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Friday, 3 February 2012

Death and Deceit

I enjoyed reading Joerg Colberg's musings on the defiance of death. It fits right in with internet discourse which is so different and less formal to that of other media, but at the same time, if you are selective and discerning to some extent, richer, more informative, thought-provoking and fun. And it can be lots of bad things too, but then so can everything.

Back to death and a link in to the previous post. From the top, we have Alexander Gardner, W.Willoughby Hooper's famine pictures from Madras, Memento Mori pictures, death by dismemberment from 1890 in China, an Indiana lynching from 1930, World War II deaths including Dimitri Baltermants Ukrainian mothers, Lee Miller's river corpse and the Nuremburg executions, the body of Che Guevara, Eddie Adams' Vietcong suspect getting shot, Jeffrey Silverthorne's morgue lady, the body of Mao, Joel Peter Witkin's kiss, an Andres Serrano morgue picture, Paul Watson's Mogadishu picture, a Sally Mann, Walter Schels' Nochmalleben, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi. And just to bring things round full circle, I could have added some contemporary memento mori from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

It's death all the way in other words but over a range of uses, formats and connotations, with readings that shift and shimmer and remain unfixed. Death is used to inform, to sensationalise, to memorialise,  sentimentalise, to portray as primitive, to villify, to justify and to glorify. It's a sign of community, a symbol of shame, of power corrupted and a chance to gloat. Death is used to warn, to remember, to spiritualise and  to signify and end to the old and the beginning of something new. It's used persuasively as evidence, unwittingly as a witness, a sign of our essential mortality and our attempt to defy that, to defy and deify. For Witkin, death is Grand Guignol, for Serrano  it's money. Death in Mogadishu comes packed with different meanings, collapse and chaos, hatred, humiliation as well as an embedded one of vengeance. Sally Mann reminds us of  the fluidity of life, of our organic core, how we  melt back into the ground. Saddam is a picture of chickens coming home to roost, of the thing that goes around has come around, and will go around and come around again. Gaddafi is vengeance, humiliation and hypocrisy.

At the heart of all death is some form of deceit, a grey area where the uncertainty of what lies beyond meets with our own attempts to change our fate, to shift the goalposts, to defy the end that awaits us all. Most obviously, we can see this with the Victorian memento mori, where corpses are propped up and eyes painted into to a facsimile of a family snapshot, only with one member as dead and stiff as a board. In the near dead famine pictures of Willoughby, the deceit isone of general humanity, of how, after taking the photos, he would send the famine victims on his way without giving them treatment, food or help.

The embalming of Mao, or Lenin, or Ho, was an attempt to sanctify and deify, to prevent death even as incompetent embalming collapses in on itself. Sally Mann's pictures of death do the opposite, allowing the flesh to melt back into the ground from which it once grew, as if it had never existed, as if it had never been part of a living body and soul, with a mind and a heart, part of a memory, a consciousness that still lingers somehow, somewhere in someone's heart

And Paul Watson's pictures of David Cleveland are inundated with deceit. For Somalis, the lie is that this was any kind of victory, that anything but bad came of it, and for the US - well it's not too far different really but with more contemporary resonances.

And what of Saddam and Gaddafi. These are desecrations, a humiliation of a figure and a regime, but desecrations that in their cruelty and inhumanity, bring back to life the very figures they seek to destroy. These pictures don't signify endings, only a return to the same beginning. That's their deceit.

But in real life, outside the photograph, isn't that what we do with death - we fear it, we cheat it, we glorify it and deny it. We do all those things because what do we really know in the end. And so in that respect, aren't these pictures as truthful as you can get, reflections of the human condition in all its ignorance uncertainty. It's not propaganda. It's just the way we are.

And that, dear readers, is the discourse of the internet. Notebook style. .


Deborah Parkin Photography said...

As always, really fascinating reading and uncomfortable viewing. And yet, not as uncomfortable as I would have thought. It is strange how the Victorian 'momento mori' pictures tugged at the heartstrings for me - I think it the association of losing a loved one, and more significant if it is that of a child. And yet, the more brutal visions of death, although shocking, sad absolutely, but something I am more used to seeing than that of a 'more natural death' through our media. I wonder if seeing images of those dead from war or famine or even murder allows a certain detachment for the western viewer in as much as we think it won't be us. When we see death as natural it frightens us more. I am not talking about not being moved, or digging into our pockets to help - I am talking about confronting our mortality. I wonder if seeing images of war dead etc feel more about war than death (I know war is about death but it's also much more too) and our own mortality (hope that makes sense)
I know we have talked about this when I was criticised for my wet plate work and recently I was asked to take part in an amazing project called 'a book about death'. I couldn't do it. I had to write across my work the word death - it would be across my children and I just couldn't do it. And yet, I loved the idea of the project. Sorry for the ramble - I am fascinated by this subject but not articulating it very well today.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Deborah. That makes perfect sense. The war comes first, the famine comes first, the execution comes first - and death tags along some way behind. Whereas with the memento mori, death creeps up on us and then hits us from the front - especially when it is all dressed up and posed behind a pair of grieving parents. We value photography of loved ones enough that we don't want to scrawl death across the pictures - why exactly not? Is it something semiotic, that leakage between the referent and the indexicality of the photograph (http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem02.html.

I'm with you on that though, Deborah. I wouldn't scrawl death across a picture of Issy. It's too much like tempting fate. I can't say I'm mad keen on the project though.