Conceptual Conceits: Apparitions, Fictions and Illusions in Death Photography

Henry_Peach_Robinson_Fading_Away_1858 The celebrated post-modernist Urdu writer Naiyer Masud’s book of stories The Essence of Camphor1 begins with a black and white photograph of the author as a young boy of four to five years, lying on a bed facing the camera, eyes somewhat askew yet curious, clutching onto his favourite ball. Behind the bed, sheathed by an ornate bed cover upon which the young boy lays, is a table or a chest covered similarly and on which sits an alarm clock. A drape behind this clock completes this seemingly aphasic tableau, plain and perhaps white, but embellished with a floral pattern in its centre. The focal point of this image seems to be the clock – one’s attention is immediately drawn to it. The text below the photograph reveals that the author was very sickly then, suffering from a continuous fever for over forty days. All hopes of his survival were lost. Consequently, the author’s parents called in the famous Lucknowi photographer, Mirza Mughal Beg, to make a portrait of the dying child – a memento mori. The author had willed that his ball be buried alongside him in the grave that was to be his final resting place. Done in the western pictorialist style of deathbed/post-mortem photographs of the 19th century, the clock’s centrality is not merely to mark a referential time of death, but also to symbolically represent the passage, and indeed, the very evanescence of life itself. The ornate bedcover and drapes act as embellishments, funerary accoutrements, to beautify the scene, to render it as the stage of an exalted, melancholic event in the creation of the idealized ‘mourning portrait’ – a relic for the bereaved with which they could grieve in a ‘novel and acute form(s)’2 and retain the presence of their departed loved one.

But Naiyer Masud did not die (most fortuitously for us) and what was intended to be his last photograph turned out to be his very first portrait. In the Proustian render of the image, the talismanic ball, its underlying theme, its accompanying caption, and its surreal context, suffused with as intense a melancholic character as one can extrapolate from the archetypal untimely death of a masterful writer-in-making, this portrait of an artist as a near-dead young boy, is not so much moderated or tempered as it is instead amplified on a parallel plane to, suggest cunningly, a Borgesian duplicity of sorts – a literary trick, a fiction, a defeat of time, destiny and death itself. Perhaps emblematic of his writerly life, mimicking the spectral atmospherics of his stories, wherein ghostly psychological afflictions and unspoken incantations drift by in Lucknow’s old quarters, by-lanes, and the minds of the characters who inhabit the city and the narrative, the image, perhaps in shadowy pursuance of ‘the signs of the soul in men’3, can be read as a conceptualist artifice, invoking the conceits of many a literary and artistic prankster.

Susan Sontag informs us that ‘picture taking is an event in itself’; immortality is conferred on the event by the ‘image-world that bids to outlast us’.4 Further, she also argues that ‘photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are …touched with pathos’, and that ‘all photographs are memento-mori’. If that constitutes an emotive register there is always the claim to ‘another reality’; the native surrealism inherent in photographs is in part due to ‘its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past’.5

05333301 Man Ray, the photographer and painter famous for his Rayographs (‘shadows of objects’), in 1922 was recruited by Jean Cocteau to take a picture of a dying Marcel Proust. Often described as haunting and lyrical, the photograph is direct and intimate in its composition, confrontational even, as noted by Dan Meinwald, who writes that despite post-mortem photography often being ‘almost like embalming’ in the stylistic prepping of the subject (propping up of the dead in sitting positions, rouging of cheeks, etc, to effect a life-like appearance), most post-mortem photographs ‘simply reflect the circumstances of their making’6. The image of Proust, lying in his deathbed as if in repose, the dark discolouration around his eyes and the white of the shroud-like sheet somewhat indicative of a deathly aura, seems to be again suggesting, in the words of Jonathan Parry (who studied mortuary practice in Benares), that ‘the state of the body…provides an index of the state of the soul’7, and thus re-asserting, in true Proustian manner, that it is in our own mortality, or in the confrontation of illness and death, we realize that ‘we live not alone, but chained to a creature of a different kingdom…our body’. Again, the contouring of the abstract, of an unmappable topography, and the unveiling of an alternate reality becomes a dominant theme – a conceptual one at that. Sontag tells us that the ‘links between photography and death haunts all photographs of people’, because, as is verifiable and simultaneous, we both live and die at the same time. If for Cartier-Bresson photography is a way to ‘preserve life in the act of living’8, it may be readily divined that it is also a means to preserve life (and death too) in the act of dying; it is our discontent with reality that propels us to seek out the ‘really real’, or, the surreal.

Further proof of trickery, of metaphysical mischief, is to be found in the incredible Le Noyé (The Drowning)9 – a rant, diatribe, public protest, proto-conceptualist installation by the early photographic innovator, the world’s first public exhibitor of photographs, Hippolyte Bayard. A competitor of Talbot and Daguerre, Bayard was sorely disappointed at the lack of support for his own innovation, a paper process that produced a direct positive image. On October 18, 1840, a photograph bearing Bayard’s signature was displayed wherein there appeared a shirtless man sitting on a bench of sorts, wrapped in a sheet. It seems as if he is asleep, but from the discolouration on his face and hands, one concludes that the man is actually dead. And that this is a kind of mortuary scene. It is in reality a staged self-portrait of the photographer himself. He presents himself as an unrecognized, unclaimed body in a morgue, a man who ended his life by drowning. Text accompanying the photograph laments the callousness of the people in ignoring the great M.Bayard, an ‘ingenious and indefatigable researcher’ and the ‘inventor of the process whose marvelous results you have just seen’10. Bayard was frustrated at the preference of Daguerreotypes over his own process and presented this photograph as protest. Aside from being a diatribe against politics, this first fictional photograph is also a comment on the artist and his melancholy. The discolouration of his hands and face is due to a summer tan; reds and browns were not registered adequately due to the lack of sensitivity of silver salts to these colours. Towards the end of the text, Bayard refers to the ‘fleeting nature of human things’ and requests the viewers to move on for he fears their ‘sense of smell may be affected, for the head and the hands of the gentleman are beginning to rot, as you can see’11, as if looking at the picture of a decomposing cadaver could in turn make one physically nauseous, where one could actually smell the putrefaction. This staged death, a frozen moment, a daring conceit, takes the form of mythic resurrection. The wronged artist symbolically drowns himself and presents his very death as a redemptive act. The passage through water, a symbolic Hades, is a passage onward to immortality, eternal life. The photograph, with its attendant ‘moral and emotional weight’, then becomes a vehicle for what Sontag says is ‘a form of knowing without knowing: a way of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it’12. Bayard

It is in our denial of death that we seek immortality. While constantly attempting to strike one Faustian deal or the other, we remain plagued by the absurdity in doing so. The ‘comfortably enshrined and immortal souls’ in post-mortem pictures, Meinwald says, are ‘symbolic transformations of a threatening, inert image (of a corpse) into a vital image of eternal continuity (the soul)’. 13

These ‘parodies of the work of time’ find acute meaning, function and symbolism as explored by Christopher Pinney in his wonderful book, Camera Indica – The Social Life of Indian Photographs. Pinney describes the work of an itinerant travelling artist, Nandkishor, who when commissioned to create a memorial of Nandalalji Parmar from a black and white post-mortem image of the deceased, using an overpainting technique which inverts the dominant western aesthetic where the ‘paint lies under’14, opens up the closed eyes of the deceased, gives his mouth ‘a more vital inflection’ and removes facial marks. Pinney also points out, as does Meinwald whom he cites here, that colour is used to give an appearance of life. As a hyper-real image making process, Pinney also describes the post-mortem photography of Vijay Vyas, who is called upon by clients to make yaadgaars (memorials) of their deceased loved ones and instructed as to what they wish to see and the interventions he is required to conduct – trim a moustache, change a jacket, etc. Interestingly here, Pinney also points out that since the ‘Hindu death is comparatively slow’15, the pretatma (or spirit) still resides in the individual until cremation, thus retaining the vital force or prana, until helped on by ritual to move on to the netherworld by acquiring ‘etheric form’, and await satiation and final release from earthly, corporeal ties.

These ‘etheric forms’ are echoed in the fears of Balzac at being photographed: “every body in its natural state was made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped up in infinitesimal films…” 16 Balzac’s fantastic fear of essential layers being stolen by ‘every Daguerrian operation’ is justified, according to Nadar, since photography, is indeed, materializing in nature. 17 Photographs are then traces, Sontag says, and are ‘directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a deathmask.’

A decidedly Sebaldian theme, the persistence of a deathly presence about everything, people and objects alike, defined not just by the richly textured patina that comes to form over time but also by ‘ephemeral moments and configurations’, is explored very interestingly in his essay on his friend and collaborator, Jan Peter Tripp’s hyper-realist work, in the posthumously published book, Unrecounted. In his typical evocative fashion, W.G.Sebald informs us that we are outlived by things, and “they know more about us than we know about them: they carry the experiences they have had with us inside them and are – in fact – the book of our history opened before us.” 18 The hyper-reality of Jan Peter Tripp’s seemingly representational pictures and their intense loyalty to the real object, is again, a deception of sorts, for in Sebald’s words, there is: “a most disturbing sense of not having been taken in by some illusionist working with tricks not to be seen through.”19 The photo material that Tripp uses as a base, within which lies what Barthes says and Sebald affirms ‘the residue of a life perishing’, ‘a failing breath’, is modified – ‘a mechanical sharpness is suspended’, things are added, reduced, shades changed. In Tripp’s work, flowers become disembodied assuming a ‘porcelain rigor mortis’, and grapes seem not to be on a wedding table but ‘on a coffin rest’ instead. One image is of a dead or dying dormouse which apparently Tripp found at his door, and thereafter, spent seven days ‘in the thick chloroform vapour of putrefaction’, creating a picture of. On the seventh day Sebald reveals: “there was a little spasm in that lifeless corpse, and a drop of blood the size of a pinhead issued from the nostril. This was the true end.”20

All the various modernist, surrealist, post-modernist, or even ahistoric, implications of images of the dead, and of death, from the early pictorial work of Henry Peach Robinson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Weegee’s crime scenes, of Walter Benjamin’s search for his mother’s image, of Richard Avedon’s ‘elegant, ruthless portraits’ of his dying father, through spirit photography, Kirlian photography, war photography, medical photography, of our current digital democracies, insurrections and coups and the psychic intercourses thus generated, do not impose primacy on any single function aside from perhaps implicating a deep, promiscuous complicity, ‘a secret about a secret’, with the image world and its incessant production of picture puzzles which seduce us into what may well be, a futile and absurd unraveling. It is then the image itself that has the last laugh as it looks back at us while we look at it, confident in our nuanced, ironic gaze.


1 Naiyer Masud, The Essence of Camphor, Katha (New Delhi, 1998)

2 Dan Meinwald, ‘Memento Mori:Death in Nineteenth Century Photography’, California Museum of Photography Bulletin, (1990)

3 Attributed to Plutarch, cited in Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica:The Social Life of Indian Photographs, University of Chicago Press (1997)

4 Susan Sontag, On Photography

5 Ibid.

6 See Meinwald

7 cited by Christopher Pinney, p.196

8 See Sontag, On Photography, quotations, p.185

9 Michel Frizot (ed), A New History of Photography, Köneman (1998), p.30

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 See Sontag, On Photography, p.116

13 See Meinwald

14 See Pinney, p.138

15 Ibid, p.139

16 See Sontag, p.158

17 Ibid.

18 W G Sebald and Jan Peter Tripp, Unrecounted, (2004), p.79

19 Ibid, p.81

20 Ibid, p.86