Death and Photography in America

Jay Ruby
copyright 1995

                                  SECURE THE SHADOW

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is an exploration of the photographic representation of death in the United States from1840 to the present. It focuses upon the ways in which people have taken and used photographs of deceased loved ones and their funerals to mitigate the finality of death. "Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade, Let Nature imitate what Nature made". is one of photography's earliest advertising cliches, predating George Eastman's "you push the button, we do the rest" by half a century. The sentiment provides an apt title for a book that examines photographic images of the dying, death, funerals and how they are used to mourn and memorialize.

Photography's amazing popularity for the last century and a half is undoubtedly due to its capacity to help us remember people, places and events. It provides a witness - one thought to be impeachable and permanent. Life is commemorated through photographs, why not death? A logical question, perhaps, but one that makes many twentieth century Americans uncomfortable. Sometimes thought to be a bizarre Victorian custom, photographing corpses has been and continues to be an important, if not common, occurrence in American life. It is a photographic activity, like the erotica produced in middle-class homes by married couples, that many privately practice but seldom circulate outside the trusted circle of close friends and relatives. Along with photographic tombstones, funeral cards and other images of death, these photographs represent one way in which Americans have attempted to secure their shadows.

This book employs photographs, newspaper accounts and advertisements, letters, photographersU account books, and interviews as evidence of how photography and death became historically intertwined in the nineteenth century. It traces the twentieth-century struggle between America's public denial of death and a deeply felt private need to use pictures of those we love to grieve their loss. Americans take and use photographs of our dead relatives and friends in spite of and not because of society's expectation about the propriety of these images. Comparisons are made between photographs and other pictorial media. Interpretations are founded upon the discovery of patterns in the appearance of the images and a reconstruction of the conditions of their production and utilization. The book was written in a manner that will hopefully be comprehensible, and even useful, for social scientists, historians of photography, and health care professionals who work with death and mourning.

A Reflexive Interlude.
The book's Contents

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