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Title: Visible care : Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano's post-mortem photography
Author: Summersgill, Lauren Jane
ISNI:       0000 0004 6352 9235
Awarding Body: Birkbeck, University of London
Current Institution: Birkbeck (University of London)
Date of Award: 2016
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This thesis investigates artistic post-mortem photography in the context of shifting social relationship with death in the 1980s and 1990s. Analyzing Nan Goldin’s Cookie in Her Casket and Andres Serrano’s The Morgue, I argue that artists engaging in postmortem photography demonstrate care for the deceased. Further, that demonstrable care in photographing the dead responds to a crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s in America. At the time, death returned to social and political discourse with the visibility of AIDS and cancer and the euthanasia debates, spurring on photographic engagement with the corpse. Nan Goldin’s 1989 post-mortem portrait of her friend, Cookie in Her Casket, was first presented within The Cookie Portfolio. The memorial portfolio traced the friendship between Cookie and Goldin over fourteen years. The work relies on a personal narrative, framing the works within a familial gaze. I argue that Goldin creates the sense of family to encourage empathy in the viewer for Cookie’s loss. Further, Goldin’s generic and beautified post-mortem image of Cookie is a way of offering Cookie respect and dignity in death. Andres Serrano’s 1992 The Morgue is a series of large-scale cropped, and detailed photographs capturing indiscriminate bodies from within an unidentified morgue. I assert that Serrano intentionally presents these corpses as objects, outside of life. His stark lighting, emphasis on texture and the rich colours of Cibachrome print beautify and lavish aesthetic care on the corpse-objects. I propose a reading of The Morgue through Serrano’s deliberate use of beauty to transform the corpses into icons, and read the entire series as a visualisation of the sublime within the abject. Goldin and Serrano have fundamentally different approaches to post-mortem photography. Goldin’s work follows an artistic and historical tradition of memorial portraits taken of the deceased by friends or family; whereas Serrano follows from a forensic framework appropriated by artists who photograph within a morgue. Previous discourse separated memorial and forensic post-mortem photography in order to better appreciate the historical trajectory of each field. In the context of a time where death was moving from near invisibility into the mainstream, comparing Goldin and Serrano offers insight into the changes in America’s visual relationship with death.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available