After Life Portraits

Taming The Digital BeastI have long been inspired by after-life portraits. I became intrigued with this particular type of subject matter after purchasing  “Portraits in Life and Death”, by Peter Hujar, in 1979. This book changed my thinking about what is appropriate subject matter for an artist. I admit that I’m intrigued by death. I embrace this part of my artistic persona because it profoundly informs my other work. In late 2006, I was holding my dads’ left hand and watching his face when he drew his last breath. After he passed (and before the mortuary arrived to retrieve and prepare his body for the memorial service), I went back into his room and made several portraits of him. The session was quiet, soothing, sad and in a strange sort of way, comforting.

To be completely honest, I documented the last three days of his life, from the moment he left the hospital in an ambulance (I rode with him), to the hospice set up in his home, to his casket being pushed into the mausoleum. Making a few portraits of him within the first hour of his passing seemed entirely appropriate to me. A friend of mine, Greg Ellis (who is a gifted percussionist) has offered to put his music to selected photographs from the three days. Should be interesting. I haven’t looked at the photos since November 2006. I wonder how I’ll react to seeing them again? I wouldn’t have thought of putting music to these photos but I’m along for the ride because I trust Greg’s instincts and passion as an artist. Stay tuned for what promises to be something extraordinary.

Since it’s difficult for me to frequently gain access to dead people and since I’m no Joel Peter-Witkin, I’ve settled on scanning and photographing after-life animals. Click this link to see some of my scanned Remnants. Now it just so happens that my sister-in-law is a veterinarian and supportive my desire to work with this peculiar type of subject matter. When she graciously granted access to the deceased frozen animals at her clinic, I set up a small studio there as soon as our schedules allowed. There were dozens of frozen animals in a huge locker, loosely packed on top of each other. To name the few that I recognized, there were dogs of all sizes and shapes, cats, rabbits, chickens, hawks, owls, peacocks and eagles. The eagle and peacock were the coolest (literally an figuratively) because they were frozen like ice cubes and large. As I went about the process of photographing these after-life animals, I was very selective about the lighting and camera angles, depth of field and focal length. I was taking my time as I wasn’t used to handling frozen carcasses with latex gloves and a mask. My deliberate and thoughtful approach to these portrait sessions caused a problem; within thirty minutes of pulling a frozen carcass out of the locker, it begins to thaw, sweat and smell. Awful. And as the formaldehyde filled the room I was working in, my eyes became irritated too. The need for speed and economy of motion was going to be just as important as the photographic considerations.

Well it all ended quite well and I have many, many after-life portraits in my archive. The image used for this blog entry is from the peacock series. I created this image as part of an entry for a contest sponsored by NAPP, the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, of which I have been a member since 2000. The photo was not selected in the contest and for several years I didn’t consider it part of my portfolio but now I do, so here it is.

See ya!

Related Images:

Michael Stern

My work depicts, appreciates and honors the people who build. Their specialized equipment and stunning challenges are marvels I behold and get paid to interpret. Hope you enjoy this site.

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