Death in Art

Charles E Walton. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

This chapter is an attempt to highlight the theme of death as it has been portrayed in the visual media of art and photography. Birth and death, the beginning and end of life, have long been central themes in the mythology and art of all cultures. Death and dying are universal human experiences, no matter the historical era or cultural context, and those oriented toward visual representation have always attempted to articulate the experience of death in whatever medium was available. The subject of death has remained a constant throughout the ebb and flow of artistic movements and the introduction of new visual technologies. In this chapter, I hope to offer an incomplete history of death in art and photography and, furthermore, some theoretical explanation for the treatment of death in these visual mediums.

The task of deciding what to consider in the treatment of death and dying in art and photography is somewhat overwhelming. There are innumerable examples in multifarious forms, such as tombs, monuments, tapestries, etchings, engravings, sculptures, memorial photography, ghost photography, funeral photography, and crime scene photography. Although death and dying have always been common themes in the visual culture of all human societies, the various forms of corporeal representations are yet capable of lending us insight into historical constructions of self and the body, spirituality, morality, and the larger social order. Death, of course, can be dealt with directly or indirectly in art. The artist may be inclined to focus on some representation of a spiritual aspect of death, as in the treatment of the soul. The artist may also focus on the body, highlighting the physicality of death. Still another possibility is for the artist to consider the representation of those that survive the death of one of their fellows.

Visual Representations of Death

Representations of death must be understood in the context of the social construction of self, shifts in the evolution of identity, and the process of rationalization, which seemingly dominates the modern era. Not so long ago, people had a sense of familiarity with death that has eroded in the last century. Formerly, people died in their homes and were attended to by family; cemeteries were conceived as parks wherein people might wander about and perhaps ponder those buried beneath them (Lesy 1987). Ruby (1995) has suggested that in American society during the 19th century, death was not such an uncommon topic of conversation, and the practice of mourning was normalized as an acceptable public display of grief. Moreover, a good number of women entered into the conventional role of widow for a significant part of their lives.

In the wake of industrialization, we began to witness the rationalization of all facets of human life, including the end of it. Death became medicalized and compartmentalized such that we came to view it in a sterile context. Public displays of mourning came to be regarded as unsightly and hinted at some psychological malady. The subject of death was made taboo, only to be contemplated within the context of some horrific fantasy or hyperreality, never to be considered as it occurs quite naturally in the course of everyone’s life.

While natural death became more and more smothered in prudery, violent death has played an ever growing part in the fantasies offered to mass audiences—detective stories, thrillers, Westerns, war stories, spy stories, science fiction and eventually horror comics. (Gorer 1965:197)

These developments may also lend insight into the fetishization of death in contemporary culture and subsequently inform our understanding of the cultural contradictions that shroud death in the postmodern era. Death can simultaneously be regarded both as an “eternal sleep” or the gateway toward eternal life and as something catastrophic to be avoided at all costs.

Aries (1977) has suggested that there are also important links between constructions of the self and attitudes toward death. Shifts in Western society toward secular models of fulfillment have coincided with the evolution of identity, fueling the rise of individualism. In fact, as individuals become more aware of themselves, attitudes toward the representation of death and embodiment have changed. On one level, the act of viewing representations of death encourages the spectator or voyeur not only to objectify the body of the deceased but also to consider one’s own subjectivity, one’s own mortality. Some writers have suggested that representations of death and the dying also contain an element of contradiction and may convolute one’s understanding of the process of death.

The process of representation referred to here is therefore one which allows the dying and dead body to be made visible, yet at the same time functions to mask the material reality of embodied death and its destabilising effects. The radical disorder invoked by the dying and decaying body is countered by representations which “fix” this process in the form of an image. (Hallam, Hockey, and Howarth 1999:24)

The Functions of Death In Art and Photography

Regarding the functions of visual representations of death, particularly those of mortuary portraiture and funeral photography, it is clear that they are most often used in the process of mourning. Historically, such images may have been useful as private artifacts to aid the bereaved in coping with the loss of a loved one. The subjective need to use such images in the process of mourning is juxtaposed with the shift in public attitudes that seemingly serve to deny death. “Americans take and use photographs of our dead relatives and friends in spite of and not because of society’s expectation about the propriety of these images” (Ruby 1995:1). Paintings, sculptures, tombs, photographs, and the like have symbolic utility in that they offer individuals a framework within which from which they can generate meaning in the face of death.

Visual representations of death may also be understood in the context of realism. Aside from any symbolic utility that such representations of death have, these images are adept at documenting the visceral effect that death has on its survivors, as well as its physicality and finality. The visual medium offers us an alternative sensory experience of death that may not be captured by language. “Death loves to be represented…The image can retain some of the obscure, repressed meanings that the written word filters out. Hence its power to move us so deeply” (Aries 1985:11). Rubens’s The Consequences of War (1637-1638), Goya’s etchings portraying Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, and Matthew Brady’s Civil War photography document the historical fact that death is forever the endgame of war. Yearnshire’s Police Pathology Photographs (1990s), depict the violence and death that might befall one on the street. Serrano’s (1992) The Morgueseries of photographs not only highlights the many forms of death, but also how such various forms distort the body, as inRat Poison Suicide, Knifed to Death I, Fatal Meningitis, Shotgun Suicide, and Pneumonia Death. Whereas Serrano’s photographs exhibit the immediacy of the agency of death in the subject, Fox’s (1996-97) disturbing series of Untitled photographs shows the violence done to the body after death has claimed its victim in the form of the medicalized postscript—the autopsy.

The Social Construction of Meaning In Death-Related Art

The classical theorist Vilfredo Pareto (1916) held that one of the six classes of residues, constants throughout human history that serve to motivate action, is the externalization of sentiment through the social act. Certainly, death-related art is most often understood in this context. Mortuary painting and a good portion of postmortem photography are representations that serve the bereaved in the process of mourning. In addition, such images also figure into the social construction of one’s own identity in that they mediate one’s relation to the deceased. The representation becomes symbolic of what once was but will never be again.

Photographic images were used to record the end of life but also to overcome this end in that they provided the dead with a visible presence within domestic spaces. The physical features of particular family members were preserved, thereby providing a means by which a person was held within view and incorporated into the continuing life histories of relatives. Post-mortem photography therefore operated as a representation which provided a basis for the narrative reconstruction of the deceased’s life. (Hallam et al. 1999:35)

The act of visually recording death may be read as both a means to keep the memory of the dead engaged in the living and as a vehicle for the emotional distancing engendered in an attempt to manage the death of a loved one. Photographing a dead family member who has been dressed and posed for the occasion by the funeral (“art”) director may offer one the illusion of control over death.

However, some of the artists that Chris Townsend (1998) features in his book Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking may well challenge the view of “controlled death.” Townsend’s artists graphically show the tenuousness and vulnerability of life, the disembodiment of self. These photographs quite simply document the limitations of our bodies and suggest a loss of control.

Death operates on the margins in contemporary society. Townsend (1998) cites a “radical change” that occurs at the end of the 20th century, leaving the only public displays of death imagery to the hyperreal depictions of “cinematic violence.” Ordinary death is rarely depicted in lieu of the fantastic spectacles of homicide, natural disaster, and war. This void of representations of ordinary death may explain the postmodern curiosity that envelops artists such as Fox and Serrano. The secret world of the morgue and the medical examiner is exposed, as we are witness to the deconstruction of the body.

Historically, mourning portraits or funeral photography served the bereaved individuals as material objects employed in the private experience of mourning. Now, many of these images have been transformed and decontextualized as art, hung in the gallery for the voyeuristic public to ponder.

So what role can such images play for us? What are we looking at, and why do we look? Goldin in particular has been accused of exploiting her subjects and glamourising their deaths. Critics have suggested that the objectification of a traumatic bodily experience, photographing death, mitigates the effect of that experience upon the artist. It also acts as a protective device for the spectator. Seeing the dying body reinforces our sense of our own integrity, our bodily health. (Townsend 1998:135)

Viewing images of death may also serve as an invitation to consider one’s own mortality. Death-related art fixes on a fundamental component of the human condition, the imminent demise of the individual, the eventual end that will meet us all. We are encouraged to witness the death of others so that we might make some sense of our own.

The History of Images of Death

A few writers (e.g., Aries 1985; Ruby 1995; Jupp and Gittings 1999) have discussed the historical portrayal of death in visual media. In Ruby’s (1995) seminal Secure the Shadow, the author suggests that we take a “social approach to photography,” an approach that has been neglected, given the elitist notions about photography as art that inform most histories of art and photography. We should extend this argument to the whole of art—that is, to present a social history of photography and art with respect to the representation of death. The suggestion here is to reject modernist ideals as to what art or photography is suitable for deliberation and study. Just as the art scholar has privileged certain photographs as art, so has he or she made those distinctions with regard to the medium of painting. In the interest of cultivating an understanding of how images of death have been constructed and, furthermore, how they have been used, it is important to consider the low-brow genres of mourning portraiture and funeral photography as well as the funerary art of the Ga in Africa—the folk art coffins that are custom built to call attention to one’s vocation, hobby, or social status (Secretan 1995). Such objects take on an exceptional relevance in the insight they offer the viewer with respect to defining prevailing attitudes about death, given the time period and cultural context. Thus what is offered here is a sociology of art and less a study of aesthetics.

The collection of Egyptian mummies, decorated coffins, and other funerary figures now housed at Emory University dates back to 1070 B.C. The amazing coffins are detailed with great visual narratives of those having been buried intertwined with images representative of Egyptian theology. A typical scene might include the weighing of the deceased’s heart by Anubis, the god of embalming. The outcome of this spiritual weighing will ultimately determine the fate of the deceased (Lacovara, D’Auria, and O’Gorman 2001).

In Jupp and Gittings’s (1999) Death in England: An Illustrated History, the authors deliver a social history of death, albeit located in a specific Anglo-Saxon cultural context. The collection of authors here draw from various forms with which to represent the history of death, including tombs, monuments, tapestries, drawings, carvings, paintings, cartoons, and photographs. In this far-reaching work, the authors are able to chart the incredible shifts in attitudes toward death and dying, dating from prior to the Bronze Age up to the untimely death of Princess Diana in 1997.

The authors make reference to several tombs that survive from the Roman period, many of which highlight the brevity of life in that particular era. This text featured early representations of the role that Christianity would play in shaping attitudes toward death in the Western world. An English ivory carving, ca. 800, believed to have perhaps been a book cover, illustrates the earliest known representation of the Last Judgment, wherein the dead are arisen to meet Christ to the tune of angelic trumpeters.

The Bayeux Tapestry (1081) depicts the funeral of Edward the Confessor, King of Anglo-Saxon England until 1066.

The image stresses the public nature of royal funerals, both in that it was a great spectacle at the time and also in that it was worthy of commemoration in the Tapestry, carrying the image to a wider audience. We learn from it that, at the grandest funerals at least, the shrouded corpse was on display, carried on an elaborate bier, accompanied by the ringing of bells and a cortege including men with books, possibly choristers. (Daniell and Thompson 1999:84)

Many early representations suggest that it was normative for family members and friends to be attendant at the deathbed and that the coming of death was not altogether unwelcome. In Christian cultures, the community would be alerted to the impending death of a fellow by the ringing of a handbell to summon the priest to perform last rites. Death in the community was a social occasion to be acknowledged and experienced publicly.

Religious themes intertwined with death are ubiquitous in medieval art as in The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse: Death with Hell following after, believed to date back to the latter part of the 13th century. Hell is represented here in the form of “Hell mouth,” a gaping bestial jaw full of forlorn souls. The jaw is set upon feet and a devil of sorts is perched atop the heads of these unfortunate fellows. “Death” wears a halo and sits on the horse leading a procession, with “Hell mouth” following close behind, and a haloed evangelist (who looks not unlike “Death”) bringing up the rear.

Another feature of medieval art depicting funerals and burials is the use of shrouds in the preparation of the body for internment.

The practice of rolling the corpse in the shroud and tying or knotting the edges in bunches at head and feet seems to have come into use in the course of the fourteenth century, and the illustration of the dead coming out of their tombs in the Holkham Bible Picture Book, which dates from the second quarter of the century, includes a single example among the various styles of shroud. (Horrox 1999:99)

Christianity also informs the numerous martyr paintings from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. These paintings typically offer us visual narratives highlighting the executions of many who would become saints, individuals who were brutally killed because they would not renounce their faith, and in fact, some who could woo followers with miracles even as they faced persecution as in the case of St. Venantius. Scarsellino is thought to have painted Martyrdom of St. Venantius of Camerino, ca. 1600. The painting depicts the execution of a 15-year-old martyr in the middle of the third century. Venantius was known to have converted his captors having been exiled by the Roman Prefect and made to live outside the city walls. He allegedly relieved the thirst of his guards by drawing water out of a stone. Ensuing conversions prompted his execution and decapitation (Pignatti 1985). Other impressive martyr paintings include Sebastiano’s Martyrdom of St. Agatha (1520), Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, ca. 1473, and Titian’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, ca. 1550.

Another popular theme in death-related art that emerges in the 15th century is the “Dance of Death.” These works generally depict a line of individuals, varied according to class rank, who are dancing as skeletons or in some state of decomposition, toward their graves. Thomas Rowlandson is thought to have mocked this motif in The Dance of Death, ca. 1814-16, by juxtaposing the elaborate funerary of the wealthy with the lack thereof for the poorer classes. But Morgan (1999) suggests that such depictions support the view that death was held as the great equalizer and that class privilege was not an agent of control in the face of death. Quite simply, death came for and humbled all, despite one’s class position.

Gittings (1999) has written about the secularization of death that occurs in the 16th and 17th centuries, which in part can be understood in the broader changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation—in particular, the ban on religious imagery. During this period, there was a commingling of sacred and secular imagery in the portraiture of the day. One of the more impressive examples of this trend is to be seen in Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife (1635) by John Souch. Sir Thomas Aston had commissioned the portrait in the wake of his wife’s death during childbirth, a common fate of women of the period.

Gittings (1999) highlights several references to death in the portrait aside from the widower sitting at the deathbed of his deceased wife. For example, Aston’s left hand palms a skull that rests atop an empty black cradle with the rather curious Latin inscription “Who sows in flesh will reap bones.” The younger Thomas, who survives, holds a crosslike figure that records the death of yet another sibling. Finally, Gittings (1999) is insightful in pointing out another female figure in mourning that sits at the edge of the deathbed. The author suggests that this is either a female relative of the deceased or perhaps the deceased herself mourning the loss of her child if not her own life. In the case of death in childbirth, the viewer is reminded of the dialectic of birth and death.

The Judd Marriage Portrait (1560) by an unknown artist is another piece wherein marriage, as a rite of passage, is intertwined with death. In the painting, a couple takes their marriage vows with their hands placed on a skull, a common representation of death during the period. Beneath the skull lies the partially shrouded decaying body of a man. Marriage and death are compared as transient rites of passage relative to the permanence of eternity (Gittings 1999). An inscription on the base of the alter reads, “The word of God hath knit us twain and death shall us divide again,” while an inscription on the bier reads, “Live to die and die to live eternally.”

The Protestant ban on religious imagery resulted in a general lack of portrayals of the afterlife. Given the ban, the many deathbed scenes that were commonly painted during the early part of the 17th century tended to accentuate the more secular aspects of death. Thomas Braithwaite of Ambelside making his Will (1607) by an unknown artist offers us a good example of such a painting. The 31-year-old subject is sitting up in his bed with a confidant preparing his will, his worldly duty.

Gittings (1999) offers further evidence for the use of portraits and monuments in the process of mourning. Among wealthy families, those who survived the deceased would, in some cases, commission work to be done to commemorate the death of a loved one. Examples include the aforementioned Aston family portrait, Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby on her Deathbed (1633) by Sir Anthony van Dyck, and a monument marking the death of Lord Teynham erected in 1622 at Lynsted Church in Kent, England. Although in most cases it was the bereaved family members who made such requests of artists and sculptors, the poet John Donne commissioned his own mourning portrait, as a means of preparing for his imminent death. The picture was made to show Donne as though he were already deceased, wrapped in a shroud and with his eyes shut. The painting no longer remains, but a lifesize effigy of Donne in his shroud stands in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Death-related art, especially British art, of the latter part of the 17th century highlights the impact on a population lessened by plague, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis, and dysentery, among other diseases. There are works from this period that exhibit the mass graves that accommodated some of the victims of the last great outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665 in England.

The artist William Hogarth documents some practices surrounding death in the 18th century. Hogarth’s engraving, The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747), portrays a chaotic crowd surrounding the very public spectacle of execution during this period, the so-called festival of punishment, and is a suggestion that capital punishment served as a form of entertainment. Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Funeral Party (1731) offers us a window into a private gathering of those who mourn a harlot by sharing some wine and having a last look at the deceased as she lays in an open coffin before they make the trip to the church for the funeral.

In the work of the 19th century, the influence of the romantic period is evident in the work of painters such as Henry Wallis, whose The Death of Chatterton (1856) surely serves to romanticize the suicide of the 17-year-old poet. The bard lies lifeless on a bed with shreds of verse and an empty arsenic bottle on the floor. Hundreds of young men sought to affect a brooding personality, to be fashionably melancholy, and it is suggested that perhaps for the first time in the popular culture, suicide might serve to heighten one’s celebrity, as in the case of the minor poet Chatterton. Death by suicide or otherwise was something that became treated with a certain sense of sentimentality during this period.

This new sentimentality attached to death is reflected in the notion that even domestic animals may be engaged in practice of mourning. Edwin Landseer’s The Old Shepard’s Chief Mourner (1837) offers us a depiction of a loyal canine that mourns the loss of his master to the extent that he rests his snout on the top of the coffin.

Thomas Banks’s Monument to Penelope Boothby (1793), which resides in Ashbourne Church in Derbyshire, England, generally regarded as one of the first romantic sculptures, portrays the dead child as though she were merely asleep. This of course, would become a staple theme in the mortuary photography of deceased children in later years. Queen Charlotte is said to have wept openly on first observing the memorial when it was first shown in the Royal Academy.

William Blake’s Epitome of Hervey’s “Meditation among the Tombs” (1820-25) served to reject earlier suggestions that death need bring an end to earthly unions. In fact, in Blake’s painting, it is clear that the painter is at odds with Hervey’s view on the matter. Blake’s Heaven is largely characterized by the central theme of reunion; departed spouses and children all meet their loved ones in this glorious afterlife.

Another sort of death that would be romanticized during the 19th century was death as the result of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis, of course, took a greater toll on the poorer classes because it was fueled by overcrowding and poor sanitation. It was not in the poorer classes, however, where this dreaded disease was idealized, given their familiarity with it. Henry Peach Robinson’s photograph, Fading Away (1858), comprising five negatives, offers a typical representation of a consumptive death in the Victorian era. The victim is a beautiful young woman whose innocence is assumed even as she wastes away on her deathbed.

Two reasons might be suggested for the Victorian idealization of such a terrible disease. First consumptives usually fit the romantic stereotype because of their youth, and the disproportionate number of women who were rendered delicate and emaciated by the wasting disease. Until 1865 many more young females than males died of pulmonary tuberculosis, leading to Pre-Raphaelite images of a disease which killed young, innocent and beautiful women. Second, slow consumptive deaths of young women were also sometimes idealized by Evangelical clergymen and doctors wishing to represent the “Good Christian Death” as a blessing in disguise which allowed time and mental clarity for spiritual preparation. (Jalland 1999:235)

The Doctor (1891) by Sir Luke Fildes was an enormously popular painting that often could be found hanging in doctors’ waiting rooms in the latter part of the Victorian period. The painting depicts the bedside manner of a caring physician as if he is to ensure the peaceful death of the fisherman’s child in his charge. Jalland (1999) suggests that the painting serves to idealize a death that was more often than not anything but peaceful in addition to perpetuating the myth that caring doctors were always within the reach of poor folk.

The Art of War

Several important figures in the history of Western Art have attempted representations of war and the death that it entails. Peter Paul Reubens’s The Consequences of War (1637-38) creates an idealized image of the ill effects of war that tends toward the Romantic, perhaps ahead of its time. The painter invokes the fickle gods of Roman mythology as they intervene in the fate of Reubens’s Europe. Reubens is known to have offered his own in-depth analysis of the painting in a letter to a friend. In Death and the Humanities (1984), the author offers a summary of the painter’s vision:

Because it is the lightest, the figure that first catches the eye is that of Venus surrounded by cupids. Exerting all her powers of persuasion, she is grasping the arm of the dark figure of Mars, trying to restrain him. He has thrust open the temple of war and, brandishing his sword, is threatening the world with disaster. He is urged forward by the figures of Fury, Pestilence, and Famine. All about him lie symbols of the destruction of human culture. Harmony, with a broken lute, sits on the ground with her back to the viewer. The mother and child, symbols of the helpless, attempt to escape. A figure representing an architect for enterprises of peace lies upon his back, his instruments scattered. Books are trampled under the foot of Mars; the olive branch lies wilting on the ground. The wailing woman next to Venus is, allegorically, Europe, victim of plunder, outrage, and misery. (Scholl 1984:81-82)Francisco Goya is certainly an artist that must be mentioned when reviewing the most important works that depict the ravages of war. Goya, in 1814, produced a number of etchings that serve to illustrate the devastation left in the wake of Napoleon’s path when his troops invaded Spain. Goya specifically chose the medium of etching for its potential to be reproduced and made accessible to the public. The artist was intent on using his work as a means of resistance propaganda to show the heinous victimization of the Spanish citizenry and the callousness and indifference of the aggressors.

One of Picasso’s most significant historical works is Guernica (1937), which the painter created in response to the leveling of a Basque town of the same name by a Nazi air raid in April 1937 (Boeck and Sabartes 1955). This amazing painting, which Picasso worked on tirelessly in 1937, has been the subject of a plethora of interpretations, none of which concur as to the meaning of content or its symbolic intent. When one looks at the later manifestations of the painting, as in the case of Guernica IV (1937), the viewer is easily decentered and overwhelmed by the images that Picasso has crammed onto the canvas so that the painting can barely contain them. A general opinion has been that the painter offered the painting as a vehicle of protest against the horrors of modern warfare and intended its use in a political context. Picasso, however, had suggested himself that there were no conscious political references in any of his works. Only after great debate with an American painter in 1944 did the painter admit that there is the potential for unconscious political references in an artist’s work (Boeck and Sabartes 1955).

Scholl (1984) suggests that Picasso used distortion and abstraction to convey both emotional and rational meaning.

There are some significant internal religious allusions; the screaming mother with the dead child recalls the reverse imagery of the Madonna and child. The naked bulb shedding its light is a metaphor for the all-seeing eye of God, identifiable as far back in history as ancient Egypt. The screaming bird caught between horse and bull is reminiscent of the dove of the Holy Spirit or its near relation, the dove of peace. (Scholl 1984:82)

Scholl (1984) also regards the bull as the representation of physical violence. Consider, however, an alternative interpretation offered by Boeck and Sabartes (1955) as they comment on still another critic’s account of the painting:

Thus we may agree with Larrea that the bull symbolizes the continuity of the Spanish nation, and hence is shown protecting the lamenting mother, whose child Larrea, no doubt correctly, regards as alive. The bird to the right of the bull may also be a symbol of hope, particularly because it seems to be the successor to the little winged horse emerging from the wound of the larger horse in an earlier drawing. (Boeck and Sabartes 1955:231)

Obviously, there is a great deal of variance with regard to the specific meanings of certain images in the painting, but it is clear that Picasso painted Guernica to document and perhaps protest the human and animal suffering that results from technological warfare.

War Photography

Ruby (1995) suggests that the emergence of the “illustrated press” in the mid-19th century served to offer a visual representation of death, most often in periods of war. Certainly the celebrated Civil War photographer Mathew Brady did the most to usher in the age of a new visual medium, the photograph. These photographs present a realism with regard to visual representations of death not known prior. Although there is a growing sense of doubt about the authenticity of some war photography, most notably of Gardner’s Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863 and Capa’s Republican Militiaman Who Has Just Been Shot, Cordoba Front, Spain (1936), the record suggests that the people who viewed these photographs at the time of their production did not have any reservations about their validity; this seems to have been particularly true with regard to the photographs of the American Civil War.

Stapp (1988) has argued that staging Civil War photographs was a utilitarian device insomuch as photography quickly became a propaganda weapon to convey the “official truths” about the conflict. If a photograph or the staging thereof had to be manipulated for greater effect, then so be it; the “moral ends” justified the often suspect means. The irony, of course, is that the photograph would emerge as the supreme testament to reality, an objective witness to the facts.

People were taken with these new incredible images that appeared to capture men as they met their horrible ends. The immediacy of these photographs captivated the public’s imagination, as in the case with Brady’s exhibition of early Civil War photographs in 1862. An editorial printed in the October 20, 1862, edition of the New York Times read, “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Brady was a director of photography in the sense that he employed about 20 photographers to work in the field, and so “his” photographs are in effect the result of a rather large cooperative effort wherein negative and prints were so freely exchanged that it is difficult in several cases to identify who actually took the photograph (Meredith, 1946). Some of Brady’s more impressive photographs include At The Hanging (1865), which documents the executions of John Wilkes Booth and accomplices; Embalming Surgeon At Work, ca. 1865, which features Dr. Burr embalming a slain soldier in order to send his body back to the North to be buried; Confederate Dead in Fort Mahone (1865), which depicts several Confederate soldiers as they lie dead in a trench in Petersburg; and, of course, On The Antietam Battlefield (1862), which portrays a line of bodies that stretches a far as one can see in the photograph, soldiers who fell in the bloodiest battle in American history.

Ruby (1995) lends us insight into the importance of war photography as well as news photography in documenting significant historical events:

News photography offers us the unique “privilege” of being a witness to historically important events that often involve someone’s death. Perhaps photography’s most “decisive moment” comes when the camera is present at the moment of death. Dramatic, if not theatrical images, like the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald or the 1972 Kent State National Guard riot with Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling by the body of Jeff Miller, or General Loan shooting the Viet Cong suspect on the streets of Saigon all won the Pulitzer prize. (P. 20)

In Leekley and Leekley’s 1982 book Moments, the authors show that over half the photographs that won the Pulitzer Prize featured either a death or homicide.

Ghost Photography

Ghost photography, or spirit photography, emerged in the mid-19th century as many photographers advertised themselves as mediums whose photographs were entirely capable of capturing the images from the spirit world. Most regard spirit photography as spurious—that is, they believe that the work was the product of flaws on the film, tricks done with lighting, or perhaps simply the feat of superimposing one image onto another. William Mumler is the first known ghost photographer who in 1861 claimed to have photographed himself and a “spirit extra.” William Hope is regarded as the most prolific among the spirit photographers in that he claimed he had taken 2,500 such photographs in a 20-year period (Taylor 1999).

Although most spirit photographs are believed to have been hoaxes, there are a few that escape explanations, given the usual tricks of the trade. For example, The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (1936), taken by Captain Provand in Norfolk, England, while doing a story for Country Life Magazine has not been explained away. Another photograph, perhaps even more convincing, was taken by the Reverend R. W. Hardy at Queen’s House, Greenwich, London, in 1966. In Hardy’s photograph, there appears to be a woman coming down a staircase. Taylor (1999) writes that even the experts at Kodak could not come up with a rational explanation as to what the image was or how it got there. One can easily make the case that photographs such as Provand’s and Hardy’s serve to inform the debate as to the existence of the paranormal.

Postmortem Photography

In Jay Ruby’s (1995) detailed study of postmortem photography, Secure the Shadow, the author takes issue with other writers who suggest that the practice of photographing the dead, which dates in America back to the 1840s, has waned in the interim. Photography made more accessible the notion that one could procure some visual documentation of their beloved deceased. The author concludes on the basis of his research that photographing the dead has been more common among the lower middle classes, but there are ample examples to suggest that the practice is not confined to that particular station.

Given the historical shift in attitudes toward death that has taken place over the past two centuries, the contemporary societal reaction against postmortem photography has indicated that most regard it as morose and perhaps unhealthy. These changes in Western attitudes toward death is what is unhealthy, the denial of death, or the incessant need to turn it into some hyperreal fantasy precludes any social learning or understanding about something so ubiquitous that it will bear consequences for all.

The reasons why Americans do not generally know about postmortem photography are complex and revealing about our attitudes toward death. The absence of any public knowledge of these activities is a reflection of our general studied ignorance about death and the cultural activities surrounding it. In times past Americans were more open about these practices than they are now. In fact, some people are so uncomfortable with the idea of a photograph of a corpse or funeral that they destroy any images of death should they discover them in their family photo collection. Several corpse photographs I acquired for this study were given to me by people who removed them from their family photo collection because they wanted them out of their homes. (Ruby 1995:52)

Postmortem photographs are no less common today then they were in the 19th century and early 20th century. The reason for this misconception about the decline in volume of postmortem photography is that we become more familiar with those postmortem photographs of old because they are more likely to be commodified in the context of the art world as well as in the decidedly lower-brow world of flea market culture as collectibles. Once such photographs have been commodified, they are decontextualized and their original meanings are erased. These decontextualized photographs are then looked on as objects worthy of consideration in an aesthetic sense or as a marker of history.

Ruby (1995) also points out important differences between postmortem photography and its precursor, mortuary painting. The author observes that the death photographer is more likely to be bound by realism than the painter, given the nature of the medium. Distinct styles emerged in postmortem photography in the mid-19th century. One such style seemingly attempted to deny death; for example, the trend toward presenting the deceased as though they were asleep worked to create the effect that the deceased was “alive, yet dead.” The notion of portraying the dead as though they were asleep is common in painting, as in the case of George Lambdin’s The Last Sleep (1859). Interestingly, in Secure the Shadow (1995) Ruby features a stereograph from the mid to late 19th century of a deceased child posed as though asleep with arms crossed and an inscription on the side that reads “The Last Sleep.” This evidence further suggests some contradictions with respect to death; that is, the subject moves between the living and the dead, to be dead but among the living. Photographing the dead was most certainly a trade, and an aspiring young daguerreotypist or photographer could stay abreast of the latest techniques used to pull off the illusion that a dead person was asleep by reading the literature of the discipline.

Another style that can be highlighted from the period was the practice of exhibiting the deceased in the company of mourners. The funeral is a social occasion; its purpose is for the living, not for the dead. A funeral may serve as an occasion for a reunion or an opportunity to see those one may be geographically distant from. Occasionally, mourners, most likely extended family and friends, would be positioned around an open casket or at a grave. Dead children, however, were often photographed dressed and placed in the arms of their grieving mothers. Secure the Shadow (Ruby 1995) features several photographs of parents in the company of their dead children who are most often dressed and posed for the picture. These photographs offer insight into the rarely observed world wherein the dead and the living “interact” for the camera, for posterity, to maintain the myth of life.

Michael Lesy’s (1973) incredible visual and written record of the American Midwest in the 1890s, Wisconsin Death Trip, cuts and pastes together the work of a “competent town photographer,” Charles Van Schaick, and newspaper accounts written and compiled by a father-son team, Frank and George Cooper. Lesy (1973) suggests that we will find the contents of the visual and written texts he has arranged a bit curious and perhaps otherworldly, but he implores that the reader must understand that such images were common in their time period and such stories, mundane. Again, it is the decontextualization of these images and newspaper stories, the housing of them in an “art book,” that renders them such a strange curiosity.

The frankness with which the news is delivered in the Badger State Banner does not hide death, nor does it seek to sanitize it. Consider the following excerpts from the paper: “Henry Johnson, an old bachelor of Grand Dyke, cut off the heads of all his hens recently, made a bonfire of his best clothes, and killed himself with arsenic…” or “Curtis Ricks, the ossified man, died at his home in Racine. Mr. Hicks since 1879 [has] been a helpless invalid. About 8 years ago his joints began to stiffen and his flesh to turn to bone….For the past 2 years he has been traveling as a ‘freak.’ Hicks was formerly a well-known engineer on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis road. He leaves a wife and 7 children” (quoted in Lesy 1973:58). Wisconsin Death Trip is filled with tales of loss, the result of diphtheria, suicide, insanity, and murder. There are several photographs of some of the many child victims of diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and diphtheria, diseases that put children at risk for fatality at a greater rate than adults. These fully dressed dead children are photographed in their respective caskets, sometimes in the company of mourners, sometimes with another dead child, a sibling perhaps, because some families were prone to lose more than one child in close proximity to another and in some cases on the same day.

Most recently in Chris Townsend’s (1998) Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking, the author devotes an entire chapter to the topic of death and features artists whose work was mentioned earlier, such as Sue Fox and Andres Serrano. The artists that Townsend considers here come from different vantage points. Fox’s study of autopsy photography came about as an attempt to deal with her own fears about death, whereas Serrano’s photographs are clearly produced with some aesthetic in mind. John Yearnshire’s work presented in Vile Bodies (Townsend 1998) is the product of his police work, whereas Nick Waplington’s “homicide victims” walk away after the shoot.

The dead body is both the photographic body par excellence and an impossible body. In the images of Sue Fox and John Yearnshire we see the human stripped of humanity, reduced to meat and then to ash. To photograph death is to anticipate one’s own, so too to look at such an image. (P. 11)


In the postmodern era, death is relegated to the margins of society, something to be ignored, even as our televisions and movie screens are overrun with hyperreal images of death. It may be, as Aries (1985) has suggested, that death is no longer capable of signifying any meaning. Death has been rationalized and relegated to the “appropriate institutions” whose business death becomes—hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral homes. Even as Western society has come to deny death, there are still those among us in the business of visually documenting death. Townsend’s artists are some of those still recording images of the dead. They are not alone, however.

As Ruby (1995) and others have suggested, attitudes toward death have changed such that photographing the dead has become regarded with morbid fascination if not symptomatic of some pathology. Death, as well as birth, has been made invisible in our culture to some extent. Yet despite social convention, the practice of visually recording the dead may still serve important functions for a society in denial of death.

Paintings such as Gary Sollars’s Philip Munro, my partner, died 13.1.89, aged 34 (1995), document the anxiety and human devastation brought about by new diseases such as AIDS. Monuments to commemorate fallen combatants in various wars continue to be built, such as the most recent construction of the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, which depicts in sculpture the bravery and horror of those who came upon the beach at Normandy. Recently, walking through the halls of a local community college, I observed a student art exhibition, mainly done in collage, that featured the human toll of September 11, 2001. Discussion and debate continues as to what might be an appropriate monument to those who died in the attacks of that fateful day. The victims of the Oklahoma City bombing were memorialized with a monument that featured rows of empty chairs to represent the great loss suffered in that terrorist attack.

It is clear that even in such a sterile and hyperrationalized world as ours, there remains a social need to visually record death, whether it be in a public domain such as the case with the aforementioned monuments or in the subjective experience of mourning the loss of a loved one as in the case of funeral photography. As noted here, representations of death may vary according to culture and time period but never altogether fade from view.