.
Towards the end of the Second World War (1939-1945) when it became apparent that Germany would lose the war and the Third Reich would fall there were a series of mass suicides in Leipzig. The motivations for the suicides were the collapse of the Nazi Party and its ideology and the fear of retribution from the Allied forces that were entering the homeland.
On the 18th April 1945 a number of officials of Leizig commited suicide in the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus). It is the photographs of the office of the Deputy Mayor Dr. jur. Ernst Kurt Lisso with his wife Renate Stephanie and daughter Regina Lisso photographed on or around 20th April 1945 by Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa and J. Malan Heslop who was a U.S Army Signal Corps photographer that show the scene.
"We all know that we are going to die one day, but it is very difficult to believe that it will really happen to us. Our motivation for this project was to overcome our own fear of facing up to death. The project goes some way to explore this."
Why did you decide it was important to depict death in your photographic work?
Sebald wrote that “Physicality is most strongly sculpted and its ‘nature’ most perceptible on the indistinct borderline with transcendency.” I seek to work near the body & to place the work on that borderline.
What would you say is the purpose, if any, of your post-mortem photography work? Are you just photographing the bodies, or do you seek something more?
I seek some of the presence of the body. The strength of damage & loss. The hardness & motions of time as laid on & under the skin. The feel.
As with all things that challenge our denial of death, the macabre and unsettling tone of your pictures could be regarded by some as obscene and disrespectful. Were you interested in a particular shock value, and how do you feel towards the taboo nature of your subject?
Do you remember the girl’s hair at the start of Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons? The hair is the girl’s years, eyes, nerves. Thus each hand & face.
When I enter the privacy of the dead it is with slow hard respect for their hands, arms, shoulders & eyes. The very few who take my prints into their hands & rooms—those I know of—see with the same discipline.
Was it difficult to approach the specimens, on a personal level?
Are there any particular and interesting anecdotes regarding the circumstances of some of your photographs?
Some time ago the work led to a town in the Peruvian Andes. Each morning at dawn a herd of alpacas was led to pasture down a narrow alley beyond the wall the bed was against. Their movement came up the wall through the bed as a series of vibrations. It was interesting at that point to get up & go to work with the dead of the 1500’s.
Would you like a post-mortem picture to be taken of you after you die?
Yes—provided the person who took it saw with my eyes, my past, my need.
Frank Rodick wrote this text in response to Irina Chmyreva's request for a statement regarding his work. Dr. Chmyreva is curating Rodick's exhibition, Faces Interred (October 2012, Krasnodar, Russia).
When artists write about their own work, what they usually come up with is an explanation or interpretation. They—we—try to answer the question What’s this work really all about?
The question is a good one and it's reasonable to ask it. But I’m not comfortable answering it, especially with this work. Whatever motivated me, whatever questions I was asking, whatever itch I was trying to scratch—the pictures are my answer. I think—I know— they’re a better answer than what I could tell you with words.
I’ll leave the interpretations to people more inclined and better suited to do just that. If you, dear viewer, take the time to look carefully at these pictures and say what you think is going on, well, I want you to know that I’m honoured by that.
What I will do is tell you the story behind these portraits. No, I’ll tell you a story, because I wouldn’t presume it’s the conclusive story, or that there even is one. One thing I know is how nebulous and muddy things get when it comes to the motives and emotions that exist within and between human beings.
Besides, I can’t say everything . . . and I’m certain the pictures know more than I do.
Frances Rodick gave birth to me. She lived a long time—long enough to be scarred by the Great Depression, to sit in front of the family TV set showing Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and to see the Twin Towers collapse. She lived long enough to see her family grow modestly, and then—through madness, disease, and rancor—wither. Long enough to develop a sharp and stormy mind and then lose it, piece by piece but in the end completely.
My mother was born into a life that would be one degree of separation from a great catastrophe that was acutely personal and terribly historical. She gave that horror a home inside herself, powered by a dark energy that snaked its way through every day, every corner, of her life. Through a process more relentless than calculated, she made sure that nightmare would, in an evolving incarnation, breathe and whisper inside me as well.
Frances' life and mine showed me that Ibsen was right: sin and mayhem will run through generations, like blood through an artery. And just as quietly.
In 2004, over six hazy days, I cremated my father and then institutionalized my mother, whose mind and body had fallen apart. As part of “managing things” I started the job of sifting through their belongings. These were people who saved everything. Just in case.
I found these photographs of my mother from 1942—the time when, unknown to her, her life's darkest star was beginning to burn most fiercely. They became my starting point. My father, Jack, took most of the pictures that came after—he loved photographing Frances—but not these. I don’t know who took them, just the date, written on the back.
After my father's death, my mother endured another six years of what might lazily be called life, existing in that crippled body and razed mind. One afternoon she looked at me and asked in a soft but clear voice, Did I ever have children? I told her “Yes, one,” but it took only that long for her mind to sink back into some other, unknown, world.
There are dozens of clichés about the death of one’s parents. Maybe the most common is the one that says it’s a reminder you’re next, that your time is coming. I don’t think that happened with me. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I was already fairly acquainted with mortality’s fact, even my own.
Watching my parents struggle I did see some of death’s work from up close. The way it makes seconds stretch into years and years collapse into moments. The way it makes doing that one last thing impossible: those words never said or taken back, that question never asked, the blessing wished for but never given.
There are things I admired about my mother. Her specific kind of generosity, with others if not herself. Her sense of humour. The way she rejected God and Heaven with unconcern, in spite of a life that wasn’t easy.
At her worst, Frances Rodick colluded with the spirits that tortured her, discharging an enraged and jagged pain into a shrunken world that in her own modest way she managed to mutilate if not destroy.
It was after her death that I started work on these images. I thought the timing was a coincidence, but maybe not. I forget who it was who said artists should create as if their parents are dead—because a parent can be the most insidious censor, the kind that does its business straight out of one’s mind and belly.
I began by laying out these old photos—pictures of Frances, and others too. I looked through my parents’ documents and papers, as many as I could find. Some were old—birth certificates, letters, business documents—and some more recent: wills, notes on medical care, the do-not-resuscitate orders and death certificates. Parts of the text you see on some of my pictures came from those documents.
I never had a plan in making this work.
Maybe these pictures of Frances are a kind of biography—of her, of me, of her and me stitched together in that sad and harrowing way we never stopped being. If they are, they’re a kind of hallucinatory biography, because, in the end, one hazards only a tremulous guess at knowing other people, including oneself and—especially—one’s parents. But if they are hallucinations, maybe they’re the kind Louis-Ferdinand Céline talked about: those fictions—some shining, some terrible—those fictions that are more real than everyday life itself. Sometimes that’s how it feels to me, and, as I think about it, that may even be where the remains of my hopes lie.
Text copyright 2012 Frank Rodick
Λ George Wheeler, 1876, India in 1875-76: The Visit of the Prince of Wales, (London: Chapman and Hall), p. 26
Λ There is a considerable literature on Victorian death – Pat Jalland, 2000m Death in the Victorian Family, (Oxford University Press); James Stevens Curl, 2000, The Victorian Celebration of Death, (Thrupp, Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd); Herbert F. Tucker & Gerhard Joseph, 2014, Passing On: Death, (John Wiley)
Λ Stanley Burns, 1990, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, (Twelvetrees Press); Stanley B. Burns & Elizabeth Burns, 2002, Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, American & European Traditions, (New York: Burns Archive Press); Stanley Burns, 2011, Sleeping Beauty III: Memorial Photography: The Children, (Burns Press)
Λ The Execution of Emperor Maximilian - Wikipedia
(Accessed: 23 August 2013) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Execution_of_Emperor_Maximilian
There are three oil paintings in different collections: Kunsthalle in Mannheim (Germany), National Gallery (London, UK) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (USA)
Λ 2006, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, (New York: Museum of Modern Art)
Λ François Aubert , [Emperor Maximilian's Firing Squad], Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005, Accession Number: 2005.100.580.1
Λ Jägern (after Karl von Stur), 1867-1868, [Empress Carlota mourning Emperor Maximilian], photograph, GRI Digital Collections, Object Number: 93.R.20
Λ Carlota of Mexico, born Charlotte of Belgium (Marie Charlotte Amélie Augustine Victoire Clémentine Léopoldine; 7 June 1840 - 19 January 1927), empress consort of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, the former Archduke of Austria.
Λ Felix Nadar, 1982, Le Paris Souterrain de Félix Nadar 1861, (Caisse nationale des monuments historiques et des sites) [catalogue conçu par Philippe Néagu et Jean-Jacques Poulet-Allamagny ; présentation conçue par Jean Barrou avec la collaboration de Jean-Jacques Poulet-Allamagny].
Λ Edmond de Goncourt (1822–96) and Jules de Goncourt (1830–70), French authors and diarists. See: Edmond de Goncourt & Jules de Goncourt, 2006,Pages from the Goncourt Journals , (New York Review Books Classics). Versions of their journals are available online.
Λ Goncourt brothers quoted in - Françoise Heilbrun; Philippe Néagu & Paul Neagu, Nadar, (Metropolitan Museum of Art), p. 99
Λ Quoted in - Françoise Heilbrun; Philippe Néagu & Paul Neagu, Nadar, (Metropolitan Museum of Art), p. 100
Λ The same applies to the photographs of the ash-covered corpses from Pompeii and the catacombs of Palermo. A few examples are sufficient to get a sense of the whole.
ΛThe Sydney Morning Herald (NSW, Australia) - Monday, 6 July 1896, p. 5
Λ On the same day SS guards burnt alive or shot around 300 the inmates at Leipzig-Thekla concentration camp three or fours northeast of Leipzig. The US Army 69th Infantry Division arrived at the camp on the 19th April 1945 and provided support to the 90-100 survivors.
The 69th Infantry Division - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
(Accessed: 30 April 2013) www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10006167
Λ Serrano walks the line between the sacred and the sensational in images such as Piss Christ and his recent The History of Sex. Serrano has stated that: "I think God created the body for a reason and we were meant to exploit it."
Andres Serrano in Richard Goldstein, "The Taboo Artist," The Village Voice, vol. XLII, no. 10 (March 11, 1997), 51.