I was recently asked to provide portraits to the family of a woman that had just passed away. The photographs appeared in a publication almost ten years ago. A few days ago another request came to provide images to the dear friend of a man that I photographed in Italy, who now lies on his deathbed. Over the years, I have had other requests from families of the deceased to let them see and or purchase images of their loved one. I am pleased to offer the work for free as a way of honoring the memory of the person that I photographed, but I’m always curious why the photo is important to them, given it was taken by a stranger, and holds no collective memory for the family; it’s merely a physical likeness of their beloved. Wouldn’t photographs from a family birthday celebration ultimately provide a happy memory rather than an image from an I-want-to-be-Avedon portrait photographer?
What is it about death and photography? Why is the photo album the one thing people would grab in a house fire before running out the door? Is it because we can’t remember our own lives? Perhaps we can’t quite recall the hue of the dress Aunt Molly wore to the wedding? Or what the Christmas tree looked like in 1984? Maybe to remember the sweetness of our first child’s smile? Or our own bodies as young, sinewy, strong and durable? Could it be, simply, that a photograph proves we existed? Quite possibly, it is all of these things and more.
In Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still, Mann argues that the photograph becomes the memory as it strips away the real memory. She explains this as “Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.” She uses examples of photographs of her father after his death. She searches through scrapbooks and photo albums and she finds his likeness in a silver gelatin print in the attic. She studies the photograph, revealing “I’ve lost any clear idea of what my father really looked like, how he moved, sounded; the him-ness of him. I only have this (photograph). It isn’t death that stole my father from me; it’s the photograph.”
I disagree with Mann of how a photograph subverts memory. I photograph to remember. Yes, a camera doesn’t capture truth, but it does speak of a specific time, place, and details like the favorite outfit one was wearing or the warm light of an autumn afternoon. Mostly, photography documents the physical likeness of a precious face and body and holds it still with an unflinching refusal to age or decay.
Each photograph I’ve taken of my daughter, my mother, or any fine art portrait brings to my mind everything that happened before and after the shutter clicked. It prods my memory not only with the visual, but also with the sound…of a voice, the scent of a lotion, and the feel of a hug. Moreover, my senses are heightened when I photograph. Even though the camera is an obstacle in front of my face, my senses memorize details about a person (like Eloise above), place, or thing that I can clearly recall years after the photograph was taken. Each family photograph that I posed in with brothers or parents (though I can’t recount many details of time or place in my early years) records a past; it creates of bond of shared time and a collective history. Photographs produce a sense of nostalgia for me, a moment I’d like to recollect, and also, a moment I’m grateful I experienced.
After a high school friend died last year, I saw Facebook posts from his daughter requesting that people share stories and photographs of her father when he was young. When friends obliged, the daughter responded with sincere gratitude, but also curiosity. It seems as if she was searching for clues into her father’s past as a way to construct a deeper view of his life story, and her story as well. Could this be the reason for the portrait requests of the deceased? Is it a way of seeing the person through someone else’s eyes? A glance into secret life of their mother, father, or friend perhaps? An unknown photograph that can be studied, dissected and its subject and mood characterized? I never saw my mother hold her head like that? Why did she do that? Possibly the body position is a perfect reinforcement of how they knew their loved one. Either way, the picture confirms something they knew or it creates a mystery of something they did not. Both scenarios would produce a longing to know more or conversely, a longing for the familiar.
I do understand that grief can create desire for photographs of the deceased. I do understand the need to piece together the chronological events of a life through photography. If my house were burning down I would grab every external hard drive in my desk drawer and all of the photo boxes of my immediate family and my dead relatives, and most likely, die in the fire. I would be taking too much time gathering photos. Ultimately, photographs of the deceased are a family legacy. They may not be truths, but they refer to a specific time, place and the fraction of a second the shutter clicked to memorize a face.