Escaping Death: On Ritual and Photography


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In January 1981, Francesca Woodman jumped out of a window in New York. The 22-year-old photographer had just completed a body of work comprised essentially of self-portraits, and in the 35 years since her death, interest in her work has only increased, having been exhibited, discussed and researched widely. Francesca Woodman haunts us, still, through her nude self-portraits.

Over the years, there has been much discussion about whether it’s appropriate to try to understand Woodman’s work through her suicide, though it’s hard not to think about it when looking at her photographs. She staged scenes of herself in derelict spaces, moving confidently, playing with shadow and long exposures, turning into a ghost, a spirit evoked only through photography. Just like with any suicidal rock star or poet, her death has bestowed her work with a morbid allure. Her photographs have become so iconic that I like to think of her as the patron saint of the contemporary ritual of self-portraiture.

Possibly, the root of all rituals is to keep death at bay.

We don’t perform as many rituals as in the past, and the word ‘ritual’ is now often used as an elegant synonym for ‘habit’ (the morning ritual, the beauty ritual, my coffee ritual). Historically, the purpose of rituals has been propitiatory, a way of acknowledging the existence and influence of gods, in order to ensure their favour. Through ritual, we may request good fortune during an upcoming battle or favourable outcomes with regards to fertility, the harvest or the weather. Possibly, the root of all rituals is to keep death at bay.

Photography has a long relationship with death, because of its function of fixing in place something that would otherwise eventually disappear. As Susan Sontag famously said, “All photographs are memento mori.” Isn’t photography then the perfect tool to, at least figuratively, keep death at bay? In this case, the very act of recording one’s own image with such a powerful tool is a sort of propitiatory ritual.

The setting and the timing for a self-portrait, as with a ritual, is decisive. Prayers will be performed either in a temple or somewhere suitably sacred. Shall we rent a studio or will we take the self-portraits at home? The right costume is also important: getting married in jeans is just as symbolic a statement as deciding to take a nude self-portrait or cover one’s face with a mask in a picture. Then, needless to say, for both rituals and photography, light is crucial. Should we sit in a dark room, lit only by a candle, wait for dusk’s solemn shadows or let natural light shine in through the windows?

While for some cultures, to take a photograph is to take the subject’s soul, for an aspiring self-portraitist that might actually be what’s so appealing about the practice: to take one’s soul out, whether as an idealised or accurate representation of self, fix it in a photograph, and give it a life to lead of its own. The motivations to explore the relationship between ourselves and our image can be various, but the pursuit of an understanding of identity has been a part of our humanity for a long time. Think of the myth of Narcissus, for whom getting to know his own image meant knowing his destiny.

We will never know precisely what Francesca’s motivations were in her self-portrait rituals, but the ghosts she evoked with her practice are still among us, communicating to us about the lives they are still living. Professor Stefano Ferrari, who teaches psychology of art at the University of Bologna, stated: ”The self portrait is a way that humanity has to confront the fear of death, particularly of one’s own death. If there’s a doppelgänger who can survive us, death seems less scary”.



Escaping Death: On Ritual and Photography was published in GUP#51, the Rituals issue. Images are from Alena Zhandarova's series of self-portraits, Puree with a Taste of Triangles.


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