It's Nov. 2, Día de los Muertos—the Mexican Day of the Dead. I've spent the early afternoon with friends on Fourth Street in Santa Ana for the annual Noche de Altares, helping to build an altar that honors family and friends who have passed away. Covered with framed photos, ofrendas of food, flowers, incense, liquor, cigarettes and miniature sugar skulls (offered to attract the spirits of the faithful departed), the often elaborate altares resemble colorful mixed-media art installations. At night, votives flicker and glow as if tiny spirits were trying to remind us they haven't gone anywhere.
It's been 15 years since my friend Ty called to tell me he'd been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was concerned, but he was so young (late 20s) and the disease so slow-acting I figured the disability and eventual death that would result would be a long time coming. Little did either of us know it wasn't MS, but rather a fast-acting brain tumor that rapidly began to take away his eyesight, make him halt in his step, bloat him from steroids, and then kill him. He had married just before his diagnosis, and when his wife called to tell me he'd died suddenly in her arms a short time after a recent, presumed successful brain surgery, I was floored. At his funeral, the casket was open, but I intentionally arrived late, not wanting to see him inside it. While immersed in my grief, I couldn't look at my friend's body. I could, however, look at the dead bodies of others.
I started collecting postmortem photographs, specifically Victorian-era portraits of the dead. A new process at the time, photography was often the last resource for remembrance, the idea being that the picture of a loved one's corpse was better than no picture at all. The standard image was the family member in a casket, but not everyone could afford one, so there are instances in which the deceased are posed sitting in chairs, “reading” books; “resting” on a couch; or, in the case of children, lying in the arms of a living parent as though sleeping. Gruesome to some, the raw loss in the eyes of the stiffly posed survivors is often harder to take than the image of a dead body.
With easy access to graphic pictures of death and destruction on the Internet, is this just more of the same, an appeal to morbid voyeurism? A dog whistle for Goths who think the cessation of breath and brain activity is something cool and romantic? No. While black-clad, tattooed alterna-types were omnipresent in the Begovich Gallery's “Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem and Mourning Photography,” curator Jacqueline Bunge Barger has taken almost 200 photos from the Thanatos Archive to create a strong overview of the movement, as well as providing a thoughtfully somber, historical context.
There are a few small quibbles: Since the majority of the pictures are from the 1800s, some are fading with age or of a less-than-perfect quality. The dim lighting in the gallery that so successfully provides mood for the exhibit can be hard on those who forget their glasses; the lack of magnifying lenses and the often-sharp glare on the cases can make details difficult to decipher, especially noticeable when dealing with the small, shiny surface of tintypes. Compounding those little distractions is the issue of the biographical information: It's always posted at the beginning or end of the long display cases. As thorough as it is, it would have been more accessible displayed directly above the photographs. It may not have been as aesthetically pleasing as the display cases and black walls look at present, but the viewer also wouldn't have to sprint back and forth between picture and info to understand what they're looking at.
Recently, I've been thinking about selling the 100-odd postmortem photos I've collected over the past 15 years since Ty passed away, feeling as though I've come to terms with the reasons why I bought them in the first place. I thought I'd outgrown the mourning, but after the weekend at Noche de Altares, my time at the Begovich and a Monday-morning walk through a marigold-strewn section of Fairhaven Memorial Park, I realized such thinking is kind of fruitless. We may deal with loss in any number of ways—collecting photos, decorating altars or just holding on to the memories—but if you really loved someone, why should you “get over it”? Those altars will only grow bigger as our lives (and losses) continue. The only way to honor the dead is to not close yourself off and pretend it's not happening, but to hold your arms open in welcome, letting those memories and images fill the hole in your heart. The Victorians were wrong about many things, but they had the right idea here.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.