Visualizing Death through the Human Form 

 

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Garda Taro, Corpses in the morgue after the air raid, Valencia, Spain, 1937

Original image here: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/objects/corpses-in-the-morgue-after-the-air-raid-valencia-spain

The photographs taken at the morgue are some of the only interior scenes from Taro. Her work in this setting reflects her intimate proximity with her subjects as well as her commitment to tracing the full arc of war.

This image is the opposite of action. The lack of movement and vitality in the subject is contrasted with a tension that exists within the frame. The two seemingly large lifeless bodies teeter on a small round table. As opposed to the rigid formations of the living fighting soldiers seen in some of her other photographs, the informality and casualness of the strewn dead bodies creates a different tone. The softer edges, the indoor lighting situation and a more shallow depth of field work together to create a more emotive scene than many of her other photojournalistic images. She does not show us the faces of the victims and we can not see their physical evidence of their injuries either, allowing for a sense of anonymity but also suggesting the uncertainty and danger during conflict. The heaviness of the limp bodies forces the viewer to feel the weight of war.

I looked for images that related to Taro’s use of the human form in this photograph. I initially sought out pieces that were visually similar to Taro’s picture in referencing her composition, subject matter or tone.

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Henry Peach Robinson, Sleep, 1867

Original image here: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/collection/photography/royalphotographicsociety/collectionitem?id=2003-5001/2/20754

Henry Peach Robinson’s photograph of the two sleeping girls shares some of the  formal elements present in Taro’s image. The pair of figures in a reclining position in the foreground of the photograph as well as a windowed wall in the background of the image presents a very similar overall structure.  There is a peacefulness and serenity present here that echoes the stillness in Taro’s photograph.

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School of Pergamon, Statue of a dying Persian, 3rd Century BC

Original image here: http://media.gettyimages.com/photos/statue-of-dying-persian-roman-copy-in-marble-from-original-made-by-picture-id185738947?s=170667a

This Roman statue of a fallen soldier parallels the context of Taro’s photograph in that both pieces represent those killed in a time of war. The anonymity of this man, referred to only as Persian, reflects similar notions of unnamed victims in the way that Taro refers to the figures in her photo as simply corpses.

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Käthe Kollwitz, The Widow II, 1922

Original image here: https://www.moma.org/collection_ge/object.php?object_id=69686

This is a woodcut from Käthe Kollwitz’ series Krieg (or War) in which she responded to WWI. Like Taro she depicts those on the periphery of the action, the mothers, children and civilians affected by the conflict. Her simple composition with drastic contrast emphasizes the figure laying on her back. Kollwitz’ woodcuts are as autobiographical as they are universal because she personally lost her son in the fighting.

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Agnes Martin, Homage to Life, 2003

Original image here: http://charlieporter.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/IMG_8096.jpg

Agnes Martin’s painting Homage to Life connects to Taro’s photograph in several ways. First, she uses only gray and black in this piece creating a similar somber feeling. Also, despite its title, this painting seems to address death more directly than life. The trapezoidal shape floating in the large gray canvas echoes the way the two bodies in Taro’s photograph mirror each other to create symmetrical geometry, and is also reminiscent of a gravestone.

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Unknown artist, John Dillinger’s Feet, Chicago Morgue, 1934 

Original image here: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/284732

This photograph relates to Taro’s by utilizing the exact same perspective of the camera. With the corpse’s feet being at eye level and the closest thing to the lens in the image, we see roughly the same angle. In Taro’s image this hides the faces of the figures and thus allows the victims to remain anonymous. However, this tactic proves fruitless in this photograph as the body is identified in the title. Additionally knowing that this photograph was taken at the morgue draws even more connections to Taro’s photo.

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Gilles Peress, Sarajevo, Bosnia, 1993

Original image here: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1998.180.1/

Another photograph taken in a morgue, this photograph by Peress taken in Bosnia more similar to the way Taro was working. Peress spent three years in Bosnia documenting the effects of the war there in an attempt to make the world aware of suffering in other places. Made nearly sixty years after the Spanish Civil War, it is extremely likely that this Peress was familiar with Taro and Capa’s work and the precedent they set documenting conflict.

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Robert Frank, Car accident—U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1956

Original image here: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/84.1523

The way the Robert Frank made this photograph feels similar to the way Taro was working during the Spanish Civil War. Both photographers clearly thought about composition, but the slight blurriness and point of view suggest a need to work quickly. The importance placed on capturing the scene helps to portray the feeling in that moment. The somber quiet surrounding death is present in both.

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Walker Evans, Self-Portrait in New York Hospital Bed, New York City, 1928

Original image here: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/272247

Looking at this self portrait by Walker Evans, I was interested in the way the interior of the morgue in Taro’s photo looks in many ways like a hospital room. The sterile environment brings the focus to the bodies in a similar way to how Evan’s photographs himself, in his hospital gown in the nearly empty room. Both photographs address the aftermath of suffering, one in life and the other in death.

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Aaron Siskind, Feet 133, 1957

Original image here: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/266506

Aaron Siskind’s photograph of feet is reminiscent of the bare footed victim in Taro’s photograph. The feet that Siskind photographs are dirty but still attractive. The close crop of the feet in this image disembodies them in way that is suggestive of lack of life although there is vitality present in the way they are flexed. This tight frame also transforms the feet into their own form, abstracting them in a way.

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Sam Taylor Wood, A Little Death, 2002

Original image here: http://artpulsemagazine.com/breaking-the-medium-of-painting-down

Sam Taylor Wood’s video of the decaying rabbit depicts the horror of death in a way that is both beautiful and disgusting to the viewer.In this piece she references traditional still life painting to address ideas of mortality.

There is a violence present in the video which in relation to Taro’s photograph reminds us that these air raid victims died violent deaths. Despite the quiet still scene depicted, it is a still an image of war.

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Nicole Bull, Civil War soldiers at Green-Wood Cemetery, 2016

In referencing Taro’s photograph, I made this image of the two headstones as a way to echo the human form that she presents. The presence of the flag acknowledges that this is the grave of an American Civil War soldier, connecting it to the Spanish Civil War during which Taro was working. Additionally the age and erosion of these particular stones have obscured some of the text on these headstones, sharing some of the anonymity of Taro’s corpses.

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