‘The Last Image: Photography and Death’ presents the endeavour of artists throughout the ages to grapple with the mysterious concept of mortality through the medium of photography.
With over four hundred works, the collection is divided into three main sections: ‘Dying’, ‘Killing’ and ‘Surviving’ which explore the human compulsion to produce a lasting image of life after it has been extinguished.
As this exhibition illuminates through fine art, journalistic and scientific photographs, death is an inherent part of the medium of photography itself. For Susan Sontag a photograph is “both a psuedo-presence and a token of absence.” Photographs represent reality, but only ever in a past moment. They portray life and death, presence and absence, simultaneously.
Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in the post-mortem funeral pictures of the early nineteenth century, which were presented in glass cases in the ‘Dying’ part of the exhibition. Limp bodies dressed in smart clothes – their hair neat and faces powdered – were presented, in death, in the manner in which they lived. With eyes closed, their vacant expressions give the illusion of a person dreaming, rather than a person who is no longer alive.
G. M. Howe, Older Child Propped on Pillow and Tucked in Bed, ca. 1853, Daguerreotype . Courtesy Stanley B. Burns, MD Photography Collection and The Burns Archive, New York
Photographs taken after death were a way of immortalising the departed. Post-mortem photography became central to the grieving process of the loved ones left behind – a way to deal with, and perhaps even defy, the finiteness of death.
The most disturbing images of all in this section were the pictures of dead infants – their corpses propped up in lifelike poses as if still among the living.
Striking, too, were photographs of women in coffins, interred with a mass of flowers arranged around their heads. Ostensibly, the aesthetic decoration of a corpse created a more palatable image of death for those left to grieve – a concept that can be seen in wider traditions of nineteenth century culture.
In literature of this period, the trope of the beautiful, dead beloved, made only more lovely by the seal of mortality, reflected ideas about love and memory. Arranging the corpse like a work of art allowed the dead body to be preserved as a lasting image in the mind of the still-living lover.
The next part of the exhibition takes the viewer from the funeral to the morgue in a series of images about murder. ‘The Morgue (Rat Poison Suicide I)’ by Andreas Serano, presents a body – or part of one, at least – post-mortem. In the image, the foot of a cadaver lies lifeless on a crumpled body bag. Stark white flesh, coloured only by a gaping wound beneath the body’s left ankle, is made visible against an oblique background.
Andres Serrano, Rat Poison Suicide II, a.d.S. The Morgue, 1992 Cibachrome © Andres Serrano, 2018 . Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles
Photographs taken in a medical setting such as this often serve to distance the viewer from their severity. The body’s individuality is reduced to a lifeless specimen on an operating table.
Photographs in journalism and media can arguably have a similar effect on the beholder. ‘The Last Image’ presents photographs of high profile deaths in the last century. Images of John Kennedy’s murder plastered in newspapers and periodicals of the time, each accompanied by catchy headlines and portraits of the smiling President, remind of how death has, throughout history, often been turned into a public spectacle for the benefit of the voyeur. Death can be a good story, not a tragedy.
A postcard depicting a victim of lynching has onlookers in the exhibition reeling. In the image, a man’s tormented body hangs lifeless above crowds of people who stand moralizing – even grinning – over this supposed demonstration of justice.
From instances of targeted crime to mass genocide, photographs of the Holocaust further reveal the disquieting silence of the still image. Scenes of anguished faces, anonymous corpses piled high and loaded incinerators are fixed in time through the lens of the camera as a memory that cannot be erased.
‘The Last Image’ is brutal and heavy, succeeding in having its viewers shocked and disgusted. It handles a broad range of interpretations of death, suggests its sensationalist potential, and even exposes the voyeuristic compulsion of humans to look at, and wonder, at images of death.