Reproduced by permission of Erin Zingré.
Back on Day 13 I made reference to The Order of the Good Death, the mission statement of which is, in part:
The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.
This departure from times not so far removed that now governs the way we treat death and dying – a timely news flash that we have not “evolved beyond all that”, and that Death is neither obsolete nor gone out of fashion – is presently undergoing a renaissance of sorts, and it is informative to learn that such a timely organization as The Order of the Good Death is attracting the minds and talents of medical and funeral professionals as well as, “… filmmakers, poets, musicians, artists, and writers exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” The Order’s member portfolio is most impressive.
It was my personal interest in such topics, the healthy move back to embracing Death as an inextricably linked and unavoidable part of Life, and most particularly my research into the phenomenon of the Memento mori, that first brought to my attention the talented woman whose work is the subject of today’s Dark Sentiment.
Erin Zingré describes herself on her website as, “… a young graphic designer from Kansas, harboring a passion for cats, whimsical illustrations, and design that rouses discussion.” It’s that last of her passions that brings us here today – to review her award winning book Likeness: Early Postmortem Photography and the Pornography of Death.
Ms. Zingré has kindly indulged my correspondence with her on the subject of Likeness, as well as her personal and educational background as it relates to the subject matter. She had this to say:
I just graduated from the University of Kansas in May of this year, where I double-majored in Art History and Graphic Design, and both degrees played an integral role in my interest of the subject. When I was in high school, I remember my sister sending me a link to a Flickr page of postmortem photographs, and I thought the subject was fascinating—albeit a bit creepy. All throughout college, I was waiting and waiting in my art history classes for the day when they would cover this somewhat morbid topic. Yet, when I neared the end of my degree, I realized my professors would be glossing over this chapter in art history. As a result, I took it upon myself to research the subject on my own time and gleaned additional information through my photography professors. I was fortunate that the University of Kansas had a fantastic collection of photography books and history books that touched on this subject in one way or another. After a couple years of slowly amassing research (I read around 40 books and countless art historical journals on the topic), I saw my chance to compile this research into a useful medium during a book design project in one of my graphic design classes. 6 months later, the book was done!
Describing the book:
Likeness: Early Postmortem Photography and the Pornography of Death is a 90-page book that analyzes the shifting cultural attitudes towards death in America. I wrote Likeness from an academic perspective, but the design departs from traditional art history books. Owing to the inherently disconcerting topic of death, Likeness is at once injected with unexpected, intentionally awkward elements, while still harkening to the traditional, academic roots of the subject.” ~ Erin Zingré
The book addresses the historical phases and social roles of what she refers to as “posthumous image making”, from the period before the invention of photography, through the growth of an entire grief driven industry, and onward to the present day where we struggle to regain a grasp of where the line lies between acceptable and anathema. Respectful curiosity and obscenity.
Intelligent, sensitive, and unflinching in its treatment of the topic, Ms. Zingré’s work succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of dryness often inherent in academic rigour on one hand, and any sense of morbid titillation on the other, while recognizing elements of both as grist for her mill. She reveals and explores subtle distinctions in the motivations for creating such images.
“While posthumous commemorative portraits depict the deceased person’s inanimate body, posthumous mourning portraits constitute “living” representations that were commissioned after the death of a loved one ….
“This subgenre is a fairly recent discovery, forcing scholars to estimate that approximately seventy-five percent of children’s portraits from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fall into the category of posthumous mourning portraiture … . Posthumous mourning portraits remain obscure because the deceased children are portrayed as if they are alive, with death symbols sometimes included within the painting. Some of these death symbols include: clouds, watches, a willow tree in the background, or a wilted flower in the child’s hand. Sometimes a boat on calm water featured in the painting’s background would indicate an easy death, while stormy water indicated a difficult one.” ~ Erin Zingré
The history of mourning dress and custom is extensively explored, with some intriguing revelations on the adoption of black as the signature colour of mourning from back in the 18th century when it actually became the “new black”, and it was with a grim snicker of amusement that I read how, with the death of Queen Victoria who had mourned Prince Albert for no less than 40 years, “… the world came out of mourning with her passing. Fashion changed and the strict Victorian code of etiquette no longer strictly dictated women’s lives.”
The photographic equipment in use during the period in history most associated with the making and unabashed display of posthumous images required that those being photographed remain as immobile as possible during the exposure. For those photographs that include the deceased along with surviving family members, it was not uncommon for open eyes to be painted onto closed lids, and while as often as not the result is bizarre to say the least, there are cases in which the question of which one is dead will arise. It is interesting that this can often be resolved by looking for which person appears to be in sharpest focus.
Reproduced by permission of Erin Zingré. Click to enlarge.
The transition away from mourning photography into a fascination with ever more violent and gruesome death scenes isn’t hard to grasp if you spend a few minutes on YouTube, or any number of nasty places on the internet, and can find it in yourself to search the right topics. It is through this path that Ms. Zingré brings us forward to contemporary efforts to capture what is left of us when life has fled, including more recent projects that document the faces of dying people who agreed to participate in a project that would, “… document the personal thoughts, stories, and likenesses of terminally ill patients placed in German hospices,” including portraits of them both shortly before and after their death, and a riveting peek through the window of a crematory furnace.
Reproduced by permission of Erin Zingré. Click to enlarge.
If you know someone who has died, aspire to do it yourself some day, or even have a mere passing interest in the subject, Erin Zingré’s Likeness: Early Postmortem Photography and the Pornography of Death offers far more than its slim package might suggest. The old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words has never been more true.
All this, and the delight of reading it at no more cost than a few moments of download time. Ms. Zingré kindly offers a pdf copy for download to anyone who wants it, and you can acquire said delightfully dark thing by clicking here where you will have the option to download or simply view it.
Unless otherwise noted, all images that appear in this article are the property of Erin Zingré and have been used by her kind permission, for which I am eternally grateful. Images that actually appear in Likeness: Early Postmortem Photography and the Pornography of Death may not be reproduced. Ms. Zingré does not own the rights to them, having aggregated the imagery for a capstone project in school – the reason why she, unfortunately, will never actually be able to sell the book. More’s the pity.
Add this to your library. It carries the LFM seal of approval.