I photograph them in black and white. Never color. Color alters context, I tell their grieving families, friends, lovers. Like illusion, a slight of hand, a figment of my artist’s imagination. I want to make them real, candid, hidden truths exposed, my lens wide open.
Mine is an anachronistic art, photographing the dead, the Victorian age, when such a somber practice was in vogue, itself long dead. I have no business cards or social media presence, no brick and mortar studio with anodyne décor and anemic backdrops, funereal blackout curtains adding insult to injury and illness. My services are advertised by word of mouth in my hometown, a bible-choked Southern hamlet from which I never escaped, like most of my subjects. I come to them when I am called, racing rigor mortis for pliable limbs and tractable faces, to capture them, frame by frame, through monochrome viewing filters, hues and tints excised like tumors, essence, if not existence, restored.
I have perched ashen infants, swaddled in christening blankets, in the arms of wailing mothers with eyes deep as the grave; arranged beloved dolls at the feet of an emaciated young woman strapped in a bentwood rocker, Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion on her neck marking her like a scarlet letter; propped a scowling teenager against his saturnine sister, whose middle finger covered the bullet hole in his temple; nabbed a young widower sprawled beside his seraphic wife on their marriage bed, her face veiled in white lace and lilacs, his hand covering her missing breast as if it were a placeholder. I have documented my own mother, the photograph like a painting—a Cezanne peasant woman enveloped in darkness, clutching her prayer beads as if they were an antidote for despair, head bowed, eyes open, downcast, submissive, the barren white walls as desolate as she. Hers were the secrets I most wanted to reveal—her crippling Catholic guilt, as grotesque as a Flannery O’Connor tale, for the black baby her white womb had expelled, silent and breathless, and the lover she’d sacrificed to a posse’s noose to assuage her family’s white rage in the days of separate but equal.
Her father, or perhaps her brother, had photographed the broken body, dangling from an oak tree like a piece of Billie Holiday’s strange fruit, a verse from Hebrews written on the back of the sepia snapshot in her father’s imperious hand: Vengeance belongeth to me, and I will repay. She’d kept it, even after she’d fled the house of the father and son, buried it in a box in a closet beneath years of aftermath and artifice, this holy image, forsaken and alone. Her death was the will of the pandemic spring, another breathless black body—like her lover, named George—captured on film stoking her guilt, her sacred photograph, exhumed, cradled in her supplicating hands, both past and prologue.
I wish I could peel back the layers of resin and polyethylene, strip his image bare of pain and paradox, set him free.