Death and Digital Photography

By Ennis, Helen | Cultural Studies Review, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Death and Digital Photography


Ennis, Helen, Cultural Studies Review


Death as we know it cannot be our death, but is always instead the deaths of others.1

This essay will consider the new possibilities for the representation of dying and death in Australia that have been enabled by the now widespread use of digital photography and the internet. Evidence suggests that photographing the dying and dead in Australia, practiced in the second half of the nineteenth century, did not reemerge on a significant scale until the 1980s. In the last ten years, digital photography and the internet have ushered in a new era, giving their users unprecedented degrees of control and privacy. Here, I provide some historical context for these developments, showing how photography has been intimately involved with the representation of death since its earliest applications in Australia.

I first began to seriously consider vernacular photographs of dying and death in 2006 while researching the exhibition Reveries: Photography and Mortality, which I curated for the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.2 Reveries was principally concerned with photography that related either to one's own death or the death of another person (usually closely connected to the photographer). It comprised photographs from the 1980s up to the present by professional, mostly art-trained, photographers from Australia and New Zealand. The work, though intensely personal in nature, could be situated within a gallery context; it was produced within the familiar conventions of art photography and public display. The photographs were often large in scale, sometimes life size; they were more likely to be in black and white than colour; were presented in series and extended narratives, and were frequently accompanied by artists' contextual statements. The artists involved had significant careers and in a number of cases had previously exhibited or published the work selected for the exhibition-though it was generally not in a context concerned with mortality.

My original intention with Reveries had been to bring together different kinds of photography to juxtapose professional and non-professional (that is, vernacular) photographs and to create a dialogue between what could be crudely described as the public and private. I abandoned the idea because the images and objects from the two areas were of such a different order. With their focus on individual experience, vernacular photographs were too specific-and sometimes too emotionally raw-to be presented alongside the highly mediated and selfconscious art works in the exhibition. This, together with their inherent modesty and artlessness, meant that the vernacular photographs begged for consideration on their own terms.

It also became obvious around this time that a dramatic transition was occurring as photography moved from analogue to digital. Earlier vernacular photographs, from the late 1980s till around 2005, were in the form of coloured snapshots, generally taken on instamatic cameras and processed commercially. But, as my research for Reveries became more widely known, friends, colleagues and strangers alike began to show me post-mortem photographs that had been produced with digital technologies. While digital technology involving the use of digital cameras and mobile phones was clearly influencing the production of images, it was having other broader effects as well. Particularly significant were the emerging changes to material form. In contrast to nineteenth-century post-mortem photography and the great majority of analogue vernacular photography, many digital images are never printed. They never assume a tangible, physical form and exist only as digital files, part of increasingly vast digital archives held by individuals. I have had the curious experience of being shown extraordinarily intimate photographs of a loved one's last moments on the screens of mobile phones, laptops and desktop computers. Another key change inaugurated by digital technologies and the internet was the means of distributing images, especially in cases where email is used. …

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