Sunday, March 9, 2008

"How I Held Her"

Examining the extensive collection at the Museum of Mourning Photography it should come as no surprise that those of children were the most striking. The children, often little more than infants and newborns, were poignant in themselves. They were still and shrunken tiny bodies sometimes captured more in death than in their short lives. Yet it was the living that caught my attention time and time again.


On the faces of the numerous grieving parents we saw, there is a seriousness that goes beyond their losses. It might be a sense of duty that they have to future memories of the deceased or a resignation to death's presence. This is not to discount the emotions that we would now most associate with the death of a child - despondency, incomprehension. Those are in the pictures too, in the blankness of a gaze, the heaviness of posture, or the gesture of a mother not just cradling her baby's body, but holding its hand as if to comfort it. Still, I perceived a sense of social obligation in these photographs. I saw (or believe I saw) people stoically determined to put aside the emotions they must have been feeling to capture the moment and their loved ones for posterity, and that is what makes this whole practice so alien.

The title of this post comes from a picture in the book Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography - American and European Traditions. The photo was of a family posing outside of their home. A daughter, probably an infant, has recently died, but the remoteness of the home prevented a photographer from reaching them before her body had to be interred. There is some indication that they lived in the hills and the daughter perished during the winter. The family is alternately seated and standing. There is a small table with them, tilted forward. There are words etched onto the photo indicating that this is the table where her body was laid out, and this was how one of the sons sat to hold her.

There is irony that the photo that sticks with me the most is one of the few where the corpse is out of sight. There were certainly others that I could choose, from the grotesque (small children who died from dehydration (likely cholera) that left them as shrunken and skeletal as concentration camp victims) to the touching (a man who climbed into the bed where his wife was laid out just to be beside her one more time). Still, it is the rural family posed to reenact how they mourned that I can't leave behind. Or rather, it is their need to recreate their last farewells for posterity even in the absence of the physical person whose memory they presume to preserve.

3 comments:

Tanya said...

I think what strikes me about these photos is the length of time that they had to hold their positions for the camera. Can you imagine not just posing, but having to stay completely still for a some number of odd minutes holding your dead child? I would have nightmares about that.

John Pierson said...

Yes, It is even with todays technology near impossible to act natural when a camera is pointed at you. We immediately put on the personae we want perceived as natural or what looks best for us, or some effect. Now can you imagine that psychological game going on in your head for a couple of minutes while trying to hold a pose. I know from having taken pictures with a pinhole, that you really don't go for natural look you just try to hold as still as possible for as long as you can. So if may be hard to judge what the hell these people were thinking while holding their dead ones. My oh my does that sound tragic.

tsduff said...

Your post is very informative, and interesting, broaching a subject we all have to deal with at some time during our life. Sadness is tangibly presented.