– Jacques Derrida, Ghost Dance, Ken McMullen (1983)
In the early days of Memorial Photography – I dislike the term ‘post-mortem photography’, too clinical – photographers were faced with what was essentially a new sub-genre of portraiture within a medium that was still completely brand new and were utterly unsure of how to approach something that would have required such a sensitive touch but at least was not as sanitized and taboo as it is today. Many families – middle/upperclass & white – presented the bodies of their deceased family members in the parlour of their homes; a room that was, in a very sly and cynical move, eventually co-opted by the burgeoning ‘Funeral Parlours’ of the late Nineteenth Century and replaced with the ‘Living Room’ which we are familiar with today. The photographer arrive at the home and would set his equipment up in the parlour and photograph the family of the deceased sitting around with the deceased person as if for a normal family portrait, for many this might be the only portrait they would have as a family or of the deceased individually. Many early Memorial Photographs featured the deceased sitting upright in a chair, often strapped in to ensure that it would not keel over.
Summing up his Essay ‘Photography and Fetishism’ saying that photography is capable of becoming a fetish, Christian Metz describes ‘the timelessness of photography which is comparable to the timelessness of the unconscious and of memory” (Metz, p.83) and it is with this idea that I intend to investigate various strands of Mourning Photography through the ideas set forth by Freud and Lacan and reinterpreted/discussed by Metz, Bazin, Kaplan et al through a photographic framework.
Denial is a reasonable response to the death of a family member and the commission and ownership of a memorial photograph could serve as a replacement of the person and as “preservation against extinction” as in another’s death we are reminded of our own mortality. “The survivor seeks in the work of mourning a psychic detachment from the dead and from death” (Kaplan, p.232) but (using Metz’s idea of ‘suspension of disbelief’ as a mourning tool through the practice of Memorial Photography) the survivor could be capable of using the photograph as a fetish also; Freud believed that “mourning has a quite specific task to perform: its function is to detach the survivors memories and hopes from the dead” (totem and taboo, 65) but it could also serve as a ‘turning away from reality’ as he put it in Mourning and Melancholia, towards a ‘hallucinatory wish-psychosis’ where the photograph itself could become a replacement for the missing ‘Love-Object’ conserving the photograph as what Rickels calls ‘living dead’ – “Between the living and the mourned dead, we find an amalgam of telecommunications and canned and manufactured goods conserving itself as living dead.” (Rickels, p.21) The object-libido of the mourner wishes to accompany the deceased in death but the ego-libido claims the right to live. A compromise is made wherein the mourner chooses to love the fetish object (the photograph) as a replacement, “making a compromise between conservation and death” and the mourner can return once more to life.
The notion of the Fetish in Freudian terms is constructed in the mind of the child at a young age when it sees its mothers naked body for the first time. The lack of the same genetalia in the mothers body creates fear and anxiety in the child, who tries to stop the look by focusing on something else in the room; generally a piece of clothing or an undergarment. The fetish is related to death through the terms of castration and fear and is used again to stop the look when fear and anxiety arise later in life.
Although Metz, in his essay ‘Photography and Fetishism’ likens the ‘cutting off’ of the fetish to what is unseen off-frame in both the cinematic and photographic space I think that this can also be linked to what is unseen in Memorial Photography, that that which is not captured in these ‘anti-portraits’ is that which is there but not there, and in order to do this I wish to extend this thought process to include that other most famous of Freudian theories, that of the Uncanny or Unheimliche; The more exacting translation; Not-At-Home-ness being a more suitable synonym/simile in this case: There is an image before me of somebody who appears at first glance to be alive but upon closer inspection there is something not quite right. This person is Not At Home. Neither within the space that they occupy nor within themselves: “We have indeed heard that many modern languages cannot translate our expression “ein unheimliches Haus” other than through the reinscription – a house, in which “it spooks.” (Quoted in Kaplan, Louis; The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, p.222 Translation by the author) The notion of es spukt (it spooks) comes as – for lack of a better descriptive term – a sub-notion of the notion of The Uncanny, and again a term which in its translation brings metaphysical problems for Derrida in Specters of Marx “Everything is concentrated then in the German expression es spukt, which translations are obliged to circumvent. One would have to say: it haunts, it ghosts, it spectres…The subject that haunts is not identifiable, one cannot see, localize, fix any form, one cannot decide between hallucination and perception.” In other words; It is not there. These Photographs are Unheimlich because “they expose familial photography to the estranging and defamiliarizing forces that haunt the house of being” (Kaplan, 223)
In Lacanian terms this lack represents that which is symbolically missing from what Freuds description of the castration fear is signified/triggered by the childhood trauma of discovering the difference between men and women, that which is essentially lacking. This fear can also be said to exist in a fear of death which can be attributed to the fear caused by a reaction to The Uncanny; That which is Not-At-Home (that which is lacking) stirs an ingrained fear of death (of castration) and a turning away which is exemplified by a seeking solace in fetish so that the photograph of the deceased could be said to embody the fetish itself as a replacement for what Freud calls the ‘Love-Object’.