Question for fine art pros. . .a little off beatgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread
Subject: Question for fine art pros. .a little off beat
Hello all: This is going to sound a bit strange, and I'll tell you up front that the only connection this has to medium/large format is that I plan to shoot the project with my Crown Graphic. Basically, I'm embarking on a pretty involved body of photographic work related to the rituals and styling of death and dying. Specifically, my work will focus on the preparation of the deceased for viewing by the family - what it means, how it's done, how it's perceived and what the whole process does to our understanding of the body, the soul and all that esoteric stuff:))) In order to get myself in the right frame of mind, and for background research, I'd like to observe a mortician making up a person for the viewing. I know it would be a lot to ask to photograph this, so I'm not even going to attempt it. I would appreciate, however, any suggestions on how to respectfully approach someone in the industry. Is there anyone here who has experience getting themselves into traditionally secretive places in order to observe a process most of us never see? I have no interest in ghoulishly exploiting someone else's grief; I think this kind of first-hand observation will be important for my mindset as I figure out what this project will ultimately look like. The final product is not going to be a series of corpse shots - I'm not envisioning anything that literal. Still, I think I need to immerse myself in this cabalistic ritual to get the most out of this project. Any advice?
-- Joshua Slocum (email@example.com), January 14, 2001
Joshua what is the intended purpose of this body of work? if it is noble and humane people frequently respond kindly.
-- Richard H. (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 14, 2001.
Dear Richard: I'm not sure there is a "purpose" to this other than what drives any conceptual artist to do the work he or she does. No, I do not claim that my work is intended to increase human compassion, or understanding, or any of that stuff. I do not feel like I have to justify, in moral terms, the intent of my artistic endeavors. The artist is not beholden to an obligation of soothing society's feelings. . . nor should he have to justify his work on the grounds that it's "uplifting" or any other such hackneyed sentiment. On the other hand, you are entirely right that people respond kindly to others who present themselves as compassionate and interested, rather than opportunistic. As I said before, it is not my intention to parade someone else's grief in front of my lens. . . but that's not the point here. What I'm looking for is first-hand observation of a process that is important to me, philosophically, in the completion of this work. My question is. . how to present myself in such a way as to have the greatest success being allowed in to the "back room." I certainly do not think I'm entitled to this just because I want to, so I'm not going to approach someone with such a cavalier attitude. On the other hand, I'm not offering my work as a "service" or uplifting educational experience, and I won't make that promise. What I'm basically asking for is a favor from whomever I approach, with the assurance that I don't have any nefarious intentions. Again, does anyone have any advice?
-- Joshua Slocum (email@example.com), January 14, 2001.
You are going to need the co-operation of the family of the deceased individual as you are definitely going to be invading their privacy. Perhaps you should approach a school for morticians? Or perhaps if you are close to someone who you know would be an enthusiastic post mortem participant, and who can sign a model release. I still wonder how you are goingto get around the potential liability problem of some family memeber who doesn't signthe release and is disturbed by the idea of the project if not the finished work. Your intent might not be ghoulish but I definitely can see how it might strike someone else that way. Good luck...I think.
-- Ellis Vener (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 14, 2001.
You are going to need the co-operation of the family of the deceased individual as you are definitely going to be invading their privacy. Perhaps you should approach a school for morticians? Or perhaps if you are close to someone who you know would be an enthusiastic post mortem participant, and who can sign a model release. I still wonder how you are goingto get around the potential liability problem of some family memeber who doesn't signthe release and is disturbed by the idea of the project if not the finished work. Your intent might not be ghoulish but I definitely can see how it might strike someone else that way. Good luck...I think. By the the way, the process you describe is definitely not related to the "Kabbal".
-- Ellis Vener (email@example.com), January 14, 2001.
My father studied to be a photographer, but the the financial burdens of family lead him to be a mortician. I have a slight amount of experience in the business as well. I would suggest your best approach would be a direct one. Explain what you are doing and why. Possibly present a written abstract. Most morticians perceive themselves as doing a service for their community. If you can market an approach that talks of that, you may have better luck. The funeral process is one that tends to be hidden from the public for no real reason and I would guess the education aspect could further your accaptance as well. You may have better luck in a smaller town where mortuaries may be still family owned. I would not even think of any aspect that might reveal the identity of the deceased or their family. At one time, the only school of mortuarty science was in San Francisco, don't know if it's still the case. (Dad is retired, but would have enjoyed a discussion - he used a Speed Graphic alot.)
-- Roger Rouch (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 14, 2001.
You had me (in your first post), then you lost me (in your second):
"I do not feel like I have to justify, in moral terms, the intent of my artistic endeavors. The artist is not beholden to an obligation of soothing society's feelings. . . nor should he have to justify his work on the grounds that it's "uplifting" or any other such hackneyed sentiment. On the other hand, you are entirely right that people respond kindly to others who present themselves as compassionate and interested, rather than opportunistic."
To the degree you present this as an exploration into what it means to be human, to grieve, and to go through rituals, I think you can find a sympathetic mortician. To the extent you present yourself as self-important "conceptual artist" immune to "hackneyed sentiments" who is "beholden to no one" who need not "justify his work," I think you'll get a lot of doors slammed in your face.
In other words, if you genuinely care about people, including morticians, deceased persons, and survivors, that concern will show through and those who can might be willing to help you. But if you regard these people whose help you need not as fellow humans but as merely aesthetic "means" to reach what you present as fairly selfish artistic "ends," you're going to have a much tougher go of it. There are countless very compelling photographic treatments of death, dying, and human suffering--indeed, it's one of the great themes of photography. I can't think of any worthy examples, however, that were created by someone who feigned indifference to the human feelings of both his audience and his subjects. A tip: arrogance is not usually the best way to get a foot in the door.
-- Simon (email@example.com), January 14, 2001.
Thank you all for your considered answers. Ellis, I must point two things out to you. Although I usually enjoy your responses, you obviously did not read my post thoroughly: "The final product is not going to be a series of corpse shots." What, then, do I need a model release for? Furthermore, I did not refer to the Kabbal, the Jewish book of mysticism. The admittedly arcane but still quite serviceable word "cabal" (you may find it in the most current Webster's Collegiate if you doubt me) means "intrigue, secrecy," etc. It has nothing whatever to do with Jewish numerology.
-- Joshua Slocum (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 15, 2001.
If you are looking for something radical, a knee jerk reaction from potential viewers, no doubt you will get it with images from a stiff in a funeral parlor. AND you will probably get an alternative gallery to carry this series of work. A serious gallery will probably not because they have to look at serving clients with something other than a one time shot. If you are looking for something new-never-done, sorry. It has done on “at least” two occasions before. One NY artist/photographer lost everything in a law suit in 93. To make a point, I cannot remember his name but I remember the law suit.
-- Anthony Howell (email@example.com), January 16, 2001.
Thank you for the feedback to my post Joshua. Even though you currently have no plans to share your images with the rest of the world, you are still violating someone's privacy. The deceased may not care, but I think it is likely that a family member might feel distraught. This might open you and the co-operating funeral home up to potentially serious legal actions if your actions are discovered. Of course anyone has the liberty to sue anyone for anything, but having permission from some legally responsible individual willoffer you a degree of protection. WARNING: I am not a lawyer, just a fellow photographer. Perhaps you should contact the local ACLU and ask if they know of a local or regional legal aid for the arts organization who can put you in touchwith someone who can better answer the questions I raised.
-- Ellis Vener (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 16, 2001.
Okay, I'm going to lose my usual cool demeanor and shout here for a second, so please pardon me: I'M NOT PLANNING ON TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS OF ANY CORPSES I'M NOT PLANNING ON TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS OF ANY CORPSES
Is that plain enough English for everyone here???? Let me refer you to my original post: "The final product is not going to be a series of corpse shots - I'm not envisioning anything that literal." What is so damned difficult to understand about that? Why all the criticism for something I NEVER SAID?
I hope you'll excuse this temper outburst, but the responses here have ranged from the irrelevant to the outright derisive (with a few exceptions), all over some idea of what I'm attempting to do that has nothing to do with what I posted. My desire to watch the undertaking process comes from wanting to observe the process first-hand, to be in the right mental space for this project. What will the photographs be, you ask? I DON'T KNOW. They could take the form of cheesy butterfly shots, self-portraits, street photography- anything. . .who knows. . but they won't be photos of dead people! Is it that hard for all of you to believe that I might have a little more going on upstairs than the hackneyed, shock-effect images you seem to eager to attribute to me? Has none among you ever immersed yourself in different milieu simply to gain a perspective before embarking on a project, photographic, literary or otherwise? It's called research .
Moreover, some of these responses have been pretty much personal attacks, so I'm going to answer in kind: Andy: You insult me. You attribute to me some kind of Mapplethorpe-Madonnaesque desire to shock for no apparent reason. Whatever in the world gives you the idea that I'm that personally and intellectually shallow? You don't even know me, or my project, nor can you apparently read either, because you've made up a whole persona for me and my work that, for the life of me, I can see NO inspiration for in my original post. You must be incredibly jaded to want to see that kind of base motivation in someone's work you've never even seen - someone you don't even know. Believe it or not, Mr. Howell, there are working photographers left in the world who derive inspiration from some place other than propagandistic, shock-style commercialism. Your rant is misdirected - find some uneducated and self important 20 year old to spew your criticism at; I'm sure they'll appreciate your advice on their crass agendas. I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but you impugned my character pretty offensively in your response.
To Simon: You are absolutely right; arrogance is not a foot in the door when you want to get close to subjects. I apologize for coming off that way - I didn't mean to say that I should have carte blanche to run roughshod over my subjects in the real world, all in the glorious name of art. What I did mean was that I was hoping that other working artists would understand the sometimes vague and driven ideas that set a project in motion, and wouldn't hold me to some moralistic standard of justification for my work. We all have to fight that kind of stuff when Rudy Giuliani pulls funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. . I was hoping I could reserve the soft-pedal humanistic approach for my foot-in-the-door with my subjects, and get down to brass tacks with fellow photographers. Anyone who sits in front of other working artists and photographers and claims that the sole reason they do their work is out of compassion and philanthropy is either lying, or not a very driven person, aesthetically or intellectually. I'm not going to misrepresent my motivations - they're entirely personal. I'm sorry if that's too candid, but it's true. That does NOT, however, mean that I think I'm the best or most important artist on the face of the earth, that my work is necessarily even that interesting to anyone else, or that people should bow down and scrape before me, begging to have their photograph taken. I may be self-absorbed when it comes to my work, but I'm not a delusional jerk. I guess I just wanted to start some honest dialogue with others on this forum about the artistic process, and what I got was a bunch of flak that seems to reveal more about the posters than it does about me. I'm sure I'm going to get flamed for this (because it's honest and on the mark, I think), but before any of you hit the "submit" button, please take a minute to ask yourself why you're more inclined to malign me and my motives than you are to actually offer me the help I asked for. If I were such a self-important ass, I never would have asked ANYONE for help on this. I offered up the beginnings of my project here in good faith guys. . .
-- Joshua Slocum (email@example.com), January 16, 2001.
I think most of us got the point the first time. It sounds like a great idea to me and I bet you can pull it off but it seems to me you are going to need to know the family. I just can't see any other way. If you wait twenty years and have enough friends somebody with a sympathetic family will pass away. Whether you take photos of the corpse or not is irrelevant because everyone will suspect that you intend to in some fashion. So I would just flat out say you might but that photos of the corpse are not going to be the point of this project. You also should formulate what exactly you want to show a little better, and maybe create some similar images of similar things so people know your style and what you are getting at. People might trust you more if you approach it that way and have a developed project in mind.
-- Erik Ryberg (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 16, 2001.
Josh, after reading and re-reading your original question it seems pretty clear that you are trying to answer some personal questions here. Thats good, that is what art is all about. First I'll tell you a little story, (boring probably but hopefully helpful). when I was a young photo student one of my professors asked us to photograph something taboo. Mostly the images shown in critique were sexual in nature. Mine however involved the care and feeding and killing of animals. I followed the entire process of how we as a society view eating beef. ( I then became a vegetarian). Anyway, getting into the calving and raising of the cattle was no problem. It was when I wanted to get into the processing of the the cattle and to see the butchering and packaging that I ran into problems. It wasn't because of what I was shooting, it was more that the people involved did not want others to see what they do. They were afraid of being seen as unclean? That may not be the right word, but they seemed to be afraid of what others would think. So I understand your delima. I solved mine by becoming friends with those involved. From the cowboy to the auctioneer, to the processing plant manager all the way down to the butcher at the local market. I was not trying to make a statement about beef eating, more just answering questions I had about what it takes to bring beef to market. I think if you approach it this way you will be able to gain the access you need. Funeral director,salesman, mortician,pastor,(priest) etc. Since your idea involves no specific person but the process, that is where I would start. Interesting concept, I wish you well.
-- jacque staskon (email@example.com), January 17, 2001.
Some things are sacred,and private.This sounds like you are fascinated with the dead.To photograph this procedure would be an invasion of privacy, of the worst kind.Not to mention,who wants to view this ??
-- steve levine (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 17, 2001.
Jacque and Eric: Thank you both, gentleman, you really got the point of my post, and I appreciate it. You, Steve, were particularly helpful - while my "personal questions" are different than yours, your experience, in form mirrors the sort of process that I'm trying to get going. Thank you again!
Steve: I hope you feel like a first class horse's ass. Can you read English my friend? Why does everyone here continue to believe I'm trying to photograph corpses, even though I've said specifically several times that I'm not??? If I were, believe me, I would tell you. .. .what do I have to be afraid of here? Furthermore. . .did I ask you for an opinion on the marketability of these phantom images you seem to have dreamed up? Even if I were photographing the dead, Steve, I frankly don't care if you or anyone else is interested in seeing it. Squeamish/ ethically horrified at such a thought. . .? THEN DON'T LOOK. Gosh, I shouldn't even have brought this up. . now I'm sure you or someone else is going to accuse me of photographing AND molesting corpses now!
-- Josh Slocum (email@example.com), January 17, 2001.
Josh I HEAR YOU. YOU are not going to photograph corpses. I suggest a University Medical School that deals with corpses that have been donated for use by medical students and mortuary science students. I know from having spoke to many medical students that they revere the memory of these people for having donated their bodies so that others could learn from them. If it is your intention as well to learn from them, then it seems that would be the place to go. Kevin
-- Kevin Kolosky (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 20, 2001.
I think the response you have got already should provide you with some insight! I've heard a mortician, who is now an author, called Thomas Lynch speak on the subject; it might be worth your while geting hold of his book "The Undertaking". There are problems specificaly with the role of observer in this context. Perhaps you need a more active role in the process so that your acting within perimiter as it were. A sugestion get a job as hospital porter or as hearse driver or as salesman for funeral products. George Orwells "Down and out in Paris and London" is strong because he was in context.
-- Laurence Cuffe (Laurence.Cuffe@ucd.ie), March 06, 2001.