Beautiful Dreamers

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When we began work on click!, it seemed obvious that somehow, someway, we’d have to find someone to explore how photography impacts our encounters with death. Many writers about photography have noted that photography and death go hand in hand. Every photograph taken records the death of a moment it captures. But specifically, what about still photographs of the once-living, the pictures that trigger all sorts of thoughts and intense feelings about those depicted, our relationships with them, and the fact that time marches on, with and without us.

I got a crash-course introduction to post-mortem photography back in 1986, when I curated an exhibition of medical photography from a remarkable archive that Dr. Stanley Burns, a New York based ophthalmologist and collector had been putting together.  I was fascinated by vintage portraits of the recently deceased, who Burns referred to as “beautiful dreamers.” These genre photographs made it possible to look at death head on, if not in person, although by the end of the 20th century, death had become a photographic subject to be avoided, except for some photojournalists, medical or forensic professionals, and a handful of artist image makers. While they were popular in the 19th and early-20th century when life-spans where shorter and death was an everyday fact of life, my guess is that post-mortem photography started making viewers uncomfortable once they were conditioned to make snapshots of themselves in happy times, and to obsess about photographs designed to stimulate forward-thinking lifestyle fantasies rather than contemplate images about the end of life’s cycle.

As I’ve been working on click!, I’ve come across a number of references to Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, a not-for-profit foundation that matches up photographers with parents wanting portrait photographs of infants who’ve died. And after I ran into a friend’s daughter, a pediatric social worker, who’d worked directly with the organization, I contacted Sandy Puc’, a professional photographer in Colorado and co-founder of NILMDTS, and asked her to write a piece for us about the ways photography helps people cope with loss and bereavement. Read it here.

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