by Chris Atkins
A Semblance of Life: the Art of Post-Mortem Photography, now on at the Hennepin History Museum, is your chance to gaze at death. In these photos you will see portraits and poses, caressing and cradling, people lying down or sitting. In other words, you'll recognize the common body language of everyday family photography. But all the while you have to keep reminding yourself that the common denominator of all these photos is death. These are post-mortem photographs. Due to the prohibitive costs of photography in the late 19th to early 20th century, photographs were reserved for only special occasions. In this case, the photos in the exhibit were taken shortly after (and sometimes before) relatives passed away—from disease, old age or even murder.
There is special attention paid to the dead body, but there is something else
happening here. In addition to indexing the death that is located in each of
these photos, this exhibit avoids simply fulfilling a morbid fascination with
death by providing a backward glance to a time when death, while no less traumatic
to surviving relatives, was not as alienating as we are used to today. Grief
and mourning are written all over the surface of these photos, and I’ve
tried to read through the tears of the relatives that these mothers, children
(so many children) and brothers left behind. But other times, I’m left
without anything to say; in a fascinating reversal of the Pietà, one
photo shows a baby sitting with her dead mother. The baby stares directly into
the camera but her mother’s eyelids and lips are tautly shut, her hands
closed into limp fists.
After spending some time with these photos, a few questions come to mind: Do
these images represent how the dead would want to be remembered to the living,
or are they how the dead are remembered by the living? Taking into account the
obvious staging of the photos, are we looking at physical reminders of past
lives, or are they a certain kind of memorial, a memorial that is somehow unmonumental?
Death leaves a physical absence in the family, and these photos, in addition
to being fascinating historical documents, also evidence a curious anxiety to
preserve a relative’s likeness at the last moment it is possible. As quickly
as dead bodies are removed from their homes, buried in the ground and left to
decay, so, too, will the memories of them eventually fail to close the distance
between then and now.
Over time the post-mortem format evolves and the dead are almost lost amidst
larger groups of relatives and boughs of flowers. It becomes clear that the
photos are less attentive to the mourning of the recently deceased and more
about preserving the broken family unit and overcoming the failures of memory.
Fast forward to the present: Think how easy it is for us to create family photo
albums, how differently we would remember relatives if it weren’t possible
to create visual archives until someone had died, until they were gone forever.
A Semblance of Life: The Art of Post-Mortem Photographyis on display
through Oct. 15 at the Hennepin History Museum, 2303 3rd Ave. S., Mpls., 612-870-1329.
Gallery hours are Sun. 1–5 p.m.; Tue. 10 a.m.–2 p.m.; Wed. 1–5
p.m.; Thu. 1–8 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 1–5 p.m. Closed Mon.