Looking at Death
Following Christ in Embodied Life
TRIGGER WARNING: Images of death appear in this post.
This paper was presented at the 2021 CIVA Biennial Conference in Austin, Texas. Moderated by Taylor Worley.
This paper, as so many of my writings and artworks do, comes from personal experience. When I saw the CIVA announcement for the Transcend conference call for papers I was drawn strongly to the prompt for papers reflecting on the art of living with death. Perhaps it was the previous work I’d done reflecting on Sally Mann’s What Remains series, or my recent read about William H. Mumler’s spirit photography, or the research I had been doing to prepare for teaching my first History of Photography course — I can only surmise. What is clear to me, however, is how the research landed on me. To borrow a phrase from Fiona Apple’s latest album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, “it was a heavy balloon.”
While my mind lingered on decay, loss, and the implications of death for the living, I had taken up the practice of lap swimming. As a child I was drawn to any body of water, but never took the role of swimmer. This year was different. A neighbor told me our local park offers adult lap swimming several days a week. I could access the pool only if I promised to try to swim a 25-yard lap. So, I tried. I succeeded, to my surprise. As my comfort in the water grew, during my backstroke laps I began to notice the clouds and their shapeless movements across the sky. It reminded me of how my body felt in the water: effortless, weightless, but still whole in form. As these thoughts took their own shape, and I turned over for a breast stroke, the sun’s rays on the water below glittered effortlessly, and my silhouette danced beneath.
All of this culminated in a much-needed feeling of lightness after such heavy lifting around the topic of death. It also resulted in an unexpected new body of work called Fall Into the Sky. Perhaps you too might want the lightness of these Fall Into the Sky images before we submerge below the surface, and into death. Let us take a deep breath and begin our descent together.
Over time, and particularly in the twentieth century, Western culture increasingly turned away from death altogether. While resistance to acknowledgement of death is beginning to fade in the media, the sciences are doubling down on their efforts to erase death. Photography has long been acquainted with death. Before photography was widely accessible and family albums were standard, early Victorian post-mortem photography was a way that grieving families could have a lasting visual memory of their loved one. With technological advances in healthcare, and in photography, the need, and ultimately the desire, for post-mortem portraits declined. In his 1981 book Camera Lucida, theorist Roland Barthes reminds readers that death and photography are forever uniquely connected. He writes that any photograph of a person depicts someone who has died or who will die. This correlation frames most of photography as memento mori, even images that would seem to suggest otherwise on the surface. Barthes takes it further, offering two interpretive lenses, through which we will look at works later in this paper.
Throughout photography’s history a handful of photographers have excavated death through their photographic work, choosing to lean into death rather than avoiding its unforgiving reality. This paper examines the work of three of those photographers, chosen for their manner of engaging with death — from covered up to laid bare — each possessing a sense of empathy in his or her approach. Jeffrey Silverthorne’s Morgue images capture the shock and finality of death in their unflinching look at those recently deceased in a Rhode Island morgue. James Van Der Zee’s funerary portraits offer hope to those left behind as he frames his subjects, in a coffin, surrounded by angels and words from Scripture. Sally Mann’s perspective, from photographs made at a death farm, is a mix of the two: offering a stark view of death while offering something hopeful to the viewer. Each photographer, in his or her own way, is grappling with death acceptance. This paper argues, however, that Mann’s approach is the most mature and successful of these images. Her wrestling with death is not only evidence of her own wrestling with the realities of death, but it also beckons the viewer to bear witness. At the same time, it offers a hopeful invitation that should perhaps follow each utterance of memento mori: remember you will one day die … so live as fully as you can today.
On the heels of Mann’s work, this paper reckons what is gained from exploring photography of death with Jesus’s invitation to live “freely and lightly” (Matt. 11:30). What follows is an empathetic exploration of the journey to death acceptance — through the photographic works of Silverthorne, Van Der Zee, and Mann — as a reality of embodied life, so that followers of Christ might learn to follow Christ through death, that they might more fully experience life.
Roland Barthes: Death in Photography
In Barthes’s Camera Lucida, he articulates two distinct ways of engaging with, or finding meaning in, a photograph. The first is the studium: a viewer’s engagement with the cultural and technical implications of the photograph, and an overt intention of the photographer. Barthes’s second way of engaging with a photograph is through the photograph’s punctum, an emotionally grounded deeper meaning, which “provok[es] a more intense and personal reaction in the viewer.” It is there (conceptually, or metaphorically) and not there (literally), and only occurs to the viewer after they have walked away from the photograph, upon later reflection. The punctum brews within the viewer, connecting to their personal histories, experiences, longings, and losses. Not every photograph has a punctum impact on every viewer, but when a photograph “pricks” a viewer, that is the punctum at work.
The punctum is the hint of death itself, according to Barthes. He grounds the whole of photography itself in memento mori, if only the viewer lingers long enough to notice. Looking at photographs from the past, of people once fully alive, Barthes asserts “there is no need to represent a body in order for me to experience this vertigo of time defeated,” for it is clear that these people are the victims of time. Barthes continues, “[B]ecause each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death that each one, however attached it seems to be to the excited world of the living, challenges each of us, one by one, outside of any generality (but not outside of any transcendence).” Barthes is telling his readers that the memento mori in photography is an invitation into an individual transcendence that acknowledges one’s own death, not simply death in general. This is what makes the forthcoming photographs from Silverthorne, Van Der Zee, and Mann so deeply resonant. Not only do these photographs drip with the studium of death, but they lead viewers to reflect on their own mortality with a compassionate lens. This gentleness allows the punctum of mortality, limitation, and finitude to seep into the viewer’s soul.
This is not to say viewers are unaware of their own impending death. The reality of death, however, has often not fully taken up residence in the Western consciousness. When confronted with a photograph of death, like the ones we will encounter shortly, what is implicit in all of photography becomes explicit and doubles down in both the act of the studium and the punctum. One might theorize why there are seemingly so few bodies of work around death. Not only is Western society squeamish around the topic in general, but when confronted with an actual, visible death, the discomfort can be unbearable. It may be miraculous that existing works received attention at all.
Some believe Barthes’s assertions about photography and its correlation to death is reductionistic and contrary to analytic thinking. In this critique they miss Barthes’s point entirely: photography is not a purely mechanical aesthetic that can be dissected and biopsied for meaning. The subjective experience of engaging with a photograph holds much of its meaning; that a photograph may be receptive to a number of subjective interpretations, to a number of individual punctum experiences, is its greatest gift. It creates a human connection between the photographed, the photographer, and the viewer. It binds them through their unique longings and losses; because of this it has the potential to foster and grow empathy. The shock of a photograph, compared to what one might call the punctum of say, an impressionist painting, is the mirror-like quality that reminds all people that only this present moment is certain — until it too passes.
Finally, Barthes notes, if religion goes the way of the rest of society and refuses to look squarely at death as it more commonly used to (and as much of evangelical Christianity seems to have done), death must surface somewhere — and perhaps the photograph is no worse a place for it to do so. Photographer Jeffrey Silverthorne agrees.
Jeffrey Silverthorne: “Morgue” Photographs
In the 1970s photographer Jeffrey Silverthorne began a body of work at the Rhode Island state morgue. Silverthorne would return to the morgue multiple times, photographing the deceased of all ages with varying levels of trauma in their demise. The twenty-two-photograph series is exclusively black and white. Silverthorne occasionally omitted faces or details; other times he exposed the brutal truth of someone’s last moments. For the twenty-five-year-old Silverthorne, who was newly married with young children, these photographs were a way of reckoning with the death from the Vietnam War that seemed present everywhere.
Tenderness is apparent in Silverthorne’s approach to two women’s final portraits, “Home Death, Silver Slippers” and “Home Death.” Particularly discrete and revealing only tight cropped details of the women, perhaps it was the seeming quietness of their demise, or a correlation to a loved woman in his life, that moved Silverthorne to tread so carefully. Whatever the cause it seems a personal punctum was working on Silverthorne while he photographed these two—a kind of sensitivity attuned photographers can have that leads to profound bodies of work. The silver slippers, the stockings, and manicured nails give the viewer a glimpse into what kind of life these women once lived. The silver table and canvas bag underneath each woman tells the viewer that for as young as they may appear, death met them still. Death reveals its hand particularly in “Home Death” as the viewer can see it taking ownership of her body as it moves its way up the woman’s hand.
It is also worth noting that for these two portraits Silverthorne chose to conceal something of their identity and passing. In other works the cause of death is revealed in the title of the work, or an injury is on full display — but for these women he reveals only a sliver of their stories, cloaking the cause of their passing. Though not exclusive to these two photographs, the move stands out in an unsettling way in a series of otherwise narratively full compositions.
Reflecting on the Morgue series, author David Levi Strauss observes: in America “death is treated, for the most part, as an inconvenient truth — something to be fought against, shunned and denied. We believe we are entering an age of technological immortality, where death will be seen as an embarrassing anachronism, like photography.” Although these photographs were taken nearly a decade before Barthes’s book was published, it seems as if Silverthorne were responding to Barthes’s writing. For Silverthorne these photographs were his own way of confronting the death around him, and consciously or otherwise, confronting his own. In an interesting turn, these photographs seem to lead with punctum — a bit like the deceased are aching for viewers to remember that time in the body is indeed momentary. As death disappears from the public gaze, works like Silverthorne’s “help us again to preserve and sanctify life by remembering how conditional and fleeting it is.” Both “Home Death, Silver Slippers” and “Home Death” invite a meditative experience of death.
James Van Der Zee: Funerary Portraits
While Silverthorne’s works are taken at the threshold of death, photographer James Van der Zee’s funerary portraits seek to preserve a peaceful likeness of the deceased as they move towards their final resting place. Van Der Zee was a photographer who rose to prominence for his documentation of Black excellence in America during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920-30s. As he began documenting the lives of Harlem residents, they increasingly invited him to photograph funerary portraits — a type of portrait taken of the deceased, often in an ornate casket adorned with copious amounts of flowers. Van Der Zee first modeled his funerary portraits after Victorian-era styles, and later added his own touches to these portraits to further enhance and personalize this final portrait of each of his subjects.
The “Mortuary Portrait” is a prime example of Van Der Zee’s darkroom customized printing techniques which are designed to comfort those left behind in life. Here the deceased woman is portrayed as peaceful and sleeping, a technique often utilized by earlier post-mortem photographers. This portrait also illustrates the height of Van Der Zee’s technical ability: he montages portraits to add context to the lives of his subjects, and to help their families imagine their loved-one’s afterlife. Van Der Zee often superimposed angels, Jesus Christ, Scripture passages, and other visual cues to indicate a peaceful existence on the other side. Speaking about his funerary photographs, Van Der Zee said, “I always tried to insert something to break the gruesomeness of the picture and make it look more like the realities of life and the beauty of death. According to the scripture [sic], we should be more joyful at the going out and weep at the coming in.”
The delay of when Van Der Zee’s portraits were taken, in contrast to the immediacy of Silverthorne’s, allows for a softer presentation. Unlike the instantaneous shock one feels upon hearing a loved one has died, compared with the later move into acceptance, Van Der Zee’s portraits meet the viewer (and presumed loved one) after they have had some time to process their loss. Although this portrait was taken prior to both Silverthorne’s photographs and Barthes’s book, given that it was taken closer to the era when death was not so far removed, it is not surprising that it also holds a sort of comfort with death. Where Silverthorne’s work seems to want to resist death, Van Der Zee’s work accepts its horror with dignity. It gently models for modern viewers how death, in spite of its persistence, can be approached: with humanity, mindfulness, and hope.
Sally Mann: What Remains
What Remains is a collection of photographs by Sally Mann taken and woven together into a meditation on death and life. The series contains images of the remains of deceased pets, landscapes that have held war and death, and large-format close-up portraits of her children’s faces. This paper will focus on the beautiful and unsettling Body Farm photograph that asks “when a human becomes remains.”
Quite unsubtly, Mann’s photograph “Untitled (Body Farm #18)” from the year 2000, beckons the viewer into the work. Neither is death masked, nor is it vulgar — it simply is in this photograph. The silver-gelatin print draws the viewer’s eye to the human corpse lying in the lower third of the composition, centered. Were it not for the visible decay, words like enchanting or elegant might feel appropriate. Mann’s choice of medium, composition, and lighting, however, all highlight the fact that this person is no longer living. She seems at peace with this fact. The stillness in this image cultivates a kind of peace about the hard cold facts of death present in the landscape.
The large format, analog photography Mann uses requires her to spend time with her subject. Close attention is required to get her subject in focus on the large glass plate and exposure times are often much longer than with other cameras. Not to mention the time needed to find her subject, nestled in the brush, surrounded by the multitude of deaths all around her on the body farm. The large format camera combined with the time of day come together to create an eerie but calming scene around the deceased. The lens Mann uses, along with the development process of glass negatives, vignettes the edges of the print. This enhances the confrontation viewers experience with the expired life in front of them. Mann makes no effort to conceal that this photograph is about death (which may once again point to the subject of punctum).
Achieving this kind of comfort with death takes a familiarity with loss. Mann is no stranger to it in her personal life. And it appears that rather than bury her losses below the surface, she has excavated and brought them to light. Where Silverthorne’s images are dripping with questions, and Van Der Zee’s make death more palatable, Mann’s work sits with death and invites her viewers to do the same. In this way, “Untitled (Body Farm #18)” nurtures and woos viewers into an acceptance of the fact of death, while softening its edges. Mann’s work creates meditations on what life holds for all of us. Of this series she said, “Death is best approached as a springboard to appreciate life more fully.... This whole body of work is a process of thanksgiving.” This modern look at death, and Mann’s invitation to her viewers through it, call to mind the invitation of Christ: “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.… Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matt. 11:28-30).
Conclusion: A Good Death
Death is a fact of life that will not be overcome, as hard as humanity may try. While the acknowledgement of death has increased in Western culture over the past few decades, and certainly improved since the mid-twentieth century, the West is a long way from a true death acceptance. As a society, we still flock to advertisements for anti-aging regimens, and sit far too long in the forever-young idealism of Instagram. The rich and powerful would design AI capable of uploading our consciousness and would fixate on finding another planet rather than reckon with the damage being done to earth. The cost of this escapist obsession is a culture losing grip on the idea of the good life that ends. It is a temptation not only for tech elites and the rich, but for followers of Christ as well. Has the meaning of Jesus’s invitation to “live freely and lightly” been overlooked or misconstrued? Christ’s invitation was not to avoid death, but to confront it and move through it with him. Regardless of theological position, Christians can agree death is a mystery. While believers are right to have hope about what comes after embodied life, what happens after death is unclear at best. What Scripture does state clearly is that Jesus grieved Lazarus’s death. This translates to an invitation for believers today to take seriously the end of human life and feel its gravity.
With life framed by limitation, it raises the questions: What is a good death? And: How does one prepare for it? Perhaps through coming to friendly terms with all the little deaths life offers — losses of jobs, relationships, health, goals, and dreams. One way to begin a healthy practice toward death acceptance is through acknowledging and accepting human limitations — perhaps going so far as learning gratitude for them. Former pastor, author, and podcaster Rob Bell takes this idea further on a recent episode of The Robcast, saying: “Death rescues you from fantasy,” and joy is found on the other side of those deaths. The sooner one moves forward with choices that ultimately eliminate some possibilities (while opening others) and the sooner one mourns the fantasy of limitlessness, the sooner joy can be found in the life and choices that have been made. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said he would teach his followers to live “freely and lightly” if they followed him — that confronting the truth of death leads to the kind of inner freedom that allows one to live the kind of good life that leads to a good death.
This is no small task. With the help of good art death need not be startling in a scary manner. Memento mori artworks like those considered here help viewers keep an eye on their lives, ideally helping them un-stick from stuck places that have them holding on to fantasies in an attempt to keep death at bay. Or, as Mann said, these works can serve as a “catalyst for the more intense appreciation of the here and now.” As one practices the little deaths, and becomes increasingly free from the fear of limitation, that is the pathway to accepting Christ’s invitation:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30, MSG)
CHRISTINE LEE SMITH • ARTIST & SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Fiona Apple, “Heavy Balloon.” Released April 17, 2020, Track 9 on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Epic Records, streaming.
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———, “Home Death, Silver Slippers,” 1973.
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James Van Der Zee, “Mortuary Portrait,” 1933. Silver gelatin print. 20.2 cm x 25.1 cm
CHRISTINE LEE SMITH • ARTIST & SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.