New College of the Humanities

Exposures: Photography and Death

Exposures: Photography and Death
Audrey Linkman
Reaktion Books   216pp   £17.95
ISBN 978 1 86189 791 6

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In her short, quiet, humane book, Audrey Linkman explores the meaning of photographing the dead. Her concern is not with those who died a violent death, killed in wars or disturbances, but those who ‘passed on’ within a familial context and whose families sought to memorialise them, seeking to cherish them in death as in life.

Yet these historical photographs, many dating from the 19th century, preserved often as part of a family archive, filling an unbearable void, came to be seen in a more secular age as macabre and disturbing, dwelling ‘unhealthily’ on death. Coffins were closed, the dead despatched, absented from the process of mourning. Gradually this changed: by the end of the 20th century mourning had ceased to be linked to rigid, socially prescribed behaviour and was recognised as a necessary expression of human grief.

Artists started photographing loved ones in death, ‘mortuary photographs’ taken as part of art installations commemorating ‘Dead Dad’ and other deceased loved ones. It is a fascinating historical and cultural journey and one that seems to speak to the maturity of a society.  

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