That’s the traditional comeback line to a long stare. Yet there are some things we just can’t help staring at in order to capture an essence that escapes us at first glance. That is what the photos of Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta do for me. They cause me to examine them so closely I find myself staring, captivated by what Cory Doctorow calls, “…the difference between flesh animated and the empty vessel gigantic and unmistakable, even when the before-death shot is of someone terribly ill.” And interestingly, because of the intimate juxtaposition of life before death and the amazing brief stories they tell about their feelings towards that death, they are more powerful than the similarly somber cabinet cards or postmortem photography of the late 1800s (where equally as many children as adults were photographed).
Pulling out a camera after death must certainly be difficult emotionally. I know it never occurred to me to preserve that particular moment. It’s also hard to judge what might be insensitive behavior toward other family and friends in attendance at a deathbed who might consider it an intrusion or at least be uncomfortable with it. It’s true we can watch it in the abstract on tv, or in movies, or in games, but there does seem to be something odd about, “lights, camera…inaction” when someone you love is involved. (Photo credit: Paul Frecker collection of 19th century postmortem photography)