Lauren Summersgill – Abstract

Family Expressions of Pain in Postmortem Portraiture

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This essay argues that in postmortem portraits there are visible traces of the pain of mourning and bereavement. Using independent research with Thanatos Archive, I analyze the way in which the pose, style, props and placement of early postmortem photographs reflect the pain of the mourner. These tropes, I argue, relate to Marianne Hirsch’s concept of the familial gaze, where the viewer is aware of a photograph being taken for the family and circulated within it. Having formed a basis for reading the family into the postmortem photograph, I then reconsider Nan Goldin’s contemporary postmortem portrait, Cookie in Her Casket (1989) to offer a reading of the portrait as an expression of Goldin’s pain that overwhelms any attempt to present a representational portrait of Cookie.

postmortem photography, portraiture, mourning, familial gaze, Nan Goldin