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Evi Zemanek (Erlangen)

Dead in the photograph, but alive in verses?
Posthumous fame and defamation in deathbed portraits and memorial poetry1

Dead in the photograph, but alive in verses? Posthumous fame and defamation in deathbed portraits and memorial poetry
With regard to a deathbed photograph of Victor Hugo taken by Nadar and a poem about this picture by Richard Howard, this essay examines visual portraits of the dead and what can be considered their verbal equivalent: Portrait poems designed as memorial poetry. While both photograph and poem have as their common goal the preservation of the memory of an individual, their respective medium obliges each to realize this in different ways. They share the problem that death as the radically other is impossible to represent and that the attempt involves an ethical dilemma. This essay shows how the media differ in their capacities, contrasting aesthetics and social functions. The media comparison is particularly interesting when suggested by bi-medial artworks in which picture and poem are competing and completing each other, as in Howard's "Homage to Nadar". The examination of this collection is further motivated by the fact that Howard, having collaborated with Susan Sontag and translated Roland Barthes, was familiar with theories on the connection between photography and death, viewing the photographer as 'agent of death' and photos as memento mori.

1 Introduction

"Homage to Nadar" is the title that the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Richard Howard2 (*1929) chose for a collection of poems inspired by portraits taken by the famous French photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820-1910), known as Nadar. Howard's collection, published in 1979 as a part of his book Misgivings, (Howard 1979) is an exceptional example of photo-poetry in which photographic and poetic portraits are presented side by side on an equal footing.3 The pictures do not merely function as illustrations, but form the point of origin for the poems. Although the poems comment on the photographs, they can also be read as verbal portraits in their own right. Even if we have never seen the faces before, the names of the persons doubly portrayed are well known to us: For the most part they are French writers and artists of the late ninteenth century.

While all the pictures chosen by Howard exhibit a remarkable individuality, one in particular stands out: Victor Hugo's last portrait showing his corpse on the deathbed. It is striking for the contemporary reader because of the feeling of embarrassment caused by this unaccustomed view: the close-up of a dead man presented in a context that transforms it into an object of art. In our times, as the custom of publicly viewing corpses is vanishing in Western culture, the practice of photographing the deceased has become something private which is hardly acknowledged.

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Although we see photographs of dead people daily in the mass media, we tend to consider it morbid to take pictures of dead relatives, whereas Nadar's contemporaries naturally hung them on the wall and presented them in photo albums. In the 19th century, photographers advertised that they would come to your house to take pictures of the deceased and debated techniques of photographing corpses in trade journals.4

Richard Howard could have chosen one of the other three portraits of Victor Hugo taken by Nadar showing Hugo alive, but he chose this one and correspondingly presents his poem under the headline "The deathbed portrait". Is he thereby suggesting we read it as an equivalent? His combination of the two media invites us to compare post-mortem visual and verbal portraits that constitute a last effort to preserve the memory of an individual. There is no doubt that, among all types of visual portraits, the deathbed photograph stands out due to the exceptional conditions of its production. Since verbal portraits of dead individuals in contrast are usually neither created in the presence of the dead nor are they by their medium obliged to describe their physical condition, can we assume that they do not similarly violate the privacy of the dead? To answer this, we must reflect on the conditions of the verbal portrait and dwell on the difference between verbal and visu al memorial portraits in their social function.

I discuss Howard's collection not only due to aesthetic preferences, but for other important reasons: On the one hand, Howard has dedicated his photo-poem-collection to his friend Susan Sontag with whom he has exchanged texts and ideas over a 40-year friendship.5 On the other hand he has translated the works of Roland Barthes.6 Both, Sontag and Barthes, have written influential books on photography, both considered Nadar as the most interesting photographer and both have asserted a specific relation between death and photography, independent of the picture's content.7 Howard's "Homage to Nadar" appeared two years after Sontag's book and one year before the book by Barthes whose works Howard had already been translating for years. This whole intersubjective and intertextual constellation is therefore very promising for my purposes.

2 Nadar's deathbed photograph of Victor Hugo

Before turning to Howard's poem, I shall begin by taking a closer look at the deathbed photograph of Victor Hugo.

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Victor Hugo sur son lit de mort

Figure 1: Nadar, Victor Hugo sur son lit de mort, 23 mai 1885 Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Right after Victor Hugo died on May 22nd 1885 in Paris, Nadar was informed about the poet's death and went to the latter's house. What we see here is the last photograph taken of the man who was then considered to be the greatest French writer of his time. In order to delay his decay, zinc chloride was injected into his veins. Then, no fewer than twelve artists were summoned.8 Their task was to immortalize Hugo's physical appearance before the individual dissolved into invisibility. In France, Hugo was the first poet whose death was given so much multimedia and artistic attention. Before, only statesmen had been sketched, painted and photographed so many times. When Léon Gambetta (1838-1882) died three years earlier, he was photographed by Étienne Carjat, another famous French photographer, caricaturist and writer. But his deathbed portrait is far less spectacular than that of Hugo whose corpse was turned into an exhibited art object.9

Nadar – at the time one of the most famous photographers in Paris – was the only photographer allowed to seize the small time-slot between death and burial.10 Later, his photograph served as the model for a gravure that adorned the cover of the "Journal universel: L'illustration" on May 30th, 1885 (see picture below). Thanks to the picture, Hugo was considered beautiful in his death. The French poet Arsène Houssaye (1815-1896) is reported to have said about the dead man: "In his eternal sleep, he was illuminated by the reflection of his victorious soul."11 This comment displays the photographer's mastery of lighting. He tied "black drapery across a window behind the bed and then to one of the bedposts in order to visually isolate Hugo's recumbent figure against a somber background. For the photograph, a mirror reflected light back from another window to provide detail in the shadow area."12 Hugo was neither Nadar's first nor his only, but surely his most famous deathbed portrait. Two years previously, he had taken the deathbed photograph of Gustave Doré.

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Gustave Doré sur son lit de mort

Figure 2: Nadar, Gustave Doré sur son lit de mort, 1883 Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Le Riverend et Henri Dochy, <i>Victor Hugo sur son lit de mort</i>

Figure 3: Le Riverend et Henri Dochy, Victor Hugo sur son lit de mort, 1885. Gravure d'après une photographie de Nadar, Paris, Bibliothèque du Musée d'Orsay

Whereas Doré's face is illuminated by light clearly coming from the window next to his bed, in Hugo's case, the light seems to come from the old man himself, although in fact the source of light is carefully hidden. Thus, Hugo's beard, a symbol of his wisdom, shines transparently white: on the one hand, this 'transparency' hints at the upcoming dissolution of the body; on the other hand, it aestheticizes and even apotheosizes the depicted. The lighting furthermore emphasizes his impressive profile, his high forehead and his aquiline nose, bestowing authority on him even in death.

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In contrast, Doré, who died much younger, at the age of fifty-one, seems less formidable and daunting underneath the white linen covered with roses. His picture speaks a different language. It is taken from some distance, showing him in profile, but at the same time from a higher position. Hugo's profile, however, is a close-up, for which the photographer must have knelt down next to the b ed, at eye level with the deceased.13 While the living body guarantees visible individuality, the dead body de-individualizes. Since one cannot read Doré's face in his deathbed portrait, Howard did not reprint this portrait (see above) in his collection, but rather the one showing Doré alive. Hugo's corpse, in turn, was strongly aestheticized, in order to be readable. The person's individuality can only be rescued by the survivors in works of art. Indeed, Nadar's photographs were already considered as "works of art in every sense" by art critics of his time. (Heilbrun 1995: 35)14

The picture of Hugo is a post-mortem deathbed portrait or a corpse photograph, not to be confused with coffin portraits or funeral photographs. The custom of photographing corpses is as old as photography itself. As today we hardly ever see deathbed portraits anymore, it is often thought of as "a bizarre Victorian custom", but it is still practiced in Europe and in the United States. The practice has, however, withdrawn to a private sphere.15

As we know, people through the ages have tried to secure the image of the dead and thus created artifacts to commemorate them. Precursors of postmortem photographic portraits are the death mask and the posthumous painting 16. In painting, there have always been two types of posthumous portraits, those of people of interest meant to be shown to the public and those of private individuals for exclusively private use. Two variants have influenced postmortem photography: the 'mortuary portrait' depicting the corpse (i.e. deathbed portraits) and the 'mourning portrait' portraying the dead as if still alive. A posthumous rendering can only be recognized by the inclusion of death symbols such as a clock, a wilted flower or a willow tree in the picture. Compared to painting, photography is, of course, at a disadvantage when it tries to conceal death. Some photographs nevertheless succeed, by placing the body of the deceased in an upright position and leaving the eyes open – or even by painting them open on the photograph afterwards. In spite of these efforts, photographic portraits cannot bring the dead back to life in the same way as posthumous paintings, ironically often completed with the aid of a photograph.

Thus, 19th century photography mostly adapts a mode that is referred to as "the last sleep" creating the illusion that the subject is merely asleep. Consequently, the deceased is not shown in a coffin, but in bed, as with Victor Hugo. His portrait alludes to this pictorial convention. But here, although there are no items to hint at the man's death, the light leaves no doubt about his state. It does not seem to aim at evoking grief; it rather evokes admiration for the great man.

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Portraits like that of Hugo whose face suggests that he is now in a state of eternal peace can be seen in the tradition of the 'good death' and thus signify more than their mere reference to the dead: they suggest an ars moriendi, just like the treatises about the 'good death' that had been produced since the fifteenth century. In principle, Hugo's portrait can elicit two different reactions, an empathetic one that judges morally, and a distanced one that judges aesthetically. The aestheticization of the dead Hugo is at the same time aestheticization of death itself. What Philippe Ariés called 'the age of beautiful death' began in the mid-eighteenth century: signs of physical decay and traces of agony were carefully concealed through beautification, which was also meant to distract from the loss of individuation.17 According to Ariés and Elisabeth Bronfen, the beautified death "was no longer death but rather an illusion of art; death hiding beneath beauty".18

This euphemistic attitude toward death is shaken or even shattered when we acknowledge along with René Girard that death is "the worst violence that the human being is subjected to".19 Therefore one could argue that it is an act of indecency and disrespect to photograph someone who cannot consent or refuse to be portrayed and who cannot control where his deathbed picture will be displayed. Bronfen even argues that every representation of death is necessarily violent "precisely because it implies the safe position of a spectator ('voyeur') and because a fragmentation and idolization of the body – i.e. from its real materiality and its historical context ('fetishism') – is always built into such images" (Bronfen 1992: 44). With reference to Howard's whole collection of Nadar's pictures, it is only vis-à-vis the deathbed portrait that the beholder feels like a 'voyeur'. Hugo's passive horizontal position and his closed eyes render him defenseless against the portraitist's and the beholder's analytical gazes.

3 Howard's poetic deathbed portrait of Victor Hugo

The observation that corpse photography, a socially accepted practice in the 19th century, is today considered morbid by many, hints at an ethical dilemma: Corpse photography arose out of the desire to obtain a last remembrance of the deceased. But there are certainly some who prefer to remember people as they were when still alive. 20 (Sontag 2002: 7). I argue that memorial poetry heavily relies on this assumption. The question of whether it is appropriate to portray a dead person does not arise in verbal art, which tells us something about our different conceptions of these media when it comes to death. I wish to examine this in view of Howard's verbal portraiture, in particular his portrait of Hugo.21

Victor Hugo
The deathbed portrait

You made darkness your own secret and declared
"no one keeps secrets better
than children." You kept theirs best of all, dying

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or delirious before you –
no: you were always mad, but always alive
until this pious keepsake

showed you had no secrets left to keep, lying
dead as Charles and François, mad
as Adele, merely one more carcass in your

century's series of clean
old men who look like God. Yet cover yourself
with lights as with a garment –

even your beard, still growing under eyes grown
still, becomes a burning bush.
Yourself! Who troubles now to identify

such remains, consequences
of a theory condemned, like every theory,
to masterpiece or else

to oblivion – who finds you out today?
Swinburne was your last zealot,
Gide regretted, and we – we doubt everything

But the frenzied aquarelles
which prove real silence is the end of language,
not just the stopping of it.

No darkness here, no secret save the impression
of being a personage
who became extinct without ever having been

a volcano … Your face is
Faust's but with the light of hell gone out of it,
replaced by magnesium

and an embargo from heaven, Daumier said,
because you insisted so
on calling God cher maître. Ancient of Days

and innocent of says, take
this day our daily darkness for who you were,
the chiaroscuro lesson

taken but never given: there is only
one pleasure – that of being
alive. All the others are a misery.

"You made darkness your own secret…" are the first words in this poetic portrait. Like all portrait poems in Howard's collection, this one also opens by addressing the portrayed subject. These addresses are either statements about the present condition of the person portrayed (with reference to the picture) or prophesies foretelling what will happen to them in the future.22

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The speaker proves that he knows more than the person at the time of his portrayal. Only in Hugo's case he begins with a retrospection. Thereby, the poet makes use of an advantage of his medium, that is, articulating what cannot be seen in the photograph. In all cases, he addresses individuals who have been long dead at the time the poem is written, but the photographs showing the individuals alive create the illusion that the portrayed can hear what they are being told. But what about the corpse of Victor Hugo?

The message of the first few lines is quite dark. Left without any contextual information, the reader does not understand much more than the fact that Hugo is diagnosed as having been mad – but on the other hand, he is praised for having been "always alive", not just animate, but very agile. However, by inserting the words 'dying' and 'lying' in the first and in the third strophes, connecting and stressing them through rhyme, the speaker clearly establishes a relation to the photograph of the man and reports his death. Not without sarcasm, though, emphasizing that this famous man is not exempted from death, but that he is made equal to everyone else through death, and even his deathbed photograph is just one of many taken in his times.

Since I am primarily interested in three aspects of this portrait – the representation of and reflection on death, the reference to photography as medium and the strategies of portraiture rather than the content – I will not explain all its allusions in detail. It shall suffice to mention that in the first three strophes the speaker alludes to Hugo's troubled private life that stood in marked contrast to his brilliant career as a writer. As is commonly known, his wife betrayed him, one daughter went mad, the other one drowned, and his two sons also both preceded the poet in death.

After hinting at these dark sides of Hugo's life, the speaker focuses on the lighting in the photograph, which makes Hugo look like God. His beard seems like a burning bush –a reference to the biblical narrative in which an angel appears to Moses in a burning bush from which God calls out. Thus, Howard's lines can be read as an announcement of a revelation – which is exactly what a portrait should ideally be. Subsequently, it's other major function, remembrance, is mentioned, by contrasting this goal with the threat of oblivion. Thus, the portrait oscillates between idolizing and disenchanting its subject, immortalizing it while at the same time deploring its mortality.

Implicitly, the speaker articulates his critique that the photo does not reveal the true nature of Hugo, but presents a type rather than an individual (v. 10; 28). He therefore demonstrates his superiority as verbal portraitist through a comparision of the subject to Faust, a figure of reference from the literary world who also died in a miserable state, without having been able to satisfy his ambitions or secure private happiness. In the end, the speaker himself seems to be torn between compassion for the dead – "because there is only one pleasure – that of being/ alive" – and a feeling of triumph, since he, who naturally competes with the great poet, is still alive and recognized that even the greatest fame does not help the dead to return to life.

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Throughout Howard's collection, irrespective of whether the portrayed are shown dead or alive, the portraitist constitutes himself as the surviving artist in contrast to his dead predecessors. Their death is the pr econdition for his ambitious memorial poetry; it allows him to prove his skills. The dead artists are replaced by textual portraits, which, in turn, secure the memory of the dead.

My remarks already answer both questions: First, the way in which Howard's poetry imitates photography, and second, if and how it emulates photography by profiting from the conditions its own medium. Howard himself describes his poetry as "responsive to imagery, especially painting and photography […]" (Sontag 2000: 104).23 Although not dictated by the verbal medium, he presents his subjects at a specific moment in their lives, more precisely, at the moment when the photograph was taken, which proves the dependence on the photographs. Thus, the poet adopts the photographic perspective: He accepts this limitation, and largely refrains from animating his verbal portrait through action or from tracing a person's development in time. Instead, he starts at the same moment in time and only from there does he look into the past and the future within rather static descriptions.

Another technical analogy can be seen in his phrasing. His very long sentences consisting of suggestive fragments make it difficult to recognize their meaning, especially because many fragments refer in both directions, back and forth, so that the usual linearity is disturbed. This syntax resembles pictorial simultaneity; an impression fortified by the graphic arrangement of the text in fake terzines with jagged margins. Consequently, these poems cannot be read rapidly, but require time and contemplation.

Returning to the portrait of Hugo in particular, the speaker's measuring of his subject can be described by the keyword "chiaroscuro" (v. 36), slipped into one of the last lines of the poem. The whole portrait explicitly revolves around the opposition of light and darkness just as this contrast characterizes Nadar's portraits. In addition, the poet also uses the chiaroscuro technique metaphorically for the tensions in Hugo's character caused by extremes (genius, success, loss, madness). Indeed, the semantic contrasts are comparable to Nadar's lighting technique.

4 Photography and Death a revision of the ideas of Sontag and Barthes

I would now like to look at death and photography on a more abstract level. Apart from the deathbed portrait in which the connection to death is obvious, photography per se has been characterized by its specific link to death; first by Susan Sontag, shortly after by Roland Barthes.24 No one doubts the inherent link between photography and memory, since photography became the most important medium to immortalize the present moment. Why, then, does Sontag define the photograph as memento mori and why does Barthes view the photographer as "agent of death"?

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At the same time, Barthes, referring to the photographic portrait, asserts that "the loved body is immortalized by the mediation of a precious metal, silver" and emphasizes that "this metal, like all the metals in Alchemy, is alive" (Barthes 1996: 81). Is not the act of immortalization quite the opposite of the act of killing? Since the answer is not self-evident, this question requires an attentive examination of the above assertions, ideally in view of portraits depicting living persons, like the one of Nadar himself which Howard also chose for his bimedial collection.


Figure 4: Nadar, Autoportrait, about 1856.

Howard chose one of the less famous pictures of Nadar for his book, because he wanted an object of reference showing its subject at the peak of his life: "here, in your high thirties, you can hardly// be more distinct, distinguished/ by hair, hope and heroic resolution/" ("Nadar", v. 3-5). These lines are another example showing similarities in the aesthetics of both media, precisely in compositional patterns: The alliterations and assonances employed by Howard correspond to the isochronic black and white photograph.

Let us begin with Sontag's assumptions as her reflections on photography were published three years ahead of Barthes's. Sontag states: "There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera," (Sontag 2002: 7) and by means of metaphor explains: "Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder" (Sontag 2002: 15). Consequently, photographs are "ghostly traces". While the purpose of a portrait is to record a person's look before it changes with time, the effect, according to Sontag, is saddening: "Through photographs we follow in the most initimate, troubling way the reality of how people age. […] Photography is the inventory of mortality" (Sontag 2002: 70). Thus, she resumes: "Photographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. […] All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability" (Sontag 2002: 15). Does this imply that studying any portrait – not just a deathbed portrait – can be an act of indiscretion?

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To Sontag, a photograph thus is "both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence" (Sontag 2002: 16); the living being has been turned into a thing.

In opposition to the pejorative view of the photograph as a mechanical copy of reality, Sontag asserts that "a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. […] a photograph is never less than the registration of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) – a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be."(Sontag 2002: 154) For this reason, photographs – at least the prints before the invention of digital photography – are treated as unique objects. What she says about the painting is, of course, also true for the portrait poem that only refers to or represents, but is in no way co-substantial with its subject. Does this mean that in their memorial function they are superior to painting and poetry? It now seems as if, in this respect, it is not the two visual media that differ significantly from the verbal, but rather that painting and poetry in some sense have more in common.

Barthes picks up Sontag's ideas and extends them in various directions. First, he looks at the problem from a different perspective, that is from the point of view of the person being photographed, which clearly makes him uncomfortable. In order to protect his privacy, he freezes in a pose and observes his own transformation into an image, whereby he feels mortified, turned from a subject into an object, an experience he describes as "a micro-version of death" and as "becoming a specter" (Barthes 1996: 11).25 Since the photographer, in Barthes' opinion, also fears this death, he takes great pains to make the portrait "lifelike", but inevitably he fails. Looking at his portrait(s), Barthes always has the impression that he has become "Total-Image, which is to say, Death in person", at the other's disposal (Barthes 1996: 11).

Barthes names even more reasons for speaking of photographers as "agents of Death": "Photography must have some historical relation with […] the "crisis of death" beginning in the second half of the 19th century", he assumes. "[I]nstead ofconstantly relocating the advent of Photography in its social and economic context, we should inquire as to the anthropological place of Death and of the new image. For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life" (Barthes 1996: 92).

Having written his book some years before the invention of digital photography, Barthes supports his assertion about the deficiency of the media by stressing the mortality of the photographic print: "Like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages… Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes;[…] Earlier societies managed so that memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke Death should itself be immortal: this was the Monument.

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But by making the (mortal) Photograph into the general and somehow natural witness of 'what has been', modern society has renounced the Monument" (Barthes 1996: 93).

Barthes' reflections on the photograph's ambiguous status between life and death are complicated, especially in case of photographed corpses: "If the photograph then becomes horrible, it is because it certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse;" For Barthes observes "a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive […] Photography's inimitable feature is that someone has seen the referent […] in flesh and blood, in person" (Barthes 1996: 79; emphasis in the original). These reflections support Barthes' definition of the photograph as emanation of the referent for which he is well known, although, in fact, Sontag already made this assertion earlier.26

Much more elaborated than Barthes' fragmentary ideas on corpse photography are Elisabeth Bronfen's thoughts on the principal relationship between image and corpse, the latter's referentiality and the general problem of the representation of death:

Yet the problem is that the corpse, much like the image in general, is always a body-double, so that whatever the survivors see is only a reference to some absent and more meaningful concept or image that is always already lost, always again receding from our perceptual grasp. The corpse as signifier for true signification is the product of a hermeneutic desire, its condition, pretextual need and its failure. The futility of an attempt to attain a true expression of death is, furthermore, doubly inscribed. In the same way that death always recedes from the epistemological grasp of the living, the process of representation is such that the reference of signifiers to other signifiers is indefinite, that representations are always in some sense figural, speaking 'other', refering to a meaning that is located 'elsewhere'. […] Much like the corpse, empty of its soul, representations of death refer to the absence of full meaning by signalling that the meaning is elsewhere. The analogy between image and corpse - so supremely exposed when the image is that of a corpse - resides in the fact that both conceal and reveal at the same time; both are doubles in that they point to what is absent and to their own act of representing. (Bronfen 1992: 84–85)

These explanations leave nothing to add in this context. For Howard's poetical deathbed portrait, they are relevant insofar as he gradually abandons his reference to the picture of the corpse. Additionally, they shed light on the distinction made earlier between the post-mortem (deathbed) portrait and the memorial portrait.

5 Poetry and Death - Howard's practical response

So how does Howard's poetry relate to Sontag's ideas and does it share Barthes' convictions? The speaker's tone is melancholic, not only in Hugo's deathbed portrait, but also in those poems referring to portraits of persons still alive at the time of the portrayal.

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In light of Sontag's assertion that photography promotes nostalgia, there are two possible explanations: Either the poet was affected by the black and white pictures or the reader is being influenced by them in his reception. The black and white pictures seem to reinforce Howard's nostalgic attachment to the past. Additionally responsible for the gloomy atmosphere is the aim of these portraits which is an assessment of the individual's achievements (like in a scene from the 'last judgment'). Since 'success' is chosen as a criterion, the poetic portraits function as instruments of social norming, just as photography did in Nadar's days.

If we read Howard's poems as attempts to initiate a dialogue with long-dead Frenchmen, this fits in with Barthes' prediction about the beholder confusing the Real and the Live. In contrast to Barthes, Howard does not consider the photograph as mortifying. His poems are not only addresses to the portrayed individuals, but also a tribute to Nadar, whom he admires for knowing just how to elicit from his models facial expressions that convey vitality. Clearly, the poet was conscious of this high benchmark. Rather than a rival, he viewed him as guiding predecessor, whose works he promotes poetically by interpreting them. He attempts to read the facial expressions of the portrayed and points out things to the reader which he otherwise might not have noticed. His verses thus function, metaphorically speaking, as a second (light) exposure. While the poet trusts in Nadar's talent and in photography's potential to offer insights, at the same time he relies on his own ability to judg e. In doing so he does not try to attain the camera's objectivity, but allows himself to be subjective - as he implicitly suggests by choosing three stanzas from W. H. Auden's poem with the programmatic title "I am not a Camera".

Despite his own poetic freedom, Howard values Nadar specifically for his decision "to present life with an image// unretouched […]" (v. 1-7), as we can read in the poetic portrait of Nadar that is the metapoetic heart of the collection (Howard 1979: 55–57). Thereby he refers to Sontag's great admiration for the photographer due to his refusal to retouch his portraits, which she considers "a mark of honor for ambitious portrait photographers from Nadar on" (Sontag 2002: 104). In referring to Nadar's refusal of retouching, "the master of the art of praise" (Sontag 2000: 113), as Howard was called by Sontag, praises the photographer for his "humility" (v. 17), that, in his eyes, is "seeing things as they are" (v. 18). Rhetorically, the poem's speaker asks: "Why else is it your portraits/ loom likelier for us now than all preening// identifications since?" (v. 20-22). And he idolizes him hyperbolically more than any other person portrayed by him: "You were/ our demiurge: […] you spoke/ your fiat lux or fiat/ nox to bring forth the creation of nature/ against nature within nature/ […] leaving us […] individuals." (v. 27-39)

Barthes' major complaint was that, when he was looking at a portrait of his mother after her death, he could never recall her features, that is "summon them up as a totality" (Barthes 1996: 63). He laments that the photograph is not only never a memory, but it actually blocks memory. (cf. Barthes 1996: 91) Hence, he resolved to write a verbal portrait of her, which was not realized because he himself suddenly died in an accident.

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However, we can note that he believed more in the verbal portrait than in the visual. Of course, photographers and poets are pragmatically not in direct competition with each other. Let us nevertheless imagine what kind of texts Barthes could have written for his purpose.

Whether essayistic or poetic, the 'last portrait' of a recently deceased individual can be seen in the tradition of the 'literary tomb'. Almost abandoned since the Renaissance, it experienced a rebirth in the times of Hugo and Nadar. On the one hand, posthumous celebrations in the form of short prose texts resuming the life and giving an overview of an artist's works became popular in 19th century magazines especially in he field of art criticism. Soon, writing these obituaries became a sort of competitive activity and at the same time an exercise in style.27 Some of these 'last portraits' describe the last moments in the artist's life, and even his physical condition, but are mostly metaphorical and generalizing. Overall, they focus on the living individual rather than the dead.

Accordingly, there are various models to be found when searching in collections of poems for titles such as In Memory …, In remembrance of…, On the Death of…, At the grave of…, Salute to … .28 As the titles suggest, they differ in focus and thereby surprisingly correspond to pictorial types: While some pick out events like the process of dying or the funeral as central themes, others completely ignore these rites of passage and do not mention death itself, but portray the individual, while the title and often the use of the past tense, are the only hints that the person has died. Although it seems self-evident for us, language's freedom in using the present tense in verbal portraiture irrespective of the condition of its subject must be highlighted. In the end, portrait poems are, just like paintings, mere interpretations.

It makes little sense to blame photography for not being able to re-animate the dead as fiction seemingly can. Instead, its primary function remains to remember what someone looked like. The photographic portrait [is] "a means of physical preservation, a kind of instant immortality" (Ruby 1995: 61). Or, as Barthes puts it, "in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation" (Barthes 1996: 88-89). Before the invention of digital photography and the possibilities of modifying pictures, photographs provided reliable information about the physical appearance of individuals and served as evidence of their existence. Barthes enthusiastically stresses that any photograph "immediately yields up to those 'details' which constitute the very raw material of ethnological knowledge" (Barthes 1996: 29). Nadar's portraits, for example, unintentionally inform the beholder about how long men had worn their nails at his time - what Barthes calls an "infra-knowledge" that paintings often do not transmit. He compares it to the "biographeme" and states: "Photography has the same relation to history that the biographeme has to biography" (Barthes 1996: 30).

By meditating on photographic portraits in verses, Howard implicitly mediates between the two media. His poems can be read independently from the picture, but clearly are not meant to be so: Because the bimedial combination that unites the capacities of both media doubles the effect of monomedial memorial portraits.

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With his "Homage to Nadar", the poet did not only realize a project of his own, but a dream of Nadar who for many years had planned to create a photographic "pantheon" of great contemporaries.29 Howard responded to Nadar's artistic testament by commemorating Nadar's contemporaries, the photographer himself and 19th century photography reflected in postmodern eyes.


Ariés, Philippe (1980): Die Geschichte des Todes. München/Wien: Hanser.

Barthes, Roland [1981] (1996): Camera lucida. Reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bronfen, Elisabeth (1992): Over her dead body. Death, femininity and the aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Coles, Katharine (2006): "Among so Many Others: Dazzling Instructions", In: Kenyon Review 28: 2, 118–37

Friedman, Sanford (1973): "An interview with Richard Howard", In: Shenandoah 24, 5–31

Girard, Réne (1972): La violence et le sacré. Paris: Grasset.

Girard, Réne (1972): Das Heilige und die Gewalt. Aus dem Französischen von Elisabeth Mainberger-Ruh. Zürich: Benzinger.

Heilbrun, Françoise (1995): "Nadar and the Art of Portrait Photography", In: Nadar, 35–58.

Héran, Emanuelle (2002): "Le dernier portrait ou la belle mort", In: Le Dernier Portrait, 25–101.

Howard, Richard (1969): Untitled Subjects. New York: Atheneum.

Howard, Richard (1979): Misgivings. New York: Atheneum.

Jäger, Jens (2006): "Das Wunder toter Nachahmung? Diskurse über Photographie um 1850". In: Friedrich Weltzien. (Ed.) Von selbst? Autopoietische Verfahren in der Ästhetik des 19. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Reimer, 199–218.

Keller, Ulrich (1995): "An Examination of Nadar's Photographic Legacy", In: Nadar, 77–88.

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Le Dernier Portrait (2002): [exhibition catalogue]. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, March 5 – May 26.

Longenbach, James: Richard Howard's Modern World. In: Salamagundi, 108 (1995), 140–63.

Moncond'huy, Dominique (1994): Le Tombeau poétique en France. Poitiers: Presses Universitaires.

Nadar (1975): 50 Photographies de ses illustres contemporains. Paris: André Barret.

Nadar (1979): Photographies Paris: Arthur Hubschmid.

Nadar (1995): Exhibition Catalogue. [published in conjunction with the exhibition "Nadar", Musée d'Orsay, Paris, June 7– Sept. 11, 1994 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 14 – July 9, 1995]. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Néagu, Philippe/Poulet-Allamagny, Jean-Jacques (1979): "Introduction aux photographies", In: Nadar, 49–66.

Peltre, Christine (2002): "'Un metier de croquet-mort': les portraits posthumes dans la critique d'art du XIXe siècle", In: Le Dernier Portrait , 102–111.

Raynaud, Clémence (2002): "Du cortège funèbre au portrait posthume: Fonctions et enjeux du masque mortuaire à la fin du Moyen Âge", In: Le Dernier Portrait, 16–24.

Ruby, Jay (1995): Secure the Shadow. Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Sontag, Susan [1977] (2002): On Photography. London: Penguin Books.

Sontag, Susan (2000): "The Writer, the Work: Thrown Voices". Richard Howard and Susan Sontag. The Writer, the Work.vol. 1, PEN America, New York, 99–114.

Zemanek, Evi (2009): Das Gesicht im Gedicht. Studien zum poetischen Porträt. Köln/Wien/Weimar: Böhlau.

Sources of Illustrations

Figure 1 : Nadar: Victor Hugo sur son lit de mort (1885). In: Howard (1979), 26.

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Figure 2 : Nadar: Gustave Doré sur son lit de mort (1883). In: Le Dernier Portrait (2002), 116.

Figure 3 : Le Riverend et Henri Dochy: Victor Hugo sur son lit de mort (1885). In: Le Dernier Portrait (2002), 54.

Figure 4 : Nadar: Autoportrait (1856). In: Howard (1979), 56.


1 This essay is based on a presentation given at the American Comparative Literature Association's Annual Conference at Harvard University, March 26–29, 2009, as part of the seminar "Dead Things. Death, Representation and Language", organized by Linda M. Steer (Brock University). The presentation was inspired by the exhibit "Le Dernier Portrait" at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, March 5 - May 26, 2002.

2 Richard Howard is known as poet, literary critic and translator (French to English), who won important prizes for his translations of Baudelaire and Cioran. He studied and taught at Columbia University and at the Sorbonne. He was Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well as Poet Laureate of the State of New York and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 1969 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Untitled Subjects (Howard 1969), a collection of poems formed as dramatic monologues of 19th century historical individuals. Howard was poetry editor of The Paris Review and of The Westen Humanities Review. He has published seventeen collections of poetry and translated Simone de Beauvoir, André Breton, Michel Foucault, André Gide, Maurice Maeterlinck, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Stendhal, Albert Camus and others. For an introduction to his poetics see Coles (2006), Lindsay (2001), Longenbach (1995) and Friedman (1973).

3 I owe thanks to professor Cyrus Hamlin (Yale University) for giving me a copy of Howard’s book that has long been out of print. "Homage to Nadar" includes portrait poems of Charles Garnier, Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo, Honoré Daumier, Jacques Offenbach, Gioacchino Rossini, Richard Wagner, Charles Baudelaire, Edmond & Jules de Goncourt, Gustave Doré, Théophile Gautier, George Sand and Nadar.

4 It should be added that, if the deceased was a child, which at that time was not rare, the post-mortem photograph in most cases was the only picture a family possessed of their lost child. For the custom of post-mortem photography in America see Ruby (1995). A good collection of postmortem photographs can be found at The Burns Archive (, New York.

5 In an interview Sontag had done with Howard in 2000, she called him her "first serious literary friend". What they had in common was their interest in French literary theory of the sixties, among others Roland Barthes (see Sontag 2000: 99).

6 To name some of the titles of his translations, besides Camera Lucida, that show Howard's engagement with Barthes at the time when he wrote his photo poems: Critical Essays (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press 1972), A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (New York: Hill and Wang 1978), Eiffel Tower, and other Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang 1979), New Critical Essays (New York: Hill and Wang 1980) The Resposibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation (New York: Hill and Wang 1985), Empire of Signs (New York: Hill and Wang 1989), etc. Concerning the translation of the works of Barthes, Cioran and other French writers, Sontag speaks of a joint venture explaining that Howard did the lion's share, but she helped to get them published and wrote early prefaces (see Sontag 2000: 111).

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7 See Sontag ([1977] 2002) and Barthes ([1981] 1996).

8 Most of these artists were employed to produce post-mortem paintings, like François Flameng for example; furthermore, Amedée Bertault did a terracotta relief and Émile-Jules Dalou did the mortuary mask and a sculpture (see Héran 2002: 53f). While the artworks of the artists here mentioned all show the dead Hugo with eyes closed and in a horizontal position, Jean-Alexandre-Joseph Falguière's post-mortem sculpture shows Hugo alive, his 'eyes' wide open. A few days later, Hugo's body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe, before he was buried in the Panthéon.

9 See the catalogue Le Dernier Portrait (2002: 51). Charles-Paul Renouard made a drawing after the photograph which decorated the cover of the magazine "L'Illustration" on january 6, 1883. When the French Prime Minister Léon Blum died 68 years later in 1950, neither a death mask nor a painting were created. His photographic deathbed portrait was the last picture of dead statesmen to be published in the press.

10 For an introduction to Nadar as photographer see Keller (1995), Heilbrun (1995) and Néagu (1979). Nadar's works are displayed in Nadar (1975), (1979), and (1995).

11 My translation; see the French quote in Nadar (1975) [no page number]: "dans le sommeil éternel, il était éclairé par le reflet de son âme victorieuse".

12 See [19.4.09]

13 Nadar used the same perspective and lighting again two years later in the deathbed portrait of Eugène Carrière (Nadar, Eugène Carrière sur son lit de mort, 1906 Le Dernier Portrait109).

14 Philippe Burty in his review of the Photography Salon of 1859.

15 For more details see Ruby (1995).

16 For a comprehensive overview of functions and aesthetics of death masks and post-mortem paintings see Raynaud (2002) and Héran (2002). - In early modern Europe, mortuary masks were first produced and used in royal contexts. They not only functioned as models for permanent grave sculptures, but also served as substitutes for the dead individual in pompous funerals, including parades. The fact that these funerals often took place weeks after the death of the sovereign made it necessary to replace the decaying corpse with an representational image. Thus, the creation of likenesses of the dead is rooted in ritualistic practices. In some sense, the deathbed photograph stems from a similar race against time, but it never played a central role in funeral ceremonies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the death mask is no longer exclusively created for sovereigns. - As many mortuary masks of German writers, composers and artists from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century exist, Emanuelle Héran observes that this custom was particularly popular in Germany and explains this by the cult of the genius promoted by the movements of Sturm and Drang and Romanticism.

17 See Ariés (1980 : 521-602; in the German translation see chapter 10: "Die Zeit der schönen Tode"). While death itself became a private event, funerals were pompous and extravagant tombstone sculptures and cemetery monuments were fashioned. The anxiety about bodily decay led to an increase in the demand for mummification and an improvement in the techniques of embalming.

18 Bronfen (1992: 87); see also Ariés (1980: 781-785, especially 783).

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19 See Girard (1972: 53) ("La mort n'est jamais que la pire violence qui puisse advenir à l'homme") and Bronfen's English version, Bronfen (1992: 44), as well as another passage in the German translation: "Tod ist, wie jeder Übergang, Gewalt" (Girard 1972: 462).

20 Photographic memorial cards are not considered morbid because they usually display the deceased alive. We certainly do not hesitate to commemorate someone who has died with the help of a portrait done when he was still alive. In what way, one may ask then, can a memorial portrait, as Jay Ruby calls it, be distinguished from others since all photographs serve a mnemonic function? It is its context that indicates the death of the portrayed, for example through a black border around the image. Often, memorial cards containing a photograph of the deceased sent out to relatives or distributed at funerals, contain some verses. They mostly communicate sentiments on life, death and the human condition in general, but sometimes they are personalized – and thus form one example of a bitextual memorial. Until the thirties, according to Ruby, such bimedial memorial cards were often designed for and collected in photo albums. Memorial Portraits are also often being used to decorate tombstones of Christian graves. Ruby comments that this custom has only diminished because of vandalism. See Ruby (1995), p. 113-157.

21 Regardless of the fact that the speaker is addressing someone, all the poems in this collection - which reminds us of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues - are best described as poetic portraits of other people. Such poems sketching historical persons can be found throughout Howard's poetry. For a detailed definition of the "portrait poem" see Zemanek (2009).

22 Interestingly, Howard's portrait of Nadar opens with a negative prophesy: "You will be obscured by a cloud of postures/ and a roster of great names,/ but here [in this photograph] …" ("Nadar", v.1-3). This turns out to be a strategy used to fortify the contrast with the photograph showing him at the height of his powers as well as to the hyperbolic appraisal that soon follows.

23 Another collection with intermedia references is Howard's Trappings (2000), that again assembles a series of dramatic monologues, some of them giving voice to figures in paintings, others being poems dedicated to painters, most of them concerning artworks in some way.

24 See note 7. In fact, photography has been associated with death in some sense from its beginnings, when photographs were viewed as 'dead' and therefore artless reproductions by critics of the new medium. For more details see Jäger (2006).

25 I quote from the English translation of Barthes's book, because it is more practical within this context, and, more importantly, it was Richard Howard who did the translation.

26 For further elaboration of this definition see Barthes (1996: 5ff and 79f).

27 See Peltre (2002) who reads these essayistic 'last portraits' as signs of a general tendency of the time to emphatically celebrate death. For more information on the genre of the "tombeau littéraire" see Moncond'huy (1994).

28 For an example of a collection of memorial poems from Hugo's times see "Le tombeau de Théophile Gautier (1873)" at To name a poet of the twentieth century who wrote many memorial poems: Robert Lowell's collection History contains, among others, "Hugo at Théophile Gautier's Grave" (486), a fictitious monologue of Hugo reflecting about his own inner dying ("I have begun to die by being alone…" v. 1) and a farewell address to his friend Gautier ("you know the beautiful, go find the true" v. 14); as well as "Heine dying in Paris 1" (480) and "Heine dying in Paris 2" (481), two poems in which the poet speaks through the mask of Heine facing his approaching death, topically resuming his life.

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29 In 1854, Nadar had already published a Panthéon consisting of lithographs representing famous men, but later he concentrated his efforts on realizing the same concept in photography.