It seems apt that a photography exhibition on death should move away from the decisive moment, the
recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms that Henri Cartier Bresson defined as the essence of photography. The moment of death is medically, legally, and philosophically contested. Facing an exhibition on death, the Open Eye Gallery has turned to Edgar Martins and Jordan Baseman, practitioners of late photography—as described by David Campany—artists who closer resemble a researcher in an archive or forensic investigator, turning up to the remains and aftermath of circumstances to draw on traces of evidence and to look at their subject indirectly.
Martins presents a portion of his project Siloquies and Soliloquies on death, life and other interludes, made in collaboration with the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science in Portugal, in which he explores the cultural necessity to fully forensically understand death, as a concept and in individual circumstances. Martins seems literally unable to face the circumstances of death and his approach reaches as close as possible while remaining at a dignified and respectful distance expected by European attitudes towards death. He presents a series of photographs that at first appear to be nothing more than blank sheets of paper; the accompanying descriptions tell that these are the backs of suicide notes, taken from the coronas office in Portugal and blown up to life size.
Further artefacts are taken from the archives of cold cases, showing the other side of European cultural concerns around death. The necessity for forensic investigation, the widely held belief that even if a loved one is lost, the need to know how is important. There’s an early twentieth century x-ray of a skull with a large hole about the size of a golf ball neatly punched through it. Placed next to this is a photograph of a bowler hat—found in the same archive, but not recorded as being related to either the x-ray or the crime scene—the hat too has a distinct golf-ball sized hole. Martins’ objects demonstrate the discrepancy and fallibility of the archive and the post-facto search for meaningful connections to draw any narrative. Cameras do lie, the photograph is not proof alone, but photography must rely on textual evidence, a context, circumstances, to understand and determine whether the death was ‘good’.
Jordan Baseman presents part of his 2013 exhibition Deadness, previously shown at Matt’s Gallery, London. Here, Baseman presents a series of 35mm slides, projected onto the gallery walls, as well as audio interviews with Dr John Troyer—Deputy Director for the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Over images of funerals spanning almost the entire history of photography, Dr Troyer recalls his personal and professional experience with working with the dead. The role of the embalmer is perhaps the most overlooked in the whole process of death. While doctors, detectives, and even pathologists have been elevated by fictional dramas and semi-autobiographies, embalmers remain hidden. As one of the embalmers points out, their role is precisely to remain hidden, to ease the process of death by making the corpse look alive. This places a somewhat photographic expectation on the embalmer. That the dead should resemble the living, that the body—despite the circumstances of death, despite the fact they are about to buried or burnt or laid beneath the waves—should be beautiful to look at. The tricks of the embalmer are much like those of the photographer—wholly unnatural—makeup, lighting, costume, poses.
Embalmers, operating between life and death, working to the desires of the living, and not necessarily towards those of the dead, have found themselves undertaking a mediative role. Dr Troyer highlights the role funeral homes played during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the recognition of funeral directors and embalmers that they had found themselves in an explicitly political role, mediating between the friends and families of victims. Many closeted victims’ families refused to believe or honour the circumstances of their formerly loved ones’ deaths. In other cases, victims who had spent decades estranged from their legal family had their funerary arrangements posthumously dictated by the same people, rather than their new-found friends and adopted families. Due to the deliberate ignorance and active persecution of AIDS victims, medical research on HIV/AIDS itself was overlooked, to the point where funeral directors were unsure whether the diseases could be transmitted even in death.
The close practical link between photography and death has informed theoretical understandings about the significance of the camera, the indexical image, and the concept of ghosts and the uncanny. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is the first book to come to my mind when talking on the intersection of death and photography. While ostensibly writing on photography Camera Lucida is regarded by some as a eulogy for his recently deceased mother. Through Barthes, photography is read to emphasise, unlike other media, the passage of time between the photo taken and the photo viewed. The images contain a closeness to death in two ways; we can both see photos of the dead or know that the living person photographed is now dead. With the proliferation of cameras and the ability to recirculate images, we are edging a little closer to death.
Flat Death: Edgar Martins & Jordan Baseman is at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, from the 15th of January until the 3rd of April, 2016.