GEOFFREY SMITH has been a medical examiner and 7 years, previous to which he has worked as, among other things, a gallerist . I asked Geoff to talk me about mortality – and with his interest in photographic portraiture, to then also talk about the superstition in some cultures of the ability of the photographer to thieve their subject’s soul. Below is his uninterrupted commentary which introduces a new format to the Journal . An amalgamation of stimulating essay and freeform stream of consciousness from persons who have inspired me.
” ANY views i have on mortality are of necessity colored by my own absence of faith, and the day to day experiences i have with the physical fact of death borne eloquent witness by an endless supply of recently and not-so-recently deceased corpses.the absence of any coherent faith gives me cause for great dread, as there is no consolation in the afterlife, just a void where there should be an opportunity to benefit from and continue to enjoy all the books, music, films, friends etc one has absorbed in the life that has just ended ..
i can do without the food and drink, just a few of my favorite recordings…please!! the flow of dead bodies is of almost as great a concern, simply because no-one has a beautiful corpse…at peace, yes, but good-looking…never! all that cosmetic surgery, gym-time, and organic vegetable juice for nowt! the body does indeed die, and even the earliest decompositional changes are sufficient to put vanitas to rest for good. so, what happens to all that good stuff that we call our soul?? my observations of 1000’s of dead bodies, and many near dead “souls” leads me to think that there is a strong and vital separation of the corpus and the “animus” that gives it life. furthermore, even doomed, desperately ill individuals fight a terrible battle with death…no-one wants to go, simply because the most profound faith never guarantees consolation…that’s the terrible part of mortality…are we afraid of foregoing the only life we know, or of facing absolute uncertainty in the afterlife? i’m terrified, but i don’t want any part of a faith that offers guarantees in the afterlife, especially those contingent on good behavior….
bit of a paradox, huh? so, the body loses its animation, the soul, vitality, whatever…and the loss is rapid and all inclusive; forget this pervasive romanticizing the corpse and its “mysteries”…the truth is cold flesh, kind of blotchy, often goose-fleshed, and decidedly unromantic. we could embark on a discussion of love-affairs with corpses, including necrophilia, but i have no knowledge of or experience with such unusual behavior,and hereby drop the topic!! what fascinates me more than actual physical death is the human preoccupation with anticipation of death…the fear that gives rise to our various attempts at consolation…organized religion and the like. read “the idiot” for the most persuasive and comprehensive discussion of being minutes from death, and then read on for a study in being weeks or months from death, and fighting it all the way with bitterness, bravado and in vain hope of a way out. then read “the devils” for a truly terrifying portrait of suicide…a true anomaly of human existence. imagine losing one’s fear of death utterly, and committing self- annihilation….personally, if more people knew that some time after pulling the trigger, i would be poring over them and pulling out the bullet, they would have second thoughts. all levity aside, is it possible that people can be despairing enough to simply de-animate themselves? suicide is a big mystery to me but usually the victim is feeling vengeful towards others as well as themselves, although dostoeevsky’s kirilov puts a very metaphysical spin on the whole process…anna karenin was in the throes of drug dependence and wanted to punish vronsky and her husband when she took her topple…tolstoy’s creation is very in line with cases i encounter on a regular basis…a thoroughly modern writer!! what i also find mystifying is the peaceful looks on the faces of corpses…regardless of the mode of death, no-one looks terrified…am i to believe that the body is tranquil, and the animus is out there tormented, frightened, resigned….how can someone die a horrid death at the hands of another, and look so at-ease as a corpse??
What the hell happens to the soul/animus/spirit? alas..i don’t know, but then again don’t let me in on the secret either! perhaps when all said and done, for humans, mortality, or should i say our knowledge of it, is the get-up-and-go factor that stops(some of us) from putting off until tomorrow what we can be doing today… when i was a lad a decade ago, i was part of a magazine article that really was a photo spread and text with 5 or 6 other people who had their vocations and their consuming avocations, and the interviewer asked me if there was a connection between my work as primary care/ER doc, and the photography i was doing (which at the time was predominantly portraits). my answer was that i thought that both were potent (and usually mutually beneficial) ways of paying attention to people. i still hold to this view, although regrettably since coming to the US i have spent too little time taking portraits. i have also, given up on the upright and breathing variety of patient…some major life changes you’ll agree! nonetheless, i do plan to pay more attention to people from behind the camera in the near future…so, my feelings about a successful portrait haven’t changed, but maybe the methodology will have. a great portrait photo must capture the animus of its subject in order to be compelling, and this may on some level be akin to grabbing a slice of the soul, if you happen to equate “animus” with “soul”. the best portraits are riveting at this level, and these days, with the blurring of fashion and portraiture, great soul-stealing is rare IMHO. both photographer and subject have to bring considerable energy to the undertaking, a real give and take…if the stars are aligned, something magical might happen. irving penn is THE master of paying attention, and i do like his style of portraiture…it may be a little studied for some tastes, but if we’re going to talk about the possibility of stealing souls, in my book, he is the master thief!! he has spoken at some length about luck, concentration and energy all coming together in his best sessions, and i have a real fondness for his portrait of carson mccullers the writer, done in 1950.
all other photos of her i have seen, including work by avedon, are lifeless and banal seeming to emphasize the invalid rather than the startling spinner of strange yarns. penn captures everything…the poignancy, the strangeness, ambivalence and, dare i say it….the total southern gothic (hackneyed, over-used, but simply right in this instance). i would kill for an opportunity to get this photo.
i want that emanation in my photos of people, and i really believe i can’t do it myself, without the whole-hearted collaboration of the subject…seems obvious, but any soul stealing is a cooperative venture, and even then it’s a lottery.
this is a complex subject, and my views are far from completely crystallized, which is why this probing by you has whetted my appetite for more portrait undertakings. i was always bothered by the notion that a show of formal portraits was bound to be a flop unless the subjects were notorious i.e noteworthy for good or bad….i think formal portraits of obscure individuals are fascinating if the photos are up to snuff….more often than not they are mediocre, and an average photo of a well-known person garners acclaim because of the associations rather than the merit of the picture. i guess i have arrived at the feeling that a great photo fixes something of the “soul” if i can equate this with “animus”, my own preferred term…..it is difficult and elusive but we all know a great photo portrait when we see it.
actually several photographers have had access to various morgues, and i find it hard to get excited about much of the work…serrano’s mogue series is to my eye a bit weak, but this may be a case of “yeah yeah..seen all that and more..” GRANTA magazine published a group of B&W post mortem mug shots a few years ago, which were simple and stark,but as portraits they were, well….lifeless!! (surprise!!) i really have little interest in photographing work related stuff..it’s a little too easy, and much of the mystique would be hard to capture. ”