Magazine article Artforum International

Stilled Lives

Magazine article Artforum International

Stilled Lives

Article excerpt

Though we use, handle, and observe objects of every sort, with the widest range of feelings, they seem placid when set beside the channeled dread we have of corpses. The chief reason we can look at most inorganic objects without horror is that they never lived. That's an odd way to consider things, I know, but human death puts it in mind. The pathos sometimes evoked by objects when abandoned or ruined stems from the mortality of those who lived with them, and is always associated with past lives. These objects act upon the mind as surrogate bodies, possibly charged with memories, but nothing to compare with the real thing that was once sensate. Photographs of the dead visually record beings once like us, but now nullified and reduced to objects. With this kind of subject, whatever psychic distance implied by photographs is shortened in our recognition of our own destiny, on an unknown schedule. "Such a likeness |in photographs of the dead~," writes Luc Sante, "is the one photograph of ourselves we are certain never to see."

What an irony that contact with the deceased in photographs elicits from viewers a rare and lively solidarity that is inconsolable. Photographs of living subjects that have since died don't have this effect. However melancholy the vantage point of our "now" upon these people's past, they're shown in the same conscious state as the one in which we perceive them, and which everyone takes for granted. They were present for the act of witness; the dead, on the other hand, were only helplessly "there." The spectacle of the corpse compels us to reckon with the ultimate divide in human experience, the most tangible form of loss. It describes that terminus where most of us emphatically have no wish as yet to arrive. But if we lack anticipation, we look at it with a curiosity that is well-known, almost despite ourselves searching the image with a hope to reduce terror by finding there a certain beauty.

How many pictures repel the sense of touch, as these do, yet attract the eye! Such a complex response reflects involvement in a profound existential issue, but the faded corporate, institutional, or familial uses of the death image do not readily admit the grandeur of the theme. Everywhere we're struck by the contrast between the circumspect, even humdrum social purpose of such material, and the leveling shiver that the work induces in viewers. For the mostly anonymous photographers, the task at hand was routine, and it was performed unself-consciously. Because they were so obviously carrying out a job, the morality of it sealed into their professional role, they cannot be accused of being either cruel or unctuous. An image was commissioned, and a print of it put into a file or album. If the latter, for example in the case of a funeral scene or a show of a dead baby, the impression would be solemn enough and tragic, but ritualized all the same ... and in the end, a product turned out.

The banal, unconcerned act of witness characteristically reinforces the physical import of the subject. Perhaps this instinctive or else schooled, workmanlike practice was necessary to confront what had to be seen. After the fact, it serves to dissolve potentially significant levels of guilt or pity in the browsing of the vast archive of death. It's not just that these cadavers were unknowns that brings us back on emotional keel. Nor the fact that photography freezes figures in their tracks, and is therefore already a metaphoric extinction. As a term of photographic experience, viewers had from the first taken that in stride. Rather, whatever use these pictures once had has lapsed, leaving them as objects to contemplate in pure detachment, for the material data they might contain and for the esthetic pleasure they give. Here are unclaimed images reposing within dusty cabinets. For any such collection to be salvaged by a trade publisher today implies an idea that the artistic consciousness of researchers and viewers may be in league with each other. …

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