Where adults see grays, young children seem able to recognize and deal with death with disarming aplomb. They are drawn to the look and feel of death, and want to explore it as avidly as their own sexuality. Charles Dickens’s Little Nell was completely at ease with her famous mid-nineteenth-century illness, strung out over months when The Old Curiosity Shop was published, chapter by chapter from 1840 to 1841, and read avidly by most of the literate population of England. Nell thought only of others, and never of her own malady; she was the epitome of the selfless, childhood angel, ready to meet her Maker. The adult reading population, on the other hand, held their breath for what they hoped wasn’t the inevitable, and many implored Dickens to spare her. They wanted to defy in fiction what could not be denied in real life, which is understandable given the mortality rates of the period. In Manchester, England, for example, 57 out of every 100 children died before the age of five in 1840, and during the same period the English gentry lived to an average age of only 44, which dropped precipitously to only 22 years for laborers.(1) Little Nell died despite thousands of entreaties, but Dickens bestowed upon her the ultimate “beautiful death.”(2)
The Victorians who wept at The Old Curiosity Shop (or Henry Peach Robinson’s 1858 photograph Fading Away) had seen some of their children, nieces and nephews die as infants. Sometimes the same hands that cut their umbilical cords cleaned their bodies before rigor morris set in. They knew the smell of a deathbed, the breath of a dying grandparent, the dust in a shaft of light seeping through curtains, the passing of a mother in childbirth, the heft of a coffin being hoisted from a wagon and lowered into the ground. Throughout human history, death, like birth, had been close at hand, an everyday experience.
But the twentieth century brought with it revolutionary changes in the Western theory and practice of dying, as Philippe Aries has argued:
In the course of the twentieth century an absolutely new type of dying has made an appearance in some of the most industrialized, urbanized, and technologically advanced areas of the Western World. . . . society has banished death . . . Society no longer observes a pause; the disappearance of an individual no longer affects its continuity. Everything in town goes on as if nobody died anymore.(3)
The “banishment” of death is stunning in many respects, not least in the way it has taken such a strong hold on our society in such a short period of time. In a span of three or four generations, American society has so pervasively distanced itself from death that practices that previously were exceedingly common – like memorial portraiture – strike many late-twentieth-century people as twisted or perverted. Throughout history, to die at home, surrounded by family, friends and neighbors, was the norm. In our own time, most of us confer our rights of death and dying to the professionals, and die amidst doctors, nurses and blinking machines. In 1940, 70% of all deaths occurred in the home, but only 40 years later 80% take place in hospitals or nursing homes.(4) Death is kept at bay: tending the dying and dead is customarily given over to a whole professional sub-class of medical, funeral and legal communities who transact the theory and practice of death. If terminally ill patients want to die at home, they and their family often have to fight the medical establishment for the privilege, so radically have conventions changed. As Michael C. Kearl suggests, “with modernization, medicine has replaced religion as the major institutional molder of cultural death fears and immortality desires.”(5)
If it is a rarity in our society to experience death in its moment, our mediated selves consume it daily through TV and film. Ever since Viet Nam, our living rooms have been the sites of death and destruction. The nightly news nearly always begins with stories of local gore – traffic fatalities, drive-by shootings, rapes. When fortune brings the networks a new war, flood or famine, we are treated to pictures of the “real thing,” with grave voices that provide little in the way of context, but much advice about how to feel. In films and television shows countless bad guys writhe operatically before succumbing to the final horizontal, and Kung Fu is readily available on late night cable for those who need a close before bedtime. The National Institute of Mental Health recently estimated that by the age of 16, the typical American has seen some 18,000 homicides on television(6) – which works out to an average of three deaths per day – exclusive of newspapers and movies. Mediated death occurs across town or over oceans, but always elsewhere; it might be frightening or sad, but ultimately it’s someone else’s problem. Safe death, safe sex – if the pronouncements about cyberspace are any indication, our society is only just beginning to concoct ways of living in an airless remove.
In contrast to the preponderance of death imagery in the mass media, still photographs of death are something of a rarity. On television, death can be highly dramatic, but is always fleeting. Still photographs are much less tractable; their evidence is not as easy to dispense with, particularly since the viewer, as opposed to the film director or editor, controls when to look and when to move on. The very stasis of still photographs demands more attentiveness, which may suggest why these images have been in large measure invisible in exhibitions and publications until quite recently. Their absence may correlate with the broader societal banishment of death.
Spurred in part by the AIDS epidemic, which has brought death closer at hand and occasioned numerous photographic essays, the publication of several books on the subject in the last few years is a welcome sight. In addition, the ongoing controversies over euthanasia and abortion turn, in all of their complexity, upon issues of defining life and death, and deciding who can and should settle such matters – politicians, lawyers, medical professionals, citizens. Our society is reevaluating some of the lift-and-death positions that have taken hold during our century, and photography can play a significant role in shedding light on these issues. The relative proliferation of photographs of death in exhibitions and books might even signal a readiness in our society to re-examine our attitudes about dying and death.
The images contained within the books under review here touch on a wide variety of places and times, events and cultures. But before proceeding to them, permit a couple of caveats that the preceding pages have already warranted. Subjectivity, triteness and over-generalization seem inevitable by-products when writing about death, and this essay is no exception. It would be absurd to pretend that my personal contacts with death do not affect my attitudes about these photographs and the issues they raise. To generalize from one’s particular point of view on a subject like death swings somewhere between the foolhardy and the downright stupid. However, in the absence of inordinate self-reflexivity, such generalizations are inevitable. And, too, the snare of triteness looms. Who among us has not resorted to “I’m sorry” in the face of grief? The inadequacy of language to transact the deepest of our experiences – the dances of love, of death – makes for a thriving industry in greeting cards. Only the poets are able to reach into the deeper waters, and even they come up short – the great elegies of literature can be counted on two or three hands. Metaphor recurs in some of the writing in these books, and in this essay as well, as the trope that seems best suited to an impossible subject, since at its heart metaphor concedes that some things can only be expressed through indirection. Metaphor denies direct description, for few (metaphorically speaking) can peer directly into the sun. As Wallace Stevens suggested in his “The Motive for Metaphor” (1947):
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from The weight of primary noon, The A B C of being,
The ruddy temper, the hammer Of red and blue, the hard sound – Steel against intimation – the sharp flash, The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.
Looking at Death contains a broad range of photographs that Barbara P. Norfleet assembled from various photographic collections housed at Harvard University. Included are images of deaths from all manner of natural and unnatural causes: disease, decapitation, rape, fire, lynching, murder, suicide, old age. There are children and adults laid in state, body-littered battlegrounds, charnel houses, fetuses and some especially difficult photographs of people who died of melanosis and dermatitis. With few exceptions, the photographs were made for documentary purposes by anthropologists, commercial photographers, news photographers and the police. The photographs represent a variety of cultural approaches to death, past and present, and their inclusion in no way reflects a token multiculturalism. Rather, the cultural range of images is central to the point and power of the anthology: that our responses to death, individually and socially, are as varied as the forms that death itself takes. As Norfleet suggests, the photographs also reinforce a theme of community,
“. . . that [Americans] are trying to make death and grief less isolating . . . But it is most often a sharing among strangers. Most of us have lost the art of sharing our own grief and helping others with theirs.”
Norfleet introduces the book with a section called “Staging Death” that includes histrionic photographs of plays and films: Julius Caesar lying bloodlessly dead, surrounded by serious-miened Romans peering off in various directions; Greta Garbo as Camille, dying in the arms of an immaculately coifed Robert Taylor; and various other actors and actresses in postures of soulful lamentation. As Norfleet says, these pictures “show death as graceful and romantic,” as something that “is never faced alone, but is shared with others.” These are wonderfully hokey photographs of clean, well-lit deaths, and their ironies only increase when compared to the pictures of actual death that follow. These simulated death scenes serve as a deft and humorous counterpoint to the grisliness of much of the rest of the book.
Elsewhere, wit emerges in unexpected forms. William N. Jennings’s photograph Morgue with a Poem (c. 1920) displays an assembly line of dozens of enshrouded corpses hanging from meathooks. Some unknown scribe wrote the following memento mori on the photograph:
Gaze my friends perhaps with glee As you are now, so once were we And if you do not give a cuss Just grab a hook and follow us
Next to a hook lying on the floor is written “The Hook,” and beside a corpse enshrouded in black, lying on the floor, “Not Joe Louis.” Perhaps the writer was an undertaker who, having lived with death for untold years, used black humor for the same reasons that surgeons sometimes banter irreverently around the operating table.
Norfleet achieves sly humor in her sequencing. A section called Remains of Death, that features mummies and skeletons from various parts of the world concludes with a series of photographs that feature skulls. An 1850 portrait of Professor John Collins Warrent presents a handsomely dressed, serious man whose hand rests atop a human skull. The iconography of this image looks back to past centuries, where men customarily posed for memento mori with skulls and other symbols of mortality, while at the same time being very much of the nineteenth century, where learned “gentlemen” were often passionate naturalists and amateur scientists. It is an archetypal image of Western attitudes and sensibility. On the opposite page is a photograph of a nearly naked, emaciated Philippine man taken in the nineteenth century. He stands holding a spear, and beside him four skulls are lined up against a white sheet. A turn of the page reveals a picture of Hamlet pondering the skull of Yorick, taken from a Moscow performance in the mid-1950s, perhaps in the midst of uttering these lines:
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till ‘a find it stopping a bunghole? . . . . . . . Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel? (V,i)
The final picture is a display at the American Museum of Natural History of skulls strung along a tree that illustrates cranial development among the hominids. This suite of photographs raises searching questions about competing systems of knowledge and representation, and does so with wit and insight.
In some images death is seen as part of the natural order. In the “Death in the Family” section American children lie in coffins, beds, chairs and laps. Dressed in Sunday finery, surrounded by flowers, hands often folded, they are posed to look serene and at peace. In a 1938 photograph a young couple poses together with their dead child as if she is simply sleeping on the mother’s lap, while an 1864 carte de visite shows an older brother with a protective arm around his equally dead sister in their joint coffin. These patently American images are balanced with pictures that attest to different rituals and iconography: ancient Mummies and grave sites from Egypt, Guatemala, Pompeii and Ohio mound builders. An arresting photograph of a Roman ossuary made in the 1870s shows a room decorated with thousands of bones, skulls and four skeletal monks dressed in full regalia bearing crosses. Norfleet writes:
At first glance, the embellishments look like carved wood, but then you see the rose window made from ribs and vertebral segments . . . The remains of the friars in their hoods . . . and flowing robes are far more disturbing and haunting than skeletons would be. The hollow sockets peering out from the hoods, the bony hands clutching crosses, and the solemn postures make these friars seem part alive, part corpse.
A 1961 photograph shows a young dead New Guinea warrior, surrounded by tribesmen, tied upright in a chair, being prepared for his funeral pyre, and a 1985 photograph by Jane Tuckerman depicts two shrouded corpses awaiting cremation in India. In many of these photographs the accoutrements of death suggest, with varying degrees of subtlety, hope for a better hereafter.
The heart of the book lies in images of the grim reaper in high spirits – images that call into question the nature of a species that is capable of such aggression and inhumanity. Ponder, for example, Felix Beato’s Hanging Man, the Execution Ground (c. 1870), in which a mangled body is splayed along a crucifix, foregrounded by the heads of six Japanese warriors. Or B. W. Kilburn’s 1902 stereograph of five beheaded Chinese Boxers, the severed heads laying along side their bodies at odd angles. Or a (c. 1900) picture of a Philippine headhunter holding a lashed, headless victim that resembles an animal carcass. Or consider the photograph of Mussolini and his mistress, made soon after a mob beat them to death in 1945. The couple sit more or less upright, with their heads leaning against each other, tags of identification pinned to their shirts. Blood covers her face and clothes. Mussolini’s mangled head looks more like an overripe squash than anything human. The phrase “beaten to a pulp” takes on new meaning in viewing this photograph. I try to imagine the hands that held the clubs and the feet that stomped these people to death, and the years of frustration and hatred toward the dictator that fueled such frenzy. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Mussolini – the least sympathetic of figures – in reaction to the capacity for violence that the image implies. We confront in such pictures not only death, but Joseph Conrad’s unspeakable acts born in hearts of darkness. One returns with relief to hokey pictures of Caesar, Garbo and Hamlet pondering Yorick’s skull.
The photographs of crime victims are among the toughest photographs, in part because of their everydayness, and their suggestion that terminal violence can lurk around any corner. Taken at the sites of death and most often unattributed, the images encourage us to narratize as we search for explanations. Some of these photographs bring to mind Roland Barthes’s idea of the punctum, the piercing element in a photograph that leaps into us from beyond the frame; in Barthes’s words, the “sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”(7) In Victim in Family Slaying (1958) a dead girl lies on a bed, only her bare legs visible, with what appears to be parities bunched around her ankles. Two detectives stand on either side, one looking at her, the other studying a legal pad. Above the corpse on the wall, the publicity pictures of four Hollywood celebrities, neatly framed in a grid of four, smile broadly, showing gleaming teeth. In Murder of Young Couple (c. 1966) two partially visible dead bodies are slumped in the front seat of a car. A single bullet hole, ringed in the pure white of fractured glass, is visible on the windshield in front of the driver’s seat. In Murder of Children by Gas (c. 1967) two young children lie as if asleep on a kitchen floor. The girl is missing one shoe, and the boy has wet his pants at the moment of death. To appropriate a metaphor from a wholly different context, the devil is in the details.
Joel-Peter Witkin’s anthology, Harm’s Way, consists of four series of photographs of murders, sickness, pornography and portraits of the insane. The selection principles go unstated, but they’re evident enough, since the pictures have the unmistakable stamp of Witkin’s aesthetic. Many of these subjects would surely have found their way into Witkin’s photographs, if only they hadn’t had the misfortune to die long ago. In his terse three paragraph introduction, Witkin informs us that “existence is a form of pathology,” that the photographs possess a “brutal extreme of . . . purpose,” and that these photographs are “from a time resplendent in the atrocity we once called life.”
The 24 photographs of crime victims were made by the New York police between 1914 and 1918. Luc Sante first mined this archive in his stunning and disturbing book, Evidence (1992), and several of the pictures published there are included in Harm’s Way.(8) Many depict the dead in public places – stairwells, hallways, alleys and streets. The shoes of an executed man are visible from the end of a barrel in which his body has been jammed. Another man lies against the doors of a cornice and skylight shop, with rows of people standing on either side of him, wholly neglecting the corpse as they peer back into the camera lens. Many of the bodies depicted are firmly rooted to the beds, chairs and streets that captured them in their final moments.
But others almost seem to levitate. Several victims were photographed from above, with a wide angle lens used on a camera set upon a tripod. The spatial ambiguity can be quite disarming: the eyes play tricks, and at times it seems as if one is looking up at bodies that seem to hover above the viewer, as if their final resting places were ceilings, not floors. In her accompanying essay, Eugenia Parry Janis calls these murdered people “the fallen,” and the metaphor fits the vertiginous feel of the images as it invokes various physical, metaphysical and mythical associations of falling.
These are photographs of ambiguous scenes seen ambiguously. Even if the police records hadn’t been destroyed, it would be virtually impossible to reconstruct these people’s lives, much less the events that led to their demise, or the identity of the hands that killed them. Janis discusses the intervention by the police photographers, who customarily moved the bodies and inserted props into the pictures, all of which makes these images all the more inscrutable. Add to these crime photographs the limits of descriptive language – to say nothing of the power of rhetorical speech and – voila! – we get the O. J. Simpson trial: ambiguities that eclipse two dead people on a Brentwood sidewalk. Image, exposition, argument are all supposedly marshaled in the search for truth, whether in courtrooms or criticism. But such positions, intentionally or otherwise, often serve the larger role of screening us from the fatal dominant X – the inertness of these people and their evocations about us and our world.
The problem with stressing the ambiguity that confronts us in 80-year-old police photographs – or the more recent color versions made outside Nicole Brown Simpson’s condo – is the temptation to aestheticize experience. Given the impossibility of knowing the contexts, we treat objects as if they are entirely self-contained and resistant to hermeneutic penetration. Action, and perhaps even reaction, become irrelevant. We are free to play with the image as we see fit, ironic distance is readily achieved, and death becomes just another consumable object. We see grays, and perhaps even seek them out for the cushion that they provide. But in their final moments, the people in these photographs knew the red bloodedness of their murderers and the feel of their red blood seeping out. No amount of theoretical dancing can eliminate, in the end, the impact of these simplest of earth-signs.
Rooted in the immutable, if ambiguous, fact of death, these images raise questions both about their subjects and ourselves as viewers. Sante suggests some of the paradoxes:
I am presenting [these crime photographs] because of their terrible eloquence and their nagging silence. I cannot mitigate the act of disrespect that is implicit in the act of looking at them, but their power is too strong to ignore; they demand confrontation as death demands it.(9)
Writing in a similar vein, Janis poses the most relevant question of all: “We cannot look at these photographs today without wondering why we want to look at them, why we want to probe each one, puzzle over what seems at the same time alien and yet profoundly familiar . . . “She answers the question not by emphasizing the voyeuristic or sensationalistic impulses that drive some viewers. Rather, she suggests, invoking the operative metaphor from Edwin Abbott’s novel, Flatland (1884), that
These photographs design the dead in a universe different from our own, as flat stars in a flat galaxy. We must admit to ourselves, as we take them on, that such pictures-fulfill a need, increasingly insistent, to face in two dimensions what in the third we will never understand, and what the fourth has yet to reveal.
Janis stretches the language in order to suggest the ways that these photographs enter into and change consciousness through metaphor. She deftly encourages us to ponder our innermost responses to the impenetrable shells of the fallen.
In Secure the Shadow author Jay Ruby devotes much of his attention to the largely neglected area of memorial portraits. These photographs were, in Ruby’s words, “a normal part of the image inventory of many families – displayed in wall frames and albums along with other family pictures.” Memorial photographs were first made soon after the invention of the medium, and they were a familiar practice in America until the early twentieth century. They persist in our own day, but the images are circulated only among close family members because of current taboos.(10) Ruby sets out to analyze these largely overlooked photographs in hope of situating the practice within broad currents of American social history.
The research in the book is extensive. Ruby succeeds in amassing far-flung materials on American death imagery into a coherent whole, employing methods from anthropology, sociology, cultural history and art history. He marshals evidence from well-chosen primary materials that enliven the topic. For example, in 1873 Boston photographer Albert Southworth coolly describes his work with corpses 30 years earlier:
Just lay [the corpses] down as if they were in sleep . . . I will say on this point, because it is a very important one, that you may do just as you please so far as the handling and bending of corpses is concerned. You can bend them till the joints are pliable and make them assume a natural and easy position. If a person has died and the friends are afraid that there will be liquid ejected from the mouth, you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under the operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than one single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe the mouth and wash off the face and handle them just as well as though they were well persons.
Or consider the following 1877 advice, offered by an Illinois photographer to others who might be pressed into performing “the unpleasant duty to take a picture of a corpse”:
. . . it is no easy manner [sic] to bend a corpse that has been dead twenty-four hours. Place the body on a lounge or sofa, have the friends dress the head and shoulders as near as in life as possible, then politely request them to leave the room to you and your aides, that you may not feel the embarrassment incumbent should they witness some little mishap liable to befall the occasion . . .
Place your camera in front of the body at the foot of the lounge, get your plate ready, and then comes the most important part of the operation (opening the eyes), [sic] this you can effect handily by using the handle of a teaspoon; put the upper lids down, they will stay; turn the eyeball around to its proper place and you have the face nearly as natural as life. Proper retouching will remove the blank expression and the stare of the eyes.
Among other things, these passages implicitly suggest what was earlier alluded to: that the physical proximity of death was much closer at hand to the average nineteenth-century citizen than to ourselves. Our ancestors knew the movements of the joints and the bodily emissions of the dead, and could discuss them matter of factly. In contrast, were I to read these passages in a public lecture, nervous laughter would no doubt fill the air.
The materials assembled here reveal other significant differences between us and our great grandparents, and embedded attitudes about death in our time are dramatized in the process. We learn, for example, that photographers who advertised their deathbed services sometimes promised to be there with photographic equipment within an hour’s notice because the burial process could take as little as one day. A tradition of photographs devoted exclusively to funeral flowers sprung up, which, Ruby suggests, was “a reflection of the shift in attention from the deceased to the funeral.” There were also a fair number of death photographs made of pets: Ruby reports that pet cemeteries in Philadelphia and Los Angeles contain a large number of tombstone photographs, many of recent vintage.
But, of course, some things never change. Even the most bathetic of the nineteenth-century death photographs – angelic sleepers amidst super-abundant flowers and elaborate coffins – carry with them the lingering hope of a hereafter in an age when traditional faith and the conceit of an anthropocentric world continued its retreat. As with the death of Little Nell, behind the patent sentimentality of many memorial pictures there lies a familiar need for consolation, if not explanation.
Regrettably, despite the wealth of materials, Secure the Shadow falls short of captivating the reader. Details are amassed to the point of tedium and loss of focus. Within a couple of pages, in the course of a discussion on photographic tombstones, we discover that the first daguerreotype made in Indianapolis was for a tombstone; some Catholic dioceses have proscriptions against photographs in cemeteries; “there appear to be no photo tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery”; in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, there has been recent vandalism of photographic tombstones; and that the first patent for a photographic tombstone was issued in 1851 (thankfully, we are told patent number, too).
Moreover, the flat affect of Ruby’s writing fails to reach the emotional subtexts that fueled the practice of memorial photography, as in:
Funerals are a time when families get together. While a sad occasion, it is not unusual for family members to use the event to conduct family business and have a social time. It is therefore not illogical that family pictures are taken at the time of the funeral. (p. 97)
Or consider this paragraph, which concludes the third chapter of the book:
In order to accommodate the loss of a loved one, we need to celebrate his or her life. Memorializing the deceased with a photograph seems an altogether reasonable means to accomplish that task. The logic of this argument is sufficient that several industries – from memorial card manufacturers to photographic tombstone plaque makers – have raised to facilitate these activities.
The concluding chapter of the book, “A Social Analysis of Death-Related Photographs,” is especially disappointing. The chapter begins, “There is no mystery as to why people take pictures of deceased loved ones. They feel the need for a last visual remembrance.” In a similar mode, Ruby begins a section entitled “Motivation” with:
Why do some people take photographs of their dead loved ones and their funerals and affix their images on tombstones? Is there some overriding purpose and motivation that can account for all photographs of death? It may be no more complex than the fact that photographs that memorialize a life or commemorate a death provide us with a means to remember so we can forget.
Such pat thinking forecloses the kind of inquiry that “social analysis” warrants. If, after more than a decade of research into the topic, Ruby finds no mystery in such open-ended questions, it may explain why the analysis that follows seems so flat-footed. He loses himself amidst details that seem largely irrelevant to his larger objectives. In the midst of this “social analysis,” why are four pages devoted to evidence concerning the pervasiveness of death photography – a point firmly established earlier in the book – culminating in a page and a half given over to a lengthy quote from an Ann Landers column, about which Ruby offers no additional comment?
Ruby devotes too little attention to issues that lie at the heart of the matter. What personal, social and political needs were satisfied by these images? Have people in the late twentieth century lost something by having relinquished, in large measure, this tradition? Might there be an inverse proportion between the proliferation of mass-mediated imagery of death and the waning of private death images? And most important – and elusive – how, in a span of two or three generations, did America evolve from a country that knew death close at hand, and used photography to transact part of this knowledge, to a country that largely proscribes against such imagery, banishing death to hospitals, while simultaneously indulging violence in the streets and the mass media? Overriding issues such as these are either begged or given short shrift.
This book is a useful starting point into a large and fascinating topic. Ruby is adept at gathering and categorizing death images and related materials. But as an excavation into social history, or an explanation of what these photographs meant to families and to the culture at large, this study falls short. The basic materials are at hand, but they cry out for a synthesizing sensibility like that of an Aries, Michel Foucault or Christopher Lasch.
On August 10, 1945, Yosuke Yamahata, a 28-year-old photographer for the Japanese News and Information Bureau, was given the toughest photographic assignment in history: to document Nagasaki the day after the atomic bomb had been dropped. The more than 100 photographs he made that day comprise the ground zero of atomic photography. Until its recent publication in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing, the work in Nagasaki Journey has been largely unseen in America. The landscape that emerges in these photographs is an unprecedented wasteland, the likes of which John Bunyan, T. S. Eliot, and J. R. R. Tolkein never imagined. A few withered trees, smokestacks, telegraph poles and building foundations are all that rise from the leveled city. Lumber, steel, rocks and body parts litter the landscape. Smoke and dust hover above the ground, turning much of the scenery into a dirty, middle gray.(11)
In the photographs taken at or near ground zero, we search in vain for signs of life – at ground zero everything alive turned into powder and dust. Life itself is the missing term in these pictures. Further from the epicenter, amidst the rubble, lie charred body parts that look sub-human, with their stiff limbs and contorted hands, and the blackened flesh that could be hides or fur. These pictures evoke some deeply fearful realms of the psyche in suggesting an atavistic, retrograde metamorphosis. It’s as if in death these men and women moved backwards toward an earlier, primordial biological state. The cocked arm of a human corpse, head facing up, hands twisted, looks not unlike a dead cockroach on the kitchen floor.(12) The impact is related, however tragic the irony, with a stock-in-trade shot in horror films, where the unmasked heroine or hero – outwardly beautiful – is transmogrified into the reptilian monster within. And, closer to the bone, these pictures suggest a deeper reversion into the inorganic condition of dust. I don’t introduce these fearful metamorphoses to in any way trivialize the dead in Japan, but rather to suggest the mythic and dreamwork elements that such images can evoke. These photographs encourage us to confront the human selves that create war and death machines in the first place . . . and the animal selves that inhabit our skins . . . and our deeper mineral selves, Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust.”(13)
Yamahata’s photographs of the Nagasaki survivors are equally challenging. People walk along devastated highways, sleep on the ground, wash themselves, stare into space, cradle children in their arms, bear away the dead. Robert Jay Lifton writes in the book’s Forward,
We encounter devastated human beings and profound emptiness. The emptiness is partly in the landscape . . . But the emptiness extends to people’s faces. On those faces are recorded combinations of anguish and confusion . . . Yamahata records what Japanese people have spoken of, in relation to atomic bomb survivors, as muga-muchu, literally, “without self, in a trance,” suggesting a state of psychological obliteration.(14)
The images give testimony to the immediate impact of the bomb and its aftermath of desolation, but say nothing of the subsequent effects of the radiation poisoning. For example, three photographs show a woman nursing her child. In two of the pictures, the mother gazes into the child’s burned and scarred face, while in the third she looks off into the distance with a glazed expression of great sadness. Only a few days after her birth, and just hours after the explosion, the infant at the breast is already ingesting massive doses of radiation. We see these images with 50 years of hindsight, and the knowledge that many of the survivors were to face slow, excruciating deaths. At times we might want to cry out to these people – and to Yamahata himself – “Get out of there, those smoldering grounds will poison you.” But they are frozen in their time, and we in ours, and anyway, there was nowhere to run.
Yamahata, who died of duodenal cancer in 1965, wrote a brief “memo” on the experience of photographing Nagasaki for the Japanese book of his photographs that was published in 1952. He recounts his orders:
I had been directed to photograph the situation in Nagasaki so as to be as useful as possible for military propaganda. At the same time I was concerned to discover the means for one’s survival in the midst of this tragedy. These, I remember, were the only two thoughts on my mind as I lay down to rest, gazing up at the beautiful dawn sky and waiting for the light to grow strong enough to begin taking photographs.
In an interview made 10 years later, in 1962, Yamahata spoke of the strange beauty of the scene after the bombing, “I tried climbing up onto a small hill to look – all around, the city burned with what looked like little elf-fires, and the sky was blue and full of stars. It was a strangely beautiful scene.” In responding to the question, “you must have been paralyzed in fright” when photographing, Yamahata responded:
I was completely calm and composed. In other words, perhaps it was just too much, too enormous to absorb . . . Walking through the tragedy of Nagasaki at the time, all I thought of was the photographs I had to take, and of how to avoid being killed if another New Style Bomb were to fall. In other words, I thought only of myself. That might be shameful, but it was the reality of the situation and I can’t change it.
These reactions, though not what some might expect, seem fully human. In the face of such devastation and misery, we somehow retain the capacity to go on auto pilot, to get a job done, and in the process even to find beauty in the most anomalous of places.
In Death in Life (1967), Robert Jay Lifton cites the following testimony of a Hiroshima survivor:
. . . at a certain point I must have become more or less saturated, so that I became no longer sensitive, in fact insensitive, to what I saw around me. I think human emotions reach a point beyond which they cannot extend – something like the photographic process. If under certain conditions you expose a photographic plate to light, it becomes black; but if you continue to expose it, then it reaches a point where it turns white . . . Only later can one recognize having reached this maximum state . . . (15)
In encountering and engaging in the photographs contained in these wide-ranging, ambitious, courageous and disturbing books, viewers and readers, too, can reach the point of saturation, lapse into a state of semi-shock, and even take refuge in their terrible beauty. Perhaps these responses and mechanisms are deflections, perhaps they are lies, perhaps they are saving graces. Whatever the case, there is much to be gained in seeing ourselves see: in pondering the moves we make when peering at Yorick’s skull, or flirting with the fatal, dominant X.
1. Michael C. Kearl, Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 45.
2. Phillipe Aries develops the concept of beautiful death at length in The Hour of Our Death, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 410-474.
3. Ibid., p. 560.
4. Kearl, p. 478.
5. Ibid., p. 406.
6. Ibid., p. 383.
7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Richard Howard, trans., (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 27.
8. Luc Sante, Evidence, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1992).
9. Ibid., p. xii.
10. Norfleet makes the same case in her Introduction, p. 13.
11. Some of Yamahata’s film was also fogged that day.
12. Director Francis Ford Coppola used this effect in Godfather 3, when one of the mobsters died from eating poisoned candy while watching the opera that concludes the film, and in his death throes he looks as much like a bug as a human.
13. Cf. Hamlet, II, ii.
14. Robert Jay Lifton, “Foreword: Yamahata’s Witness, Atomized Nagasaki: the Bombing of Nagasaki – A Photographic Record, Munehito Kitahima, ed., (Tokyo: Daiichi Publishing, 1952), p. 11.
15. Quoted in Rupert Jenkins, “Introduction,” Nagasaki Journey, (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1995), p. 17.
DAVID L. JACOBS is professor and chair of the art department of University of Houston.