Memento Mori: Remember, You Must Die

Spirit Photography is a known hoax that started in the mid 19th century, by William H. Mumler. It was a type of photography in which through double exposures he could mimic the appearance of a ghost in the frame along with the person he was photographing. This was commonly used with war widows, and most famously with Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her late Abraham, taken by Mumler himself. This was around the same time post-mortem photography was popularized, in which family members would have portraits taken of their recently deceased loved ones, in remembrance, where the corpse would be propped or situated to look alive within the portrait of the family. These two photographs, the first being of a deceased infant taken by Benjamino Facchinelli, the second by an unknown photographer of a mother with her late daughter are relics of that time. Post-mortem photographs were also known as Memento Mori or “remember you will die”. This was done in part of the grieving process, to commemorate, almost hiding the fact the person is no longer living. When we think of death photography now, we think of it as fact or evidence, the revealing of truth. Both kinds have something to be said about helping along the grieving process, allowing agency in a time in which we feel no control. Both post-mortem and spirit photography conjure up ideas in my head surrounding afterlife. It was interesting to think about portraiture as something that immortalizes, but in this case it immortalizes death. Rather than grieving families using photos of their loved ones from when they were living, getting a new photograph taken of the corpse is not only the remembrance of life, but remembrance of death. The corpse or ghost is not the same as the body of one that is still breathing.

Next, this brought me to Jun Fujita, who was the first Japanese-American photojournalist, and the only photojournalist to document the aftermath of the Saint Valentines Day Massacre of 1929 as well as the sinking of the S.S. Eastland. His photographs, though evidentiary, are also beautifully composed. It is a different approach to photographing death, photographing from the point of view of a journalist, a truth sayer and reporter. Rather than using the documentation as something to sooth, it is using it as a tool to provoke action as well as inform.

Greta Taro’s photograph of a male corpse, a fatal blow to the head, blood leaving his body. He is still in his suspenders, a note lays on his chest, his shirt is spattered, eyes and mouth peacefully closed. The photograph was taken from the vantage point of above/behind the victims skull, very close to the center of the injury, that is our true subject. The blood spewing from his head trickles into a trough that is built around the perimeter of the metal gurney, to make sure nothing stains the floor and no one slips. She had total control in which how to document the war, how to communicate the horror to those who cannot see. She is almost treating her subjects the way in which men & women soldiers are treated within war, and herself being a soldier. She shot the shooters and shot the shot.

The next two photos are by photographer Peter Hujar. The first being of Candy Darling in her death bed, who was a famous drag queen of the 1960s, friends with Andy Warhol, a pioneer in the drag community. The second being of Ethel Eichelberger, a drag queen as well, dressed as a victorian woman staring mournfully at a casket for an infant. Eichelberger was 6 foot 5 and regularly performed as Mary Todd Lincoln. These portraits were both taken during the AIDS crisis, and Hujar himself was killed by the virus. Hujar took these photographs with strong feelings of empathy, looking at the life and remembering of the life of these two very notable New York City performers beyond what they were thought to be. Placing the phrase remember you must die onto these photographs makes me think about how the government was treating victims of AIDS, how they thought that they must die, not giving help, not allowing partners to see their loved ones in the hospital. They must die. Candy still looks undoubtedly flawless in a hospital room, Ethel is poised and gracious even when mourning. Her spirit shown through not unlike Mumler’s spirits. Susan Sontag said this about Hujar, “ Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death”.

Peter Hujar’s partner, David Wjanrowicz, took this photograph of Hujar after he passed away from battling AIDS, David was also a victim of the virus. This photograph brings me back to the agency of taking a photograph of a dead loved one, while taking the photograph there is power in something that we unfortunately have no control in. David took the photograph because he loved Peter but also as a political statement to make America really look at the outcome of AIDS, stare it in the eyes, in the open mouth, behind his beard. This photograph screams intimacy, but also creates a distance- Sontag writes about the working father taking photographs during vacation- to make an activity, to make “work” for himself, disengaging enough to feel comfortable, David was allowing us to feel intimate with Peter by putting something in between them- putting our eyes first and in front.

Susan Sontag is the subject of the next photograph, taken by her partner Annie Leibovitz. This photograph comprised of four pieces of papers layered on top another, reminds me of the victorian photographs, in its stillness and upfrontness with death. There is something sweet and intimate about this photograph, but it also isn’t too close. it leaves room for the corpse to breath, to be a monument or place holder for her lover, rather than show the difficult features of a body ready for burial, she left it as her beloved asleep.

The next photo is of Yoko Araki taken by her husband, Nobuyoshi Araki in 1990 at her funeral. Araki was known for his interest in sex or Eros, many of his photographs of his wife and of models or still lives hinted or blatantly displayed female sexuality, or in which he photographs his models in bondage or undressed. His wife was the main subject of his photographs surrounding sentimentality, and after her death, his focus seemed to shift from passion in bliss to passion in agony. The photographing purely of a body, but commemorating her mind. Covering her body in flowers- a Japanese tradition- all of the hands touching her, the loving hands touching her.

Who is allowed to grieve? Who is allowed to be vocal about their grief? When can the outsider cry? There are many ways in which we express our sorrows, and now with social media, we all feel as though we should react. Post a selfie in front of the 2nd Ave. explosion, or at Auschwitz, at Grandma’s funeral. I think it boils down to who the funeral is for, is it truly to commemorate the dead or is it actually for the living in mourning? Is the photograph for the subject or for the audience? When photographing the dead the photographer has absolute control, when photographing the dying the photographer loses all control, in the sense of which the subject is immortalizing their own life. Taking past trauma whether it be ours or not into our own hands, taking photos of memorials, or in front of sights of trauma is trying to make us seem as though we’ve “been there”, that “we understand”, but that’s not what it does. It doesn’t make viewers feel as though you know, it makes viewers feel as though you would never know. I’ve never heard of any New Yorker who was here in 2001 want to go to the 9/11 Memorial, it’s not for us, its for others, for tourists, to take photographs to feel as though they can understand, it’s just another site.

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