Death as fine art: Even the traditionally macabre can be beautiful

Have a safe and happy Halloween!
Have a safe and happy Halloween!

It is in fact the Halloween season. Less than a week to go before various traditions find ghosts and goblins playing in the night and we celebrate those who have ventured into death before us.

Now, without too much further ado, I must warn the readers some of the images included in the following links might be disturbing to some, so click with caution!

Last year, I wrote a blog (Postmortem remembrance…a photographic trend we might find a little strange today) where I detailed a practice so far removed from today’s predominant generations that it almost seems taboo to contemplate it. And, while postmortem photography in this vein is still similarly practiced on smaller scale by more specialized photographers, this year I want to discuss another practice that lends itself to similar taboo speak: Fine Art Death Photography.

This category is diverse including everything from photographing a bleached cow skull in the desert to photographing human remains. Some are for documentation, which later become a kind of historical art, while others were intended to be art from get-go.

When I was in college, one of my photography classmates set out one week to photograph animals which had met with an unfortunate fate on local roadways. I won’t mention her name here, but if she is reading, I hope she does not mind me using this example this week.

This was in our more advanced photography classes when we were allowed to pick our own subject matter and her choice to photograph these animals is still one of the more memorable critiques I recall from those days. It harkens back to another blog I wrote (Seeing through a child’s eyes: One of the best tips a photographer can get) regarding the skill it takes to remove the jaded goggles we wear as experienced adults and see the world through the eyes of a child. Where everything is a potential adventure, everything is worth examining closely and all worth documenting in some way.

If one were to do an online search for dead animal photography or even death photography in general, they will find several galleries including these: ‘Natura Morta’: Colorful Photos Memorialize Dead Animals or fine art galleries such as Dead Animals Photo Acrylic Prints. Even galleries from artists such as Dorian Hill (Life after Death Series) feature the fine art side of death with photography of floral decay.

As onlookers, we don’t necessarily breath too much into these. After all, a journalistic image of a meat market fits the bill when it comes to death photography. Even the most staunch vegetarian would admit these images are common. And, while purposely artful portraits of dead animals (especially those of animals, which met with a violent end) might make a few of us wince, it is nothing an average everyday commuter won’t see from behind the wheel least once a week.

In fact, the more profound effects of these portraits might fall more on the photographer than the viewer. I recall my friend from class saying she had a difficult time viewing and printing the images she had taken without the sun-baked odor from that on-location, hot-asphalt shoot coming back to her.

But what if an artist were to push death as fine art to the final step? The one that hits closest to home: Human death as fine art. Above, I mentioned historic photos, mostly originally intended for documentation, having aged like a fine wine into art. Typically this transformation takes place once the entire generation in question is long gone. A good example would be galleries of photographs of the dead laying upon the battlegrounds of the American Civil War (Casualties of the Civil War). Not unlike photography of dead animals, we can separate ourselves from this a bit, as the images are black and white and aged. To us, it is a bit of history long gone and well out of reasonable acquaintance reach of anyone born within the last 60 years.

However, there are other modern artists who have focused a bit more on the very heart of human mortality. Outside of photography, there are exhibits such as Bodies: The Exhibition, which include actual skinless human bodies preserved and placed on display in various action sequences and standing postures to show onlookers firsthand what we look like under the skin. Take it for what you will, it is still worth a mention in a blog of this nature.

But back to photography, there are examples of human death photography that transcend the documentary phase and instantly become a fine art peer into the very reality we all face someday. One of the best examples I found include the work of Maeve Berry. In her exhibit titled “Incandescence”, she displays several fine art images glimpsing into a working crematorium. The images perfectly capture the flame against the shadowy remains they are poised to consume. While her website contains some, a Google search will produce more for the curious.

This is a perfect depiction of death photographed as fine art for fine art’s sake. However, while the images are beautifully captured, their very nature no doubt invokes a host of emotions in just about any viewer while might not even feel comfortable looking on.

Love it, like it, indifferent, or hate it, for artists and, more specifically, fine art photographers, everything has its place in art. This includes those aspects traditionally viewed as macabre . Some is not for everybody, but, for some, it is everything.

Now, as I know I will likely not be able to top that one for this year’s Halloween blog, I will end by saying to Friday’s trick-or -treaters: Be safe, be smart, and, above all, have a happy Halloween!

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