Tag Archives: Susan Sontag

Work in Progress: Death and the Photographic Image

About a couple of weeks ago, I began to draw a skull onto my face with some black eyeliner, eyeshadow and a very pale foundation. This is my first attempt in about two years and I thought I would practise applying the makeup onto my face before I move onto something more elaborate. I decided to take a few test shots around North Melbourne in order to search for the most appropriate locations and backdrops for a potential photo shoot. Back in 2013, I have taken some self-portraits at the beach in Airey’s Inlet and I thought it would be interesting to take some photographs within the city.

I began to question whether the makeup impacts my perception of death and the human skull? As soon as I create the eye sockets, I begin to realise that death is inevitable, unavoidable, yet so ambiguous; the end of life will eventually occur and my skull will eventually surpass my very own existence.

At times, I am slightly perturbed by the idea, although there are certain stages of the makeup process, where I’ll concentrate on the actual design or the application. There are times, where I won’t think about death until I’ve taken the photograph, as I have the time to go back and reflect upon the overall process. It really depends on my mood or my surroundings, as my interpretation in regards to death changes on a daily basis.

I decided to take some photographs / self-portraits opposite the train station, as well as an empty alleyway that I discovered on my way home. I decided to take some test shots and I intend to revisit the same location for the photo shoot, I was surprised with the results and I was pleased with the photograph next to the train tracks, hopefully I can expand upon this particular idea.

When I viewed the photographs on my computer, I began to realise that the images capture a younger version of myself, I have aged since the time the photo was taken. The overall concept has invited me to consider the idea that every day, every month and every year is another step closer to death.


In one of my previous posts, I briefly mentioned Susan Sontag’s publication, ‘On Photography’ that explores the camera’s ability to capture one’s own mortality.1 According to Sontag, “photography is the inventory of mortality. A touch of a finger now suffices to invest in a moment with posthumous irony.”2 Sontag’s theories have invited me to question whether my self-portraits will continue to exist after my death?

Have I managed to capture my own mortality through these self-portraits? As I mentioned before, the self-portraits have invited me to explore my ageing process, while the person in the photograph remains young forever, I’ll continue to age everyday until I face the inevitable. The end of life and the beginning of death is such a natural, yet disturbing idea that I do find particularly fascinating and perplexing.

Sontag does explore some very interesting concepts relating to the connection between death and photography. The author refers to Roman Vishnic who has taken photographs of the ‘ghettos in Poland’ during the early 1930’s and Vishnic realised that the people / civilians would eventually ‘perish’ or disappear.3 Sontag explains that “photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”4


I agree with Sontag’s theories, as I am haunted by this particular idea and it’s often strange to realise that the people in the photograph or the image will eventually die, everyone will die at some stage including myself.5 In a way, the self-portraits resonate a connection to death and mortality, although I have wondered what would happen to the image if I destroyed the physical surface of the photographic print.

I decided to take a closer look at my self-portraits and I realised that the photographs were very smooth and I decided to destroy the physical surface of the print in order to establish a closer connection to death. I decided to crumple the images and rub the paper together; as a result the ink from the printer tarnished certain areas of the images and the experiment successfully created a distressed effect.

In 2012, I decided to destroy my images using water, cello tape, paint and chalk in order to present the notion of decay and disintegration; I have decided to continue the project in order to determine whether these ideas or concepts have progressed since the beginning of 2012.


I do prefer the distressed images, as they successfully establish a greater connection to death. I cannot imagine death as a smooth, perfect or pristine image, I imagine death as a body slowly decaying or disintegrating into a decomposing corpse. I believe the images can be destroyed even further in order to establish this particular style, at the moment I’m just exploring different concepts.

Ripping or crumpling the photographic portraits distorted my self-image and the backdrop, when I viewed the images in the laneway, I noticed that the colour has changed to a brown / sepia tone. I actually prefer this particular effect and the change of colour adds to the level of decay, maybe it is possible to find a connection to death through monochromatic or sepia tones.

I have often questioned what happens to the body after death, can the photographic image portray the process of decomposition? This is what I intend to explore over the next few weeks and sometimes it is really difficult to destroy something you’ve created yourself, although it would be interesting to see what happens over time, will these images change in some way? I am really interested to see where this project will take me, this is all I have for now but stay tuned for further updates!

1. Susan Sontag, “On Photography” (USA: Penguin Group 1977) p.15
2. Sontag, “On Photography” p.15
3. Sontag, “On Photography” p.15
4. Sontag, “On Photography” p.15
5. Sontag, “On Photography” p.15

Robert Mapplethorpe:Self Portriat 1988

21/8/12 – Self Portriat Resonates the Life and Death of Robert Mapplethorpe 

Over the past few weeks I have developed an interest for self portraiture and black & white photography. In one of my class tutorials I have discovered the works of Robert Mapplethorpe whose work has featured a reference to death and the skull. According to John Ingledew, Robert Mapplethorpe has explored self portraiture in a creative format and the skull may resonate the artist’s own interpretations of death or mortality.

Ingledew also claims that there are only three distinguishable subjects within the actual photograph, Mapplethorpe himself, his hand and the skull that appears to be placed on top of a wooden walking stick. The direction of the light and the texture resembles a similar appearance to a walking stick although the image does not provide one specific explanation.

IngleDew quotes “Robert Mapplethorpe shows himself in a 1988 self portrait withered and dying fr0m AIDS. He grasps a cane topped with a small skull. It is one of the photographs in which every part is not fiercely defined by sharp focus. In stark, silvery black and white, the shiny detail of the skull is chillingly juxtaposed with Mapplethorpe’s haunted face – floating out of focus , receding into darkness” (Ingledew, 2005)

In regards to Ingledew’s argument, Mapplethorpe’s previous photographs are quite sensual and erotic that provide a strong emphasis on the human form. In the self portrait however, the artist’s body disappears from the surface of the image that creates quite an unusual composition between the metallic skull and Mapplethorpe’s face. The viewer is confronted with Mapplethorpe’s lifeless expressions that may also provide a sense of isolation and deterioration.

The self portrait also features vivid light, tone and composition that illuminates the skull on the very top of the walking stick. The skull becomes one of the main focal points within the image that is juxtaposed with the artist’s hand and the actual walking stick itself.  In relation to the self portrait is the skull an emblem of death and mortality?The composition between Mapplethorpe and the skull may encourage the viewer to speculate life and death in general. One may argue that the skull features far more facial expressions than the artist who may reflect a close connection with death. Mapplethorpe’s self portrait is a powerful image that may document the ‘presence’ and the ‘absence’ of the artist.

According to Leland Poague, Susan Sontag also theorizes the “presence and the absence” in photography that may resonate a particular moment in the past or a moment in time. A photograph may provide the ability to remember certain aspects of a person’s life although the photograph also invites one to acknowledge the absence of a close friend or a family member.

Poague also mentions Freud’s interpretations of the conscience and how the mind processes a certain loss or an absence  “In Freudian terms, absence or loss leads to a doubling; the lost object is not let go of but represented, a representation that is subsequently incorporated, as conscience” (Poague, 2000) In response to Pogue’s arguments, the photograph could be considered as a form of duplication that records a person’s physical existence. A photograph may trigger the viewer’s own memory or perception of the subjects within the actual photograph itself.

Poague also quotes “We can say with a fascination with photography is already a fascination with death, a way of taking it bit by bit as if photography was a form of mourning” (Poague, 2000) One could argue that photography is used to remember and celebrate a person’s life, at the same time photography can also provide the ability to grief over the loss of a loved one. I suppose photography is a subjective medium that resonates a different experience and interpretation from each person. Not every person will have the same response to a particualr image or photograph and the representation itself has a power to create a range of different emotions.

In Mapplethorpe’s portrait may document the artist’s spirit or entity that also reflects a ‘presence and an absence’ within the photograph. John Claridge quotes “With portraits it’s always the spirit that’s captured in the picture not the technical expertise”  (Claridge, 2000) The self portrait is a very striking image that successfully captures the life and the death of Robert Mapplethorpe who will continue to influence contemporary art within the 21st century.

Ingledew, John, Photography (London: Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, 2005 ) p.39

Poague, Leland, Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography 1948-1992 (New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000) p.li – liii

John Claridge in Portraits: Developing Style in Creative Photography (Switzerland: Rotovison, 2000) p.51

Image Citation: http://orangemercury.blogspot.com.au/2010/11/robert-mapplethorpe-self-portrait.html