Photographing the beauty of death
Updated: Feb 9
Please note that some of the links in this article contain images of deceased people - please use your discretion when viewing them.
Sometimes I photograph things I know others might find distasteful or even disturbing, but to me, beauty can be found in the most unconventional of circumstances, including death.
On a recent trip to the coast, I came across several dead sea birds in various states of decomposition. One had been washed up on the shore, its head and wing pointing skyward as if in mid-flight. Another lay in the undergrowth, its perfectly skeletonized leg in contrast to the as yet undecayed body and wings. I appreciate the word beautiful might not be the first to spring to most people’s minds but, nonetheless, I could see elegance and beauty in their decaying form. And I don’t believe I am alone in this thought, as throughout history there have been photographers, artists and journalists who have felt compelled to capture the most personal and final of life’s moments.
Since the first photograph was taken in 1826, photography had captured many aspects of life and, by the mid-1800s, this began to include death. Until that point, photography had been an expensive business, as images were initially produced on silver-coated copper plates called daguerreotypes. But when a cheaper process using wet plates was developed, it became attainable to the less affluent. Before the 1850s, family portraits were strictly the preserve of the wealthy who could afford the expense of having their family’s likenesses immortalized on canvas.
But despite photography becoming more widely accessible, it often wasn’t until someone had died that a family arranged for a portrait to be taken. From our modern perspective, it seems horrific to entertain the idea of posing with a deceased loved one. But the Victorians viewed it very differently as, unlike us, they had a much closer relationship to death*. This was mainly due to the high mortality rates of the period which made it a regular occurrence in people’s everyday lives and homes. It also pays to remember that taking such photos was usually the only permanent record they had of a person, something that is hard to relate to in an age of smartphones where we take for granted the ability to take pictures of anything we wish, whenever and wherever we want.
Whilst the Victorians used photography to record the memory of those who had passed, in more recent times it has been used by artist, Walter Schels, and his partner, Beate Lakotta, to capture the portraits of terminally ill patients, both before and after they died. Titled Life Before Death, the exhibition not only features side-by-side portraits of each person but also their life story. The inclusion of these brief biographies gives a real insight to their fears, vulnerabilities and regrets and shows just how closely the artists came to know each of their subjects.
Schels and Lakotta embarked on this project as they had often pondered what the actual experience of dying would be like. Schels himself carried an inherent fear of death throughout his life, emanating from his childhood experiences of the war in which he witnessed seeing the many dead after a bomb hit his street.
In an interview, Lakotta remarked how death is something we tend to think of as happening to other people. She was therefore surprised to discover that many of the patients she spoke to still felt that way, despite evidence to the contrary. These patients also held on to the unwavering hope that a miracle would occur and, somehow, they would be saved. She also observed how many of the subjects were very brave, even if they hadn’t been so throughout their lives, something she found most encouraging. As a result of creating and reflecting on their work, the couple lost their fear of death and began to see that the experience of dying may not be as awful as they had once imagined.
In a time where depicting and talking about death is still relatively taboo, their portraits not only give us permission to look closely at the face of death, but to also see it as something beautiful rather than something to be feared.
Photography has, however, also been used to capture other kinds of controversial deaths. And whilst these images can still be deemed beautiful, they also raise some interesting moral questions too. One of the most famous of these images was taken by photography student, Robert C Wiles, in 1947, titled The Most Beautiful Suicide. The photograph depicts the body of Evelyn McHale, lying atop the caved-in roof of a car on which she landed after jumping from the 86th-floor observatory of the Empire State Building. Wiles happened to be across the street when he heard a crash and rushed over to see what had caused the commotion. Far from discovering the horrific scene one would expect, Wiles found that Evelyn looked, to all intents and purposes, as if she was asleep. She was peacefully reposed, her ankles elegantly crossed, and her gloved hand clutching the pearls about her neck. Her life may have ended violently, but in death, she became Sleeping Beauty.
In her suicide note, Evelyn stated, “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation?”. The irony of this was that the photograph was picked up and published by Life magazine, immortalizing her death for all the world to see. It therefore begs the question, is it ever appropriate to photograph such tragedies, and when does it cross the line between art and documentation to morbid voyeurism?
Whilst we may feel uncomfortable with certain images, and question the motive of those who capture them, I do believe they have value as well as beauty. Throughout our lives we are encouraged to document and share the good things and not the bad. We file anything away that is not agreeable in the back of our minds, never to see the light of day. But these moments do have a place as they can teach us so much about ourselves and others, help us explore our vulnerabilities and face our fears.
For me, these kinds of images, whatever the reason they were taken, reinforce the notion that beauty can be found in the darkest of places - we just have to be brave and fearless enough to capture it.
*A note on post mortem photography: I would like to add that, due to the increased interest in these Victorian curiosities, many of the pictures posted online claiming to be ‘post mortem’ are, in fact, regular family portraits of people who are very much alive. Such photos have often been mislabelled due to the use of posing stands which kept the sitters still during the long exposure times required to produce an image. This, however, sometimes gives the appearance of individuals being “propped up” as if they were a corpse but the real shots look very different to these kinds of portraits.
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The first ever photograph
Victorian death portraiture
Life Before Death exhibition www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2008/mar/31/lifebeforedeath#:~:text=This%20sombre%20series%20of%20portraits,much%20about%20dying%20%2D%20and%20living.&text=I%20don't%20want%20to%20die!%E2%80%9D
Interview with Walter Schels & Beate Lakotta
A Beautiful Suicide by Robert C Wiles