A few thoughts on death, photography, and Ghost Busters

med_fuss_af-0462-jpgA fascination with ghosts can be written off as whimsical. Often, people imagine Casper or Bill Murray fighting ectoplasmic globs, when one mentions the g-word. True believers might find it a bit more sinister, but even then, they tend to speak of odd occurrences with windows, breathy sounds heard in the night, a persistent shadow that falls without light, old objects found with no point of reference. All things that are possibly spooky, but never truly threatening. As someone who writes frequently about ghosts, I tend to hear a lot of ghost stories. But even when the storyteller is uncomfortable, I find it’s more often out of embarrassment than fear.

But a fascination with death? That’s an entirely different kind of beast. Even the word trails off with fear, lingering consonants that dryly hang in the air. Death is threatening. It is real. It is ugly and universal and either entirely unfair or ruthlessly just, depending on who you ask.

Though I don’t like to think about death, I tend to do it a lot anyway. This helps explain one of my weirder possessions: a book of images from The Burns Archive. The Burns Archive, as you’ll see if you click that link, is a collection of photography that focuses primarily on the grotesque. There are images of soldiers and their gun wounds, portraits of the mentally ill, and lots and lots of postmortem photography.

Why would anyone take a picture of a dead person? Well, this used to be the thing to do when your relative died. It was a curious practice, and often involved propping the deceased up in a chair, pushing their eyelids open, and doing everything possible to make them appear alive. It’s the strangest masquerade; the dead posing as the living in a medium that has been described as a metaphor for death itself. Though I’ve never found the pictures particularly creepy, this idea freaks me the heck out.

And if I’ve just creeped you out, maybe this will bring you some peace: the New York Times recently ran a piece on their Wellness blog about German photographer Walter Schels, who captures his subjects in the days before death, and then again soon after. Instead of being sinister, manipulated and a little bit weird, these pictures are oddly peaceful.

“People are almost always pretending something, but these people had lost that need,” he said in an interview. “I felt it enabled me as a photographer to get as close as it’s possible to get to the core of a person; when you’re facing the end, everything that’s not real is stripped away. You’re the most real you’ll ever be, more real than you’ve ever been before.”

About the image: I didn’t want to clutter up my blog with pictures of dead people, so instead I simply linked to them, and used this gorgeous photograph by Adam Fuss, an extremely talented artist, to illustrate the point. It’s from a series call “My Ghost,” so I thought it was rather fitting.

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