The Taste for Taboo

NOTE: This article contains links to images that many will find distasteful.

By Charles Paul Freund

(1,427 words; posted Saturday, Oct. 18)

At the height of the pop misery following Princess Diana’s death, one of America’s eminent historians appeared on a PBS panel to discuss the meaning of it all. Asked if the intense grief would have any lasting results, she suggested that it might affect the public approach to celebrity and predicted that the paparazzi accident photos then known to exist would “never see the light of day.” She’d barely finished her prediction when the other panel members broke in. Those pictures had already been published, they noted glumly: The German tabloid Bild had printed them that morning. (If you want to see the crash photo that appeared in Bild, click here and scroll down.)

The printing of such a photo was news in its own right. Because Diana allegedly was hounded to her death by photographers, displaying or even looking at pictures of this kind was interpreted by commentators as venal: an assault on Diana’s memory, if not an endorsement of the crime. But tabloids like Bild are an old media model now; the Internet soon kicked in with even more pictures, overwhelming the new photomoralism. (For a sampling of distasteful Internet offerings, click.)

The Diana pictorial taboo and its underlying moralism turned out to be remarkably evanescent, and a secondary morality tale has arisen to explain why: It’s the Internet’s fault. The new technology, according to this view, is a tool of cheap voyeurism, capable of smashing public decency with unprecedented speed and efficiency. But even if one assumes a degree of voyeurism in the Diana case, the charge misses the point. Such imagery has long been a tool of popular grief in American culture.

The fact is that the very intensity of the reaction to Diana’s death made the viewing of such photos more likely, not less so. Photography’s relationship with grief is an intimate one. In the case of Diana, that relationship seems to have played itself out in familiar ways: People sought out photos of her in death–including spurious ones–because she was important to them.

We have always found ways–excuses, if you like–to look at documentary images of violence and death. Whatever our level of acknowledgment–tabloid exploitation or elite refinement–we categorize such images intellectually and emotionally, transforming appalling scenes into objects of sentiment, pieces of evidence, and even works of art. Indeed, the cathartic opportunities presented by such images, whether sentimental or aesthetic, have a long history of overwhelming any questions of documentary value.

At the high end of culture, death imagery commonly becomes art, especially in the case of war photography. Generations have pondered Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan’s justly famous photos of the dead at Gettysburg. The battle ended, these men lie hauntingly in fields of stillness, a “harvest of death,” in Gardner’s own phrase. (Click to see A Harvest.) Yet students of these photos noticed some time ago that the same corpses seem to show up in different places on the battlefield, and they concluded that the photographer had “arranged” the dead in order to achieve pleasing tableaux.

One of the most famous of all photographs is Robert Capa’s 1936 Moment of Death, taken during the Spanish Civil War. (Click to see Moment.) It presents a Republican soldier as he is shot, capturing what usually is interpreted as an instant of noble sacrifice. In his 1975 book, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley examines this picture and its history at length. Paying homage to the great war photographer’s courage and talent, he nonetheless notes the conflicting stories of the photo’s origins, Capa’s own silence about the image in his writings, and other writers’ questions. Knightley carefully concludes only that the photograph “turns out not to be the clear and simple statement of fact that it otherwise appears.” Yet, assume that this famous still was not portraying an act of slaughter: Would it be a relief or a disappointment? People see what they want in pictures. Even in pictures of death.

At the level of mass information, we readily grant ourselves permission to look at such images. Terrible scenes of massacres, bombings, and the like are displayed almost daily. (rotten dot com provides constant updates on such atrocities.) To the degree that we regard them as goads to compassion and involvement (as in Bosnia or the Middle East), showing them is a purported moral good. But it is easy to take this idea of death imagery as important evidence and to expand it into an excuse that legitimizes the sort of voyeurism we have just seen in the Diana case.

That is just what has happened with a number of shocking images involving famous and beloved persons. The view of Robert Kennedy lying in a pool of his own blood has been reproduced regularly for almost 30 years with minimal objection or concern about his family’s feelings. It is regarded as a valid news image, but what does it really tell us?

Worse, autopsy photographs of John F. Kennedy have been published in many books, including some that have been best sellers. (If you really want to see the so-called “death stare,” click.) The conceit, of course, is that careful scrutiny of these images may reveal something important about JFK’s assassination. For that matter, the dreadful Frame 313 of the Zapruder film with its cranial explosion may be one of the most-reproduced images in recent decades.

There is by now a whole gallery of such images, many of them reproduced to illustrate conspiracy narratives. Internet sites featuring Diana pictures frequently link to Diana conspiracy sites. For some, Diana’s pictures are also “evidence” of a deeper plot. Even a Marilyn Monroe autopsy picture has been published under the same guise. (Those willing to confront a startlingly changed Marilyn can click.) People find the excuse they need to see a photo. Even the wrong excuse.

It’s easy to interpret this as popular depravity, but the matter is not so simple. Autopsy pictures, common enough on the Internet, are not a popular genre; nor are the death photos of just any famous people. Crime-scene photos of Nicole Brown Simpson, notorious as her death was, caused little stir. The death images that have received the greatest attention have something important in common: All of them are of people who have been subject to popular hagiography, people who are the public’s most beloved figures. The biggest-selling American tabloid of all time was the National Enquirer issue that published pictures of a dead Elvis. Now we have Diana.

The emotional relationship between grief and photography dates to the very birth of the camera in the Victorian period. Americans of the last century surrounded themselves with photographs of dead family members posed in their coffins, a practice so widespread as to be an important source of income for photographers. Such photos–compiled in Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip and elsewhere–now appear macabre. (If you want to see one, click.) But we are looking at them with detachment, the emotionally “cool” state that Americans developed after World War I.

American Victorians weren’t cool: They subscribed to a veritable cult of grief. “No home ever reaches its highest blessedness and sweetness of love and its richest fullness of joy till sorrow enters its life in some way,” wrote one minister quite typically in an 1882 family advice manual.

Their attitude applied to beloved public figures as well as to family members–which is precisely why death photographs of Abraham Lincoln were forbidden in the wake of his murder. Secretary of State Edwin Stanton, apparently concerned that a trade in such images would develop, refused to allow any to be taken. Given the intensity of the Lincoln hysteria, Stanton surely was right.

The proof is that, over the years, several Lincoln “death portraits” surfaced after all. They are, of course, all spurious. One can see four of them in Twenty Days, by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. (You can see an enlargement of the two images below by clicking.) These images have various origins, and it is unclear whether they were posed, misrepresented, or innocently misidentified. But the result is the same in any event: At some point, they were accepted as authentic by people who esteemed the dead president, and they were treasured as such.

People find the value they seek in an image. Even the wrong image. That may be a pseudo-Diana in the notorious Internet picture, but there’s nothing new about such spurious images and nothing false about the emotions that have led so many people to look at them.